Veterinary client service representatives (CSRs) play an integral role in the logistical functions of clinics, offering up first impressions for clients and serving as the liaison between the client and the main medical staff. Consequently, CSRs are more intricately involved with patient care than clients or even some veterinary staff realize, which creates a need for a CSR guide that provides information about whom to select for the position and how they should optimally be trained in patient care and client education to create a positive experience for patients and clients.
A typical basic veterinary practice operates with four main roles: management, veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and client services representatives (CSR). The need for other roles, such as kennel staff, groomers, contractors, and so forth depends upon additional functions a practice might choose to integrate. While much attention is focused on the medical staff, CSRs are often forgotten, despite the crucial role they play in a client’s and patient’s veterinary experience. Considering how they are often the first people to come in contact with a client during appointment scheduling and walk-in experiences and the last to bid a client goodbye after checking out, they are an integral piece in the process of client communication and patient triage. By focusing more resources and time on CSR hiring, training, and follow through, veterinary clinics can practice better medicine, enhance practice efficiency, and create a more pleasant client experience. In this document, we will primarily focus on how to recruit high quality candidates and provide them with training so that they can work with the medical staff to create an optimal patient and client experience.
CSR Roles and Their Importance
- CSR Roles and Duties
CSRs are expected to handle clinic communications (phone, email, social media, etc.), schedule appointments, handle billing, provide basic veterinary education, and maintain order in the reception area. Through these roles, CSRs are the first to meet a client and their pet to “create the critically important first impression” for the practice. While their job description might sound simple, CSR’s roles have a greater impact on a practice than a typical reception position.
- Patient Care and Follow Through
CSRs are the first to triage a patient, whether an owner calls the clinic or walks through the door. Asking the right questions and visually gauging a patient’s condition skillfully is imperative in assessing the urgency of that patient’s needs. Accurately directing that patient to the correct medical professional and/or scheduling the patient accordingly has a significant impact on the type of medical care that the patient receives. This role is especially important for clinics that expect any degree of emergency situations.
CSRs are also important for patient follow through so that sick patients receive the attention they need. Not all clients are aware of the value of rechecks, so CSRs play a role in client education alongside the veterinarian and technicians. As a result of the impact they have on patient care, CSRs should have basic medical knowledge and training to reflect the types of situations they might encounter.
- Practice Efficiency
CSRs manage the flow of the clinic through scheduling and managing the front desk area. By ensuring the schedule is reasonable with correct time allotments for appointments (wellness vs. sick vs. specialty treatments)—and avoiding situations where there is uneven distribution of patients among doctors and/or excessive overbooking—the day flows much more smoothly. This helps to create a better working environment for the clinic staff as well as a better experience for the client and patient; meanwhile, hectic days might give a client the impression that a clinic is disorganized. It can also add to the stress of an already stressed-out patient, making the delivery of care more difficult.
- Building Client Relationships
CSRs are integral in the process of earning trust and loyalty from clients by conveying a desire to help and engaging with clients during scheduling and check-out. Connecting with the client during phone scheduling and check-ins can make a huge difference in making them feel valued and demonstrating that their pet is treated as an individual rather than just one of the patients that the hospital helps. In short, a personal touch helps to create goodwill.
The Hiring Process
- Who makes the best candidates?
Usually, employers think that people with veterinary experiences will make the best CSRs since they already have an understanding on how clinics function and may even have basic medical knowledge. However, think about the bulk of a CSR’s job–it is really a customer service position that involves plenty of multi-tasking and organization. To hire the best candidate for the position, clinics must therefore look for candidates with adequate ability in those areas, which could include experience in working in restaurants, being a flight attendant, and serving in other positions where they worked with a variety of personality types and still maintained a positive attitude. A practice can teach someone about options for heartworm control, for example, but it’s not as easy to teach someone how to maintain a calm front desk area with two phones ringing and waiting clients.
- What should the hiring process be like?
Create of list of skills and characteristics that are of value to you and your practice and separate them into “must-haves” and “nice-to-haves.” When calling job candidates to schedule an interview, pay special attention to how they conduct themselves over the phone and/or what their voicemail sounds like. This is especially important for CSRs since they will be spending so much time on the phone with clients. If you leave a message for a CSR candidate, their promptness in returning your call can also be an indicator of professionalism. Check references because they can be the best way to learn about your candidate from people who have already worked with them. This step is sometimes skipped, but it can add real value to your hiring process and, while it takes time to call managers, it may ultimately save you time if fewer hours are spent interviewing lackluster candidates or, even worse, if you hire someone who is not a good fit.
- What questions should you ask during the interview?
Since you might interview people who haven’t worked in the veterinary industry before, it is important to gauge each candidate’s willingness to work with animals and medicine, along with other aspects of veterinary medicine. Asking a simple question such as “Why do you want to work in an animal care facility?” can indicate whether the person sitting across from you loves animals. Plus, it’s important to know if a candidate is emotionally equipped to handle euthanasia because CSRs will be part of the team that consoles an owner after they lose their pet. If a job candidate has not personally experienced pet euthanasia but are ethically in line with your processes and is willing to take on a consoling role, then this candidate may simply need some training.
Next up are the technical questions. CSRs should be proficient with the computer and phone, and able to operate printers, fax machines, headsets, and so forth. They must competently multi-task when using office technology and capable of learning new types, so ask about their experience with key modalities. Additionally, CSRs sometimes hold a social media role in practices. If this is the case for yours, ask if they are familiar with popular platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.
Arguably soft skills are the most important, from being an organized multi-tasker who can prioritize tasks to being compassionate, able de-escalate situations. The best way to gauge these skills can be experience questions (“Tell me about a time when …”) and case scenarios (“How would you respond if …”). You might want to gauge how they would handle an angry client, a person in need of accommodations, non-English speakers, clients with financial difficulties, and so forth.
Lastly, seeing how the candidate presents themselves during an interview can be the most telling portion. Do they make eye contact? Do they speak well? Do they smile? How did they greet you and your staff? Each of these can provide cues about how they will interact with your clients. Once you have hired someone who will excel at being the face of your practice, next up is training them to contribute to patient care.
CSR Training: Patient Triage
- Emergency Calls
Whether triage is done over the phone or in person, the CSR’s primary job is to first differentiate a true emergency from something that can wait. If any of the following situations are mentioned, the client should take the pet to the closest emergency room immediately:
- Non-stop bleeding
- Difficulty breathing
- Severe vomiting/diarrhea
- Toxin exposure
- Seizures, altered mental status, or collapse with noticeable behavioral change afterwards or an inability to stand up
- Inability to urinate
- Severe pain
- Ingestion of inedible foreign material followed by vomiting, constipation/diarrhea, lethargy, and/or pain
If the situation has been determined to be non-immediate, more time can be taken to gather information about the patient and their situations. It is important to note that it is not the CSR’s job to diagnose the disease; therefore, communication should be strictly information gathering. Important information to collect includes:
- Patient specifics (species, age, sex, breed, reproductive status)
- When symptoms started and how long they’ve been occurring
- Whether the pet is eating, drinking, urinating, and defecating, and how they are behaving
It’s important for the CSR to ask open-ended questions. Simply starting off with the question of “Tell me what’s going on” can help to elicit a good preliminary view of the situation. More specific questions can be asked when more about the problem is known and as CSRs gain medical experience to know what questions are helpful to ask. Once information is gathered, an experienced technician or a doctor should make the judgement call about the urgency of the situation and how quickly the patient should be seen. Plus, a physical examination by a veterinarian should always be offered.
Patient triage for a CSR can be similar to a technician taking a history. This is especially helpful if all technicians are busy when a client/patient is in distress and needs help quickly. This provides an opportunity for team building where technicians and CSRs can be trained together or an experienced technician can train CSRs. As a part of this training, new CSRs should have the opportunity to observe a technician or doctor taking a history from a client to understand what to ask and how to ask the questions.
- Sick Appointment Visits
CSRs can contribute to medical care of sick patients by identifying potential infectious diseases. Before the appointment, sick patients can be triaged in a way that’s similar to emergency visits to ensure there’s not something going on that the owner is not aware of. Animals observed to be coughing and/or sneezing in the lobby and puppies with diarrhea should be placed in a room immediately to prevent a spread of disease to other animals.
- Wellness Appointment Visits
Annual and semi-annual wellness visits do not require as much patient triage for CSRs; however, it is important that clients are told to bring/send records if the practice does not already have them. This will greatly expediate appointments.
CSR Training: Client Education
Client education does not just happen in the exam rooms. In fact, it starts when a client makes the first call to a practice. CSRs are therefore in the unique position of being able to communicate the value of veterinary physical exams and diagnostics, and so spending a few extra, friendly minutes with a new client can ensure the booking of a potentially lifelong patient. Even better, if the owner mentions that their pet is anxious during veterinary visits, is having their first vet visit, or is animal/people aggressive, as just three examples, the CSRs can provide guidance to help facilitate the most stress-free visit possible.
After an appointment is finished and the client is checking out, CSRs have the opportunity to schedule the client’s next exam and communicate how important yearly visits or rechecks are. Plus, the reality is that clients tend to confide in CSRs about topics they may have been too shy to discuss with the medical team, perhaps asking if the diets, medications, or overall treatment plans really work. Having basic medical knowledge can therefore go a long way in educating the client when the veterinarian or technician is not even in the room. The added benefit is that the CSRs can relay the information in layman’s terms. While veterinarians and technicians are trained to communicate well with clients, jargon tends to slip out, especially if appointments are rushed and overbooked.
Working as a Team
With CSRs being in the front of the house and technicians and doctors being in the back, there is physical distance between the two teams. Additionally, CSRs and technicians at some practices might experience frustration with one another, a feeling that can often from miscommunication. So, how can these teams effectively work together, given these challenges?
- Medical Training For CSRs
One common complaint that technicians often have is that CSRs rely too heavily upon the medical team to answer simple questions. Other times, something was incorrectly handled by the CSRs because of a lack of medical knowledge. While it is unreasonable to expect CSRs to be as medically knowledgeable as technicians, increasing the staff’s overall medical competencies will only help to improve patient care and client education. Therefore, CSRs should sit in on technician training, be offered continuing education opportunities, and have the chance to train as a technician if they want to be more involved with patient care. This allows for mobility within the clinic and helps CSRs with individual future career goals (technician/veterinary school). Veterinarians often bring a head technician with them to conferences so this technician can train the rest of the team. When CSRs are given similar opportunities, then the entire front staff can grow together.
Millennials are quickly becoming the predominant generation in the workforce, and they appreciate communicating via technology. Through the use of relatively inexpensive Bluetooth earpieces and walkie talkies, the front and the back staff can easily communicate without wasting time and energy. That’s because team members can ask questions and give updates from wherever they are. Additionally, computer systems that track inpatient care can help everyone understand how a patient is doing and what treatments have been given. CSRs can therefore more easily find this information without needing to wait for an available technician, and team members can leave notes for one another.
CSRs in Telemedicine
Telemedicine continues to gain more traction, especially after the debut of the COVID pandemic. Even as society moves back to normal, some 2020 trends will likely continue, including more services being provided virtually, something likely to be appreciated by millennial clients.
CSRs can help to facilitate telemedicine by being diligently aware about which appointments are remote and which ones are in person. Which telemedicine appointments are for a technician and which ones are for doctors? This awareness is important since CSRs will be responsible for sharing with clients how they can log in and what materials/information they should have. After the practitioner and client finish the appointment, CSRs will handle payments. The easiest way to do so is to ask the client to provide a credit card ahead of time. This allows the practitioner and client to end the call without CSR involvement unless another appointment needs scheduled.
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