Turnover among veterinary specialist associates is caused principally by the failure of practice owners and employees to properly articulate their respective expectations and negotiate and document the employment relationship. Time and effort invested up front will help avoid mismatched expectations, misunderstandings and separation down the road.
Can the practice even afford another full-time veterinarian? Management consultants estimate that a small animal practice vet needs to produce a minimum of $180,000-$250,000 gross income (excluding OTC product sales) to be worth his salary. This number is far greater for veterinary specialists…..probably at least 3 times.
- WHAT IS AN EMPLOYMENT CONTRACT? A contract is a set of bargained for promises between two or more people, where one party promises to do X in exchange for another party’s promise to do Y. Courts require that an enforceable promise meet certain conditions. For example, the parties must be of age (no minors), of sound mind, and not under duress; there must be no fraud or mutual mistake over an important aspect of the transaction, and the deal must not be so one-sided as to be “unconscionable.”
Consideration. To distinguish binding promises from charity or gifts (you can’t sue Santa Claus because he didn’t give you enough presents last year), the law requires that the party to whom the promise is made give “consideration” for the promise in the form of a benefit to the promissor and/or detriment to the promisee. Thus, Dr. Specialist promises to work 40 hours per week in consideration for an annual salary of $125,000 (i.e., a benefit to Dr. Specialist and detriment to Dr. Owner ). Dr. Owner promises to pay such salary to Dr. Specialist in consideration for Dr. Specialist’s labor (benefit to Dr. Owner and detriment to Dr. Specialist). Consideration exists for each promise which is therefore enforceable.
Avoid Oral Contracts. Oral contracts generally are binding only if their performance lasts less than a year, because the law assumes that the parties’ recollections of what was agreed to become unreliable over time, increasing the tendency to remember events in a self-serving way. Few disagreements are less productive than the “you promised X,” “I don’t remember X but you promised Y” litany. Prevent such wasteful bickering by always insisting on a written contract, regardless of it’s term.
- CONTRACT FORMATION. Legal theory provides that a contract is formed once an offer is accepted. Real life usually is a lot messier.
Offer An offer can be oral or written (e.g., employer advertisement in a professional journal, on a bulletin board or mailed to the applicant). Typically, the prospective employee will ask for clarification and wish to change the terms of the original offer by making a counter-offer. The employer counters such counter-offer with his own counter-counter-offer. This confusing and frustrating process continues until either the parties reach an agreement or, realizing they can’t make a deal, go their separate ways.
Acceptance Legally, the contract is formed as soon as the offer is accepted. This can be a trap for an impulsive party who accepts an offer, but who later asks for “just one more thing.” After acceptance, it’s too late and the other party can sue for damages if the impulsive party doesn’t perform his or her obligations under the originally accepted offer.
Ideally, an accepting party will clearly indicate his acceptance to the offering party, at best by signing an employment agreement or acknowledging acceptance in writing on the offer. More difficult to prove, but still unambiguous is an oral “I accept” or words to that effect.
Avoid unclear contract formation situations. Courts have created the so-called “action in reliance” (promissory estoppel) doctrine to find enforceable contracts even when one of the parties thought no contract existed. Courts have found valid contracts in cases where an:
- employer knew or should have known that the employee had acted “ in reliance upon the offer” such as incurring expenses to move to the job location, searching for lodging thereat, and informing other employers they no longer are job applicants; and
- employee made the last offer or counter-offer, and such employee knew or should have known that in reliance thereon, the employer ceased advertising for the position, informed candidates that the job was filled, or bought new equipment or hired additional support staff in anticipation of the employees arrival.
Accordingly, a party considering an offer should not talk or act in a way it knows or should know will lead the other party to believe that such offer was accepted and should make sure that the other party is not taking action “in reliance” on anything it did or said.
III. CONTRACT TERMS. Assuming that the offer, counter-offer, counter-counter offer, etc. ballet results in the bliss of acceptance, the employment contract terms contain the nuts and bolts of the “meeting of the minds” of the parties. Following is a list of the main questions addressed in a proper employment agreement:
- How Long? Is there a fixed term (period) of employment (six months, one year, two years, or is it “at-will” (i.e., the contract continues until a party decides to terminate it)? Is the term automatically renewed on the expiration date?
- Work Schedule. How many scheduled hours per week must the employee work, and beyond the schedule, how many additional hours will employees actually spend phoning clients, performing diagnostics, interpreting laboratory work, overseeing patient care, etc. What is the schedule for any required emergency work? Is it equitable?
- Duties. What are the associate’s responsibilities? May employees decline (without penalty) to perform procedures they deem ethically wrong? How much emergency duty is required? Will they be required to visit rDVMs, engage in marketing activities?
- Compensation: How Much? Is It Enough?
Serious job applicants must know the relevant “comparables” in their labor market, i.e., what compensation is paid to other starting associate veterinarians in the area were they are seeking employment.
Is it Enough?
Currently, the salaries that are being paid to different specialists is not well documented. The AAHA/Care Credit 2005 Specialty & Referral Veterinary Practice Benchmark Study and ACVIM proceedings from the Hill’s Practice Health Symposium, titled “Insights on Veterinary Specialty Practice Productivity” are a sampling of the few publications that have salary figures. Regardless of the trends, however, debt ridden veterinary specialists cannot assume that current salaries will permit them to survive (let alone live comfortably). So the first question isn’t really “how much are they paying?” but rather “what do I need to pay my debts, buy cold cereal and go to a few movies?”
The only way to answer this question is by doing a budget. Budgets undoubtedly are one of the most boring tasks in the world, but boring beats finding out that you can’t make ends meet six months after you’ve been hired. Technology has reduced the pain of budgeting, so there is no excuse for not doing it. Any financial software program worth its salt will permit veterinary graduates to establish a budget. See attached form to assist in determining one’s budget. You can also do a budget on the following website: Personal Finance Simulator 2011(www.finsim.umn.edu)
Tips for Making More Money
As discussed below, a common way for associate veterinarians to increase their compensation is to join a practice, which pays them a percentage of the collected income they generate. Other ways include working additional shifts, and working at another practice is the employer will permit it.
Compensation Types: Flat Salary, Percentage Income And Performance Bonuses
Generally, there are three types of veterinary associate compensation: (1) flat salary; (2) commissions based on a percentage of the income generated by the associate; and (3) a hybrid of flat salary and commissions.
Flat salary (a fixed amount per year), is a common form of associate compensation. A fixed salary provides the veterinary associate with the security of a predictable income. It is also simple to keep track of. Associate veterinarians earning flat salaries, however, cannot increase their compensation, no matter how much income they generate for the practice or how hard they work. Flat salaries are not preferred by new graduates looking for the opportunity to increase their compensation in exchange for a greater contribution to the practice.
The straight commission system simply replaces the flat salary with a commission. The straight commission scheme link the dollars veterinary associates earn with their contribution to practice revenues. Because practice revenues (and the commissions) will vary month to month, associates will have a more difficult time managing the repayment of their student debt.
Under a hybrid compensation system veterinary associates are paid a guaranteed base salary plus an income production bonus equal to the percentage of the collected income they generate in excess of a certain target. The base salary provides security, as well as a predictable income stream with which to service student debt. This is a significant advantage over the straight commission system.
Production Compensation Pitfalls
While production compensation usually permits new graduates to increase their compensation, the system does have its problems and pitfalls. By carefully examining practice operations and asking the right questions, prospective associate veterinarians should be able to either avoid these pitfalls or at least reduce their impact.
- Assigning Cases and Receptionist Gate Keepers.
- Staff Efficiency and Leverage.
- Data Processing and Definition Issues.
- Competition and Distrust Among Veterinarians.
- Employee Benefits. Practices usually offer at least some of the employee benefits described below to their employees. The cost of many benefits (such as health, professional, and disability insurance, qualified retirement plans) are tax deductible business expenses to the employer and are not included in the employee’s income, resulting in a savings to the employee of 25 to 40%. Not taking advantage of this juicy gift from Uncle Sam is wasteful. On the other hand, employees must realize that the practice probably can’t afford all the benefits they desire.
- Health Insurance. Does the employer offer health insurance? If not, what does the employer do when he gets sick? If so, what kind of medical plan is it (e.g., fee for service, HMO, PPO)? What about pre-existing conditions, vesting, eligibility, deductibles and co-payments?
- Disability Insurance. Employees at age 25 have a 58% chance of becoming disabled for more than three months (with an average disability duration of three years), so employees need disability insurance to protect their greatest asset: the ability to work. If the employer does not offer disability insurance, employees are well advised to get it on their own (after asking, of course how the employer, protects himself or herself against disability).
- Professional Liability Insurance. Do employers pay the premiums on the employees’ professional liability insurance?
- Retirement Plans. Has the employer established a retirement plan for the employees? (Profit sharing plans are the most common type of retirement plan offered by veterinary practices.) When do employees become “vested” or “eligible?” If the employer does not offer a retirement plan, employees will need to save on their own (and that means more than just the annual IRA contribution).
- One week? Two weeks? More? How many consecutive days may be taken? How much advance notice must be given? May unused vacation days be carried forward to next year? How are vacation days paid for percentage compensated employees?
- Sick Leave and Disability. Does the employer offer paid sick leave? Disability leave? After how long can disabled employees be terminated? May unused sick days be carried forward?
- Continuing Education. How many CE leave days are granted and are they paid? To what extent do employers reimburse CE expenses?
- Association Dues. Are national, state, local and specialty veterinary association dues reimbursed?
- Veterinary License Fees and DEA Registration. Are these fees paid by the employer? Should the employee register with the DEA so she is permitted to prescribe and order controlled substances (rather than just administer them under the supervision of a DEA licensed veterinarian)?
- Relocation (moving) expenses. Most corporate and government employers provide some form of moving expense. Sometimes a “signing bonus” or short term loan can cover all or part of these costs.
- Vehicle allowance or mileage payments. Employees using their personal vehicles for practice business should be reimbursed for a pro-rata portion of their insurance, general maintenance, registration and inspection fees, fuel, repairs, depreciation, and lost opportunity costs.
- Performance Evaluation. Will the employer provide written and/or oral performance evaluations? How often? Will these be used to modify compensation?
- Non-Competition. Many employers require their employees to sign non-competition clauses (also called restrictive covenants) forbidding terminated employees from competing with the employer. Such clauses must be limited in time (e.g., 2-3 years after termination) and geographic area (e.g., 25-50 air-miles from the practice) to be enforceable. The precise limits on the scope of such clauses vary from state to state. Specialists typically have a larger radius as the trade area for specialty practices is much larger than a generalist’s.
- Termination. Does the contract have a specific term (e.g., “this agreement will expire after one year”) or is it employment “at-will”, in which case, either party can terminate the relationship at any time, for any reason? Contracts with no term are deemed to be “at-will” in most states. If there is a term, then an employee leaving or an employer firing before the term would constitute a breach unless the contract provides otherwise. Most contracts which provide for termination before the expiration of the term require that the terminating party give advance notice (e.g., 90 days) to the other party. Such contracts usually also contain a list of situations (e.g., suspension of the associate veterinarian’s license) permitting the employer to fire the employee at any time without notice (a.k.a. termination “for cause”).
Employees should make every effort to leave their employer on good terms even if they are not requesting a reference. The veterinary industry is quite small, and an employee’s reputation can easily suffer through casual conversation among colleagues.
- LAWYER REVIEW. Negotiating and drafting an employment contract can be long, painful and complicated. It therefore makes as much sense to seek professional help in this endeavor as it does to take a pet to a qualified veterinarian when it is sick. Lawyers are expensive, of course, just as much as veterinarians…
In today’s times, employers are finding that they need to make their workplaces as appealing as possible to recruit and retain employees. In the past, it may have worked reasonably well for a company to advertise for employees, interview candidates, select the best ones, and then tell them what benefits were available.
Today’s reality is quite different, with new employees now having certain needs and desires that aren’t necessarily the same as those valued by Baby Boomers. Although employers are still interviewing job candidates to find the right person to hire, quality employees are also using the interview process to decide which company is the best fit for them.
This may be even more true in the veterinary industry than in the overall workforce, as the shortage of veterinarians, nurses, and technicians becomes even more acute. Here are insights into four benefits being desired today.
Although quality employees are still willing to work hard, today’s graduates greatly value life-work balance. One recent Gallup survey indicated that 53 percent of employees today place a premium on this kind of balance and, as new graduates continue to come into the workplace, that number is likely to continue to increase. Because this balance was found to be even more valuable to females, this benefit is especially important to note in industries that are often female-dominated–such as the veterinary industry.
Because of this shift in values, practices that want to attract an all-star team will need to consider how they can incorporate flex-time schedules. This can feel challenging, given that patients typically need to be treated in the same room as the veterinary professionals, making it difficult to allow employees to simply telecommute.
Instead, practices may need to provide more flexibility within the jobs themselves. For example, practice managers can focus on matching up job responsibilities with the interests of each employee. Or, it could mean allowing employees to swap positions on certain days to give them variety in what they do, which can help to strengthen teamwork.
One of the most desired ways to offer flexibility, though, will be to help employees accommodate their personal schedules and needs within a workweek. For example, how can you facilitate shift switching in a way that covers the needs of your practice but allows employees to meet demands from their personal lives? How can you adjust start times or lunch breaks to accomplish the same objective?
Is it possible to rearrange schedules to allow employees to have four-day workweeks? That’s another perk that’s increasingly in demand today.
A 2015 Workplace Trends study showed that flexibility was named the most important benefit by 75 percent of employees. Organizations who help to provide that flexibility have benefited in the following ways:
- improved employee satisfaction (87%)
- increased productivity (71%)
- retained current talent (65%)
Plus, 69 percent of the workplaces surveyed use flex-time options in their recruiting, with 54 percent of them believing this had a positive effect on recruitment.
Learning Stipends/Continuing Education
Learning stipends are cash benefits offered to employees that they can use for professional development or continuing education. Many employees today want to continue to learn—with one study showing that 87 percent of Millennials consider the opportunity to continue to grow and develop a key benefit. In turn, this lifelong-learning, more educated workforce can provide significant benefits to the veterinary practice.
Encouraging a learning mindset in your practice culture, and helping to provide educational opportunities not only helps your employees to grow personally, but also in a way that makes them even more valuable to your practice. If providing learning stipends to employees isn’t practical for you, then find out what employees feel they want to learn more about and provide workshops. One example of this option would be organizing lunch and learn events at your practice.
As a related desire, employees today often want to know that they will be mentored by an experienced person in the industry. This can mean someone who will help to navigate the new hire through the workplace culture, and/or to understand policies and procedures. Each person may have slightly different needs when it comes to mentoring, but it’s an in-demand benefit, one that can boost the strength of the practice when handled well.
Mentoring helps transition new employees into a particular workplace and, the more quickly that a new hire feels comfortable and part of a team, the more likely that he or she will want to stay at that job.
Also, consider incorporating reverse mentoring, where the new hires help to mentor more established employees in areas of their expertise. This concept was created in 1999 in General Electric, with many other prominent companies adopting the program.
One of the key benefits experienced by one such company is that they experienced a 96 percent retention rate for the Millennials involved in reverse mentoring. These employees felt valued for their contributions to the company, and this gave them a chance to work more closely with senior employees. This can also help to create a more diverse workforce and pipeline of incoming human resource talent.
Finally, though reverse mentoring, younger employees can help more established ones to stay on the cutting-edge of technological opportunities that may benefit the practice. One large insurance company pairs older IT employees with new ones to discuss best practices and key trends, and to otherwise maximize potential of the company.
What’s important to think about is how reverse mentoring might benefit your practice. Reasons may not be the same ones as those at the large companies being referenced in this article—and they may not be the exact same ones as the veterinary practice down the street. It’s important to think about your business and workplace culture needs, and then create corresponding pairings and reverse mentoring structures.
New employees in the veterinary industry will likely perk up their ears when they hear that a certain employer has invested in or has access to the best technology to treat their patients. Tech-enabled workplaces are simply more appealing to many of today’s job candidates. And, the use of technology to recruit and retain star employees can go way beyond the technology used to care for patients, helping to create an engaged workforce.
You could, for example, provide quality continuing education through the use of online courses or a training and development center that employees can self-access. Gamification in training may well appeal to the younger generation at your practice, creating a fun way to raise the bar on what employees are expected to know.
With gamification, training is provided in an interactive, engaging way that uses elements of games to help users immerse themselves in the experience. If this idea is new to your practice, this ties back into a previous strategy to use; you could ask your new employees to reverse mentor the team on the use of gamification e-learning.
Technology can help employees to collaborate and communicate, with conversations stored for future reference. You can use the power of your website to share your workplace culture with potential employees, letting them see how you understand their needs and focus on finding ways to fulfill them as, collaboratively, you build the best veterinary practice possible.
To maximize your practice, it’s important to stay in tune with what new employees desire. This can happen by reading industry reports, reviewing human resource surveys and studies, talking to your current employees, and using your interviews of new employees as opportunities to also learn more about what benefits and workplace cultures are important to them.
You will likely find that work-life balance, continued learning, mentorships, and technology are discussed. You may also discover new ways to effectively recruit and retain the ideal veterinary team that will allow you to compete in the industry and provide quality patient care.
Experts today often discuss the importance of being empowered, and feeling that way can be a key part of living a full and healthy life. But, take a second look at that phrase—being empowered—and you’ll see that it actually refers to a passive process, of other people empowering you. We’d like to suggest that, instead, you should empower yourself by understanding what you’re truly worth, embracing a philosophy of lifelong learning, and then using that combination to earn more money in the workplace. The following steps can help you achieve those goals.
#1 Conduct a Realistic Self-Assessment
There are self-assessment tests online, and there are consultants who can help you with this process. If you can be honest with yourself, you can do your own assessment. At its core, self-assessment is a process whereby you determine your strengths and weaknesses, and their value. Strengths can include:
- work experience
- educational degrees and certifications
- volunteer and other non-paid experience
- leadership skills
- communication skills
- organization skills
- strong work ethic
- problem-solving skills
- good judgment
- self-discipline and initiative
- analytical ability
This is just a partial list of what you could consider your strengths during your self-assessment process. To brainstorm an even more complete list, it could help to use Google to find additional traits and experiences to include; sites that focus on resume writing, for example, often have an excellent list to browse through and consider.
You can use the same list to determine which of these are your weaknesses—meaning any educational, personal and work-related areas where you could use more bolstering of skills. When you create an actual list of weaknesses, note where you are already working on improving that skill gap, and then brainstorm ways you can further your worth even more.
As noted in the subheading of this step, it’s important to create a realistic list. If you’re too modest, then you’re likely undervaluing yourself in the workplace, which means you may be earning less than you deserve. If this resonates with you, why are you doing this? How can you build your self-esteem? Were you taught growing up that bragging was inappropriate, and that humbleness was a virtue? If so, then the task in front of you is to work on being honest about your accomplishments in a professional way.
Conversely, if your self-perception is higher than the reality, you may ultimately suffer negative consequences. It may enable you to convince a supervisor that you deserve a promotion and a raise, but if you can’t perform appropriately then you may get negative reviews and eventually lose that job. Take a step back and realistically self-assess. Then boost your skills, both hard skill sets and soft ones.
#2 Create an Ongoing Improvement Plan
Few of us can rest on our laurels. For example, if you’d like to continue to advance in your career and continue to raise your salary, then it makes sense to use your self-assessment list to create an ongoing plan for further advancements.
It can be beneficial to have a trusted mentor to serve as your sounding board. This can help if you tend to be overly critical of yourself, as well as if you internally overstate your levels of job performance. When choosing a mentor, select one who can offer direct, constructive feedback; you may discover that you could use more than one mentor. Perhaps one is excellent in giving feedback about your actual job skills and performance, while another can guide you towards your goal of being more empathetic towards clients.
If you have mentors, focus on being open to hearing what they have to say, putting aside any feelings of defensiveness. If you have the right mentors, those who have your best interests at heart, then actively listening can provide you with excellent gifts of insight. (If you don’t think you have the right mentors, then that’s another situation entirely, and one that needs to be addressed.)
Take notes as your mentors offer feedback so you can refer to them and reflect. This can help you to gauge progress and it also shows your mentors that you’re committed to the process and the time they’re dedicating to help you.
#3 Formulate Your Personal Branding Statement
Once upon a time, branding was for products. In today’s times, personal branding is key, and when properly articulated, it can serve as a beacon for understanding your true worth at work. When you create a personal branding statement, you are stating what makes you unique and valuable, and this helps you to proclaim your worth in the workplace in a professional way.
Remember when, at the start of this article, we differentiated between being empowered and empowering yourself? The reality is that if you don’t present a certain brand, others will decide your brand for you. Which would you prefer?
Questions to ask yourself as you create this statement include what you stand for and what you advocate for. What do you aspire to do now? In five years? Ten? In what areas of work would you make a good participant? A great leader? Where are you continuing to advance?
Here is a starter statement: I am focused on developing profitable new lines of service at work, while cultivating authentic relationships based on trust and respect. My ability to stay calm in crises is a central tenet of my leadership skills.
After you’re clear about your personal branding, think about how to most effectively articulate it—not only in words, but also in how you act and interact each day, as well as doing what you say. If you don’t do exactly what you say, make sure it’s because you over-deliver, not under-perform. Your appearance is also important. This doesn’t mean wearing the fanciest attire, but it does mean the most appropriate. Being well groomed always matters.
The way you treat someone when it doesn’t necessarily benefit you may be the litmus test that determines whether you truly believe in and live out your branding. Your personal branding statement isn’t an overblown marketing slogan, written just to pull out of your pocket when you want to get ahead of the next person. It should always accurately reflect the authentic, genuine you.
#4 Asking for More Money
By living life as an ongoing learner, always filling in gaps and improving yourself personally and professionally, you are creating a scenario where you deserve more money. Sometimes you also need to ask for that extra cash.
Entire books have been written on how to ask for a raise. Overall, it involves research and preparation. Be prepared to discuss your accomplishments and how, specifically, they have added value and will continue to add value to your workplace. Quantify benefits whenever you can while also discussing how they add to the quality of the company and customer service provided.
Be aware of what the industry standards are for your position, and if you’re asking to be paid on the high end, be ready to share why you’re worth it and how you can continue to move the company forward, including financially. Be courteous and clear in your request and consider how much more responsibility you’d be willing to take on if that’s a counteroffer given.
Practice giving your pitch in front of a mirror. Watch your body language. Is that the image you want to portray? Practice your pitch in front of your mentor and/or other trusted colleagues. What feedback did you receive? What did you think of any comments made and how does that change your pitch? You don’t need to use all feedback that’s given, but thoughtful consideration of advice provided by intelligent professionals is wise.
Anticipate questions you may be asked and consider how you might answer them. Conversely, don’t create prepared answers that may sound stiff in the meeting with your supervisor, and may not precisely fit the actual conversation that’s taking place
Prepare your response in case the answer is “no”. Could you counteroffer by asking to meet again in six months to discuss the requested raise? If not, what does make sense as a next step?
At a minimum, this conversation demonstrates that you value yourself and gives you a chance to discuss your contributions with your supervisor. It may ultimately lead to a raise at your current workplace or it may give you confidence to job seek elsewhere, in a place where your skills can be put to even better use with better compensation given.
Bonus: Pay It Forward
As you continue to move forward in your career, any advancements that you make will likely have occurred—at least in part—because of mentors and other supportive professionals. So, it makes sense to consider how you can pay them back by paying it forward. Ways you can do that include the following:
- serving as a mentor/role model to others
- helping others in less formal ways
- encouraging co-workers who are feeling down
- introducing people in your industry who could likely help one another
- complimenting people who are going the extra mile
- keeping calm in an office crisis
The various ways to pay it forward are as unique as you are. Once you have figured out how to empower yourself and increase your net worth, take the time to help others do the same.
Here’s a simple, straightforward and universally true statement that will set the context for this entire article: You’ll retain more clients if you treat them well. This includes treating them well while they’re at your practice for an appointment. One of the most effective ways to boost your level of service is to put yourself in the shoes of a client as he or she walks in your front door.
- How is the client greeted? How personalized is that greeting?
- How welcoming is the waiting area? How comfortable?
- How neat and clean is that area? How fresh does it smell?
- How professional does the reception team look and act?
- How long do clients need to wait to be taken to a room?
- How long do they have to wait to talk to a veterinarian?
- If there is a delay in service, how is that situation handled?
Take a look at your answers to these questions. If you are proud of your responses, then you’re already ahead of much of the competition. However, if the questions point out areas of service that can be improved, that’s not unusual. If that is the case, what action plan will you create?
To help create an improvement plan, you can ask a trusted friend to walk into the practice and then offer you his or her impression of what the area looks like; what is heard during their time in the waiting area; and what overall impression this experience gives about the veterinary practice.
As part of your hiring practices, remember the importance of soft skills as you interview people for a position. Your during-visit services will automatically be more appealing if clients are greeted by receptionists who enjoy engaging with other people, versus those who see client interactions as a necessary—but not necessarily enjoyable—part of their jobs.
Little things can make a big difference throughout the visit, and when you remember to focus on the client, this will likely boost his or her loyalty to you and your practice.
What happens when a client first walks into your lobby sets the tone for the entire visit. Quick ways to help clients feel valued include standing when he or she enters the lobby area, and slightly leaning towards the client and pet to show interest in them. Greet people with a friendly smile and make eye contact. Some receptionists like to shake hands with clients, while others prefer to offer a friendly greeting without the handshake involved. And, if you normally do like to shake hands, consider skipping this step during cold and flu season.
Providing coffee or other refreshments for clients while they wait can make them feel cared for. The receptionists can offer it during check-in, especially if someone is new to your practice. Even if the client declines, it can make a good first impression. Also, check to make sure you have the correct contact information for each client, doing so in a way that feels conversational, not rushed or rote.
Managers should train the front desk staff on how to enforce hospital policies that are intended to protect clients and pets. The staff needs to be able to explain their importance to the clients and why these policies were created in the first place. If a dog is off leash, for example, the receptionist would ask to have him put on leash, gently sharing how that helps protect others in the waiting room.
If possible, have separate waiting areas for cats and dogs to reduce the stress on both the animals and their owners. Another option is to use a room divider. Hooks for coats and umbrella stands are little things that can make the room feel more welcoming, too.
During the Wait
Let’s say that appointments at your practice are running 15-minutes behind schedule. There are ways to help make this wait seem shorter for your clients. This includes providing fresh reading material in the waiting room. Your practice can also give out pictures of cats and dogs for restless children to color while they wait. Hanging interesting artwork on the wall can also help.
Update the clients about their current wait time when you can, adding in bits of friendly conversation, whenever possible, to make the time feel less tedious. It may be helpful if you share with them why the practice is running late. It’s also courteous to tell the client how much you appreciate his or her patience.
Avoid sitting and chatting with your coworker while the client waits, unless you make it clear that the client is free to join in. Also, never “talk shop” or gossip whatsoever.
Soft music playing in the background can be soothing, while offering free Wi-Fi can help clients to check in at work or connect with family while waiting. Posting pictures of happy clients and their pets, along with thank you notes from them, can create an upbeat atmosphere. The use of air purifiers can make the waiting experience more pleasant for your clients.
It can also help to have disposable bowls available for cats and dogs so they can have a drink of fresh water. Even if they aren’t interested, their owners will likely appreciate the gesture.
During the Consultation
The most important aspect of a consultation is to provide personalized service to the client standing in front of you. Although it can be hard to put aside what may have just happened with a previous client, the person and pet who are currently there for an appointment want and deserve your full attention.
Smiling as you meet a client’s new kitten can go a long way in cementing your relationship; so can empathy if euthanasia needs to be discussed. Use the client’s name and the pet’s name during your conversation and explain what you’re doing and why. At the end, ask if the client has any questions and use clear language in explaining what wasn’t understood. Help clients to understand why you’re recommending things such as bloodwork or a change in their pet’s diet. The “why” can improve the odds that the client will agree to those recommendations.
Try to appropriately balance the time that a client spends with a technician versus the time spent with the veterinarian. Situations vary, but it often makes sense for veterinarians to spend more time with a new pet, while still giving ongoing clients enough time and attention.
After the Consultation
When the consultation ends, your team gets another chance to explain instructions to the client and answer their questions regarding the treatment of their pet, the invoice or something else entirely.
Provide each client with a written summary of what took place during the visit, including any key findings. Highlight when the next visit is scheduled, if relevant, and make sure the client has any food, medications or preventatives that were purchased during this visit. If you know that your client typically buys certain items, such as a medicated shampoo, you can ask if refills are needed.
If the client needs help getting an animal back to the car, provide that service. Better yet, offer it to everyone. Keep umbrellas on hand for when it’s raining and use them as you escort the client and pet to the appropriate vehicle. When a client needs to carry out something such as a heavy bag of dog food, or is juggling a cat carrier with two small children, jump up to assist them. They will appreciate your kindness.
What to Consider as Next Steps
Which of these ideas has your practice already implemented? What are the next steps you’ll be adding to boost your during-visit service to the next level? What’s on your wish list for someday? Consider the steps that you can take today to begin transforming your wish list into a reality.
Most people today have social media accounts that they use to keep in touch with friends, to read the news, to scroll through pages of cute animal pictures and more. We also use online resources to make everyday decisions, including choosing doctors, restaurants and movies. Today, virtually every service, from hair dressers to plumbers and beyond, is chosen in part based upon their online ratings and reviews. In fact, 72% of customers say they rely heavily upon online reviews when choosing services.
As a consumer, this can seem like a great way to weed out poor choices and find the best service. In fact, 87% of consumers say that a business needs a rating of at least three stars for them to even consider using them.
From the business owner’s point of view, though, these reviews can cause frustration, especially the negative ones which even have the potential to impact self-esteem. As veterinarians, for example, most of us feel that we have provided reasonable levels of service to our clients. Therefore, we can be shocked to see how our service has been construed by a client in a negative review.
Mrs. Smith calls Corner Veterinary Hospital, asking for a refill of Fluffy’s metronidazole. The receptionist informs Mrs. Smith that Fluffy hasn’t been seen by a veterinarian for two years and, if Fluffy is not feeling well, she should be examined by a veterinarian. Mrs. Smith becomes angry and refuses the appointment. Later that day, Mrs. Smith posts a Yelp review that Corner Veterinary Hospital refused to give Fluffy her medications and is run by money-grubbing veterinarians who just want an excuse to get more money from her.
Susie works for Dr. Johnson at Corner Veterinary Hospital. Susie is eventually terminated for excessive absenteeism. A few days later, Suzie posts a Facebook review that Corner Veterinary Hospital is filthy, Dr. Johnson doesn’t actually know what he’s doing, and he orders unnecessary treatments to make more money.
Naturally, Dr. Johnson and Corner Veterinary Hospital become indignant with such representations of their character and services. What options does the practice have for combatting such reviews?
In general, online reviews can either be ignored, responded to, or alternatively, the client can be sued for defamation. When deciding how to respond, it’s important to consider that the practice’s current clients have already formed their own opinions from their own personal experiences, and are less likely to be significantly swayed by a single negative review. Any recourse should therefore be taken with the potential client’s viewpoint in mind.
Choosing Among Options
The first option is to not respond at all. In general, if a practice has numerous positive reviews and only a few negative ones, potential clients who are deciding whether or not to use the practice will be less likely to be swayed by the negative reviews. In that case, most potential clients will accept the fact that some people will never be satisfied. A few politely-worded negative reviews can actually make the reviews of the business seem more authentic overall and, fortunately, potential clients can typically recognize highly unreasonable people.
It can be tempting to want to remove negative online reviews from a website, especially those that are more extreme. In many situations, this attempt may be unsuccessful, but there are some steps that can be taken. If the review appears on the veterinary practice’s Facebook page, for example, then the offending party can be blocked from the page so that any comments will not be viewable. Also, the Facebook review feature can be turned off entirely, although this will also remove all positive reviews, too. If the review appears on websites outside the control of the practice, and it is grossly inaccurate, some websites can be contacted to have the post removed, but this is often not successful.
Some practices ask acquaintances to post positive reviews to skew their ratings. Sites such as Yelp have mechanisms in place to identify and filter out reviews from friends and family and, on general principle, this should be avoided altogether. A better method is to encourage current clients to leave online reviews; although it is not ethical to ask them to write positive ones, it is acceptable to request reviews from clients who had quality experiences at the practice.
Under certain circumstances, veterinarians who feel they have been wronged will want to defend their names and reputations. After all, it’s hard to sit back and watch yourself be misrepresented online. Many people therefore feel the urge to respond to these reviews and clarify facts of the situation. Veterinarians, however, need to be aware that responding to such posts with the specifics of the situation may violate patient privacy laws. So, what can you do? Some practices try to proactively protect themselves by having new clients sign a statement saying that they waive the right to patient privacy in the case that the client posts a negative review.
Unfortunately, such a waiver would not be protective in court. Since the waiver is signed before any incident would occur, that client would not have had all the facts needed to waive his or her rights to privacy.
According to the AVMA, “veterinarians and their associates must protect the personal privacy of clients, and veterinarians must not reveal confidences unless required to by law or unless it becomes necessary to protect the health and welfare of other individuals or animals”. In other words, providing information in response to a negative review that could identify the client or patient could be a breach of privacy. At best, the practice could use the occasion to clarify their standard policies.
In addition to legal concerns, any reply to such a review could be perceived as inflammatory and defensive in tone by potential clients. Again, it’s important to remember that the Google-search audience is comprised of potential clients who are trying to decide which veterinarian would be best for Spot. A negative review may be considered more interesting, and is more likely to be read by a potential client when it has a reply from the practice.
If read, then the tone and impact of the reply is the potential client’s first insight into the personality of the clinic. If the practice seems defensive and unwilling to take responsibility, then the potential client may perceive the clinic as being hard to work with and one that’s not looking out for the client’s best interest. Any attempt to set the story straight can sound like arguing and create an unpleasant impression to the client.
That doesn’t mean that the review must be ignored entirely. Perhaps the practice doesn’t have many reviews and this one long and negative review thereby seems glaringly obvious. If the practice feels the need to respond, a generic but specific reply can be posted, such as the following:
Hi Mrs. Smith. We’re sorry to hear about your experience at Corner Veterinary Hospital. Please call Barb, our office manager, at (xxx)-xxx-xxxx so we can address your concerns.
This style of reply doesn’t break any patient confidentiality, can make the client feel as though he or she has been heard and, perhaps more importantly, provides an empathetic tone for potential clients to see. A good reply includes some expression of empathy, the specific name and phone number of the contact person, and an invitation to a private conversation.
The possible outcomes of this are three-fold. The best-case situation would be that Mrs. Smith does call Barb, hears an explanation and is satisfied with the conversation. In that case, she might remove the review or edit it to a positive. The next best situation is where Mrs. Smith calls and is reasonably satisfied but makes no changes to the review. The worst situation is where Mrs. Smith calls, but is still unhappy with the outcome, and makes further negative posts.
To help prevent this last situation from occurring, make sure the contact person is reasonably available and has the knowledge and authority to address the concerns. If Barb is only available every other Tuesday from 10:00am-12:00pm, Mrs. Smith will likely become even more annoyed. If Barb doesn’t understand the policy enough to defend it or doesn’t have the authority to make any reasonable accommodations, Mrs. Smith will likely be just as frustrated in the end, or even more so.
Ultimately, you can do your best to resolve these types of situations, but keep in mind that there are some clients who will never accept that things cannot be done their way. Since, by law, Fluffy’s metronidazole cannot be refilled without an exam in the past year and Barb cannot change that regardless of how much she wants to help Mrs. Smith, this particular situation may never be satisfactorily resolved for all parties.
Reviews from Disgruntled People
Let’s say you receive a negative review from a client whom you’ve banned from the practice. Can that client be sued for libel? For a statement to be considered libel, it must be presented as fact, or be reasonably construed as fact by the average person. As long as the general gist of the story is true, even if some of the pieces are false, it may not be enough to constitute libel. Most reviews have some basis of truth to them, even if not every single detail is true, and these circumstances can make it very difficult for any practice to successfully fight a court case against a client. Plus, since almost all reviews are expressions of opinion, the practice will rarely have a solid enough case to make in court.
Moreover, pursuing a libel case can be quite expensive with a likelihood of success typically being slim. Besides, at the first hint of legal recourse, the client could immediately post that information to social media and create a publicity nightmare. Hence, any attempt at suing for libel is, in most cases, not worthwhile.
Another possible scenario involves unhappy employees or ex-employees. What recourse does the practice have against a disgruntled employee who has a bone to pick? Some websites, such as Yelp and Google, will block reviews from disgruntled employees if asked to do so. Plus, new hires could be asked to sign both a non-disclosure agreement as well as a non-disparagement agreement. Non-disclosure agreements prohibit employees from sharing information that is not publicly available, while non-disparagement agreements prohibit employees from making disparaging statements about their employer. Since most employers don’t (and shouldn’t) publicly disparage their employees, it is reasonable for them to request the same of their employees.
These need to be carefully worded documents, though, because the National Labor Relations Act gives employees the right to discuss wages, benefits, and other terms and work conditions with other employees.
As far as the non-disparagement agreement in connection with negative postings, this document can create leverage for an employer in court, but the employer will likely incur significant legal fees and probably receive negative publicity while pursuing charges. Unfortunately, the other fallout of such a clause is that, in the case of a harassment suit, an employer who has a non-disparagement agreement in place will likely have to pay higher settlement fees. In general, non-disparagement agreements are best avoided.
What If the Negative Client Review is True?
Sometimes, unfortunately, the hospital’s staff does perform poorly. For example, let’s say that Mr. Jones dropped Buddy off at Corner Veterinary Hospital for a routine castration. During the course of Buddy’s stay, a veterinary assistant walked Buddy outside. Buddy slipped his collar and disappeared into the woods. Mr. Jones is contacted, and the assistants make every effort to find Buddy, but to no avail. Mr. Jones is irate and posts an angry Google Review saying that Corner Veterinary Hospital is clearly not responsible and shouldn’t be trusted with anyone’s pet.
In this situation, Corner Veterinary Hospital stands to lose a lot, as this is clearly an egregious offense and is entirely true. The review can be ignored, and perhaps the practice will make that decision if there are sufficient positive reviews to outweigh it. A polite response asking the client to call the office is also a valid option, but the practice may want to make the response more apologetic. The response can also include an acknowledgment of what went wrong, with a description of what has been done to fix the problem, such as the following:
We’re very sorry that you’ve had this experience at Corner Veterinary Hospital. All our staff is very upset about this situation and continues to search for Buddy. Since we never want an incident like this to happen again, we are having all of our hospitalized patients walked with two leashes, including a slip lead that is more secure. We are also working on fencing in a section of our property for even more security. If you would like to discuss this further with us, please call Barb, our office manager, at (xxx)-xxx-xxxx.
While this is not an ideal situation by any means, showing concern, an acknowledgement of what went wrong, and a plan to prevent future issues may be the best method of preserving the practice’s reputation.
Ideally, practices should focus on performing in a way that will help to prevent negative reviews from being posted. While there are some clients who will never be satisfied, most reasonable clients will be happy when you have a friendly staff that provides them with good service, and the practice enforces transparent, reasonable policies. It is important to have a plan in place, though, so that you know how to respond, in general, when you do get a negative review.
You can use negative reviews to discover where your practice has the opportunity to improve its client service. Was Mrs. Smith unhappy, for example, because the receptionist offered her an appointment three days out when Mrs. Smith was already sick of cleaning up her cat’s diarrhea? Or was the receptionist unempathetic and hard to work with? While neither of these may be the case, every negative review is an opportunity to evaluate and potentially improve the practice’s policies.