Is Bad Communication Stunting Your Practice’s Growth?

Originally Published in Today’s Veterinary Business December 2019

Is Bad Communication Stunting Your Practice’s Growth?

When you look back at your former teachers, you realize that some people make learning more engaging and can communicate concepts more efficiently than others. They all might have the same degree of knowledge, but not everyone has the communication skills needed to effectively share that knowledge. In the same vein, in a workplace setting, someone can be incredibly knowledgeable and have transformative ideas, but the information must be effectively communicated. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Many practices lack proper communication within their team, thus affecting how the practice runs during a normal day.

Imagine the following situation:
Technician A, “Wendy,” and Technician B, “Bill,” have set schedules during the week. Wendy comes from 8 am to 3 pm and Bill comes in from 1 pm until 8 pm. On Tuesday, Wendy writes on the posted schedule that she will be switching hours with Bill for that Friday, as she has a doctor’s appointment that morning. She does not communicate this to anyone, including Bill.

What Poor Communication Does

Poor communication results in a disconnect between parties and it is especially important for an employer to communicate clearly to its employees. When mixed messages are given at a veterinary practice, employees feel more stressed, which can affect how they react to one another and how they treat clients. Life is more unpredictable when misunderstandings occur, especially in ongoing situations. Employees can carry frustrations home with them. If this is happening at your practice, it’s not a good sign for your clinic’s growth and overall success.

When Friday rolls around, the first client has checked in, but there is no technician to prep the room or initiate the exam. The office manager is trying to call Wendy to see what is going on, but she is not answering because she has a doctor’s appointment…and the day starts off in chaos. The doctor isn’t happy, the client isn’t happy, and the receptionist is on the receiving end of the client’s anger.

When someone communicates poorly at work, goals aren’t accomplished effectively or in a timely way. At the end of the day, the clients are the ones who suffer. Additionally, employees may be forced to pick up the slack, leading to rushed jobs and mistakes. In a business dedicated to the care and well-being of pets, there are some serious consequences that can occur.

In this type of environment, employees may feel insecure about their jobs and feel they never have a moment to breathe, which may lead them to seek another job. A lack of communication or poor communication can increase turnover at a practice, which brings with it all the costs associated with recruiting and training new employees. This slows office productivity, which affects the remaining employees and, most importantly, the clients.

Wendy’s co-workers find themselves in the middle of this situation which they did not create. This causes tension. Many are mad at Wendy for not showing up and creating extra work for them, forcing them to work twice as hard to get everything done. Some are also angry with management as they feel a few employees are treated differently than others and are “allowed to get away with it.” A simple lack of communication has left the practice divided. This, in turn, directly affects how the client sees your practice. Staff with bad attitudes? Staff running around at 100 mph? This doesn’t ease a client’s mind when putting their pets into your staff’s hands.

If you find an increasing number of dissatisfied clients, the reason could be poor communication among people in your practice. The reality is that when the level of communication is substandard, simply maintaining the status quo can be challenging and achieving growth is difficult.

Providing Quality Communication

When you think about communication skills, consider everyone who plays a role at the practice — veterinarians, managers, technicians, receptionists and office staff.

It may be easy to pass the blame on Wendy, who should have at least spoken with Bill about switching shifts for the day. However, can this blame also be placed on the practice for not having a pre-determined system of communication for such events? Should the disgruntled employees bring their concerns to management?

Staff Meetings

Having staff meetings to determine how to stop the cycle of bad communication is imperative. One employee may not see the issues of a practice the same way as another. Similarly, employees may not communicate the same way as each other. However, holding an open discussion to decide on an effective way to communicate with each other is only the first step.

Create an open-floor format

During team meetings, make the environment as welcoming as possible. Start off with an open-ended question like, “How can we communicate more effectively” or “what can we do differently?” Give examples of how you, as a practice manager, can communicate better. This will “break the ice” and show vulnerability, which will help employees feel like it’s a safe place they can share their concerns freely. Try to prevent employees from blaming one another, as listening shuts off as soon as tension rises.

Listen, listen, and listen some more

A big part of effective communication comes down to actively listening to what the other person has to say rather than spending time formulating what you’re going to say next — or, even worse, interrupting the speaker. In today’s world, when people are rewarded for taking action, spending time listening might feel like a somewhat passive activity, but it’s necessary for quality communication.

Implementation

After each meeting, determine what you’ve learned about your practice’s communication strengths and weaknesses, and figure out the opportunities that exist. Then, create a plan for more effective communication. What can be fixed relatively easily? What improvements will create the most positive momentum? What can have financial benefits? Make the changes steadily, and review the progress regularly.

Let’s say our theoretical practice decides to implement a procedure that all requests of shift switches must be approved by the practice manager. Is this to be done through text, email, one-on-one? Or is there a specific request form that needs to be submitted and signed by all three parties (both technicians and manager)?

The next step is holding all employees to the same standard. There should be no “exceptions” to the rule so other employees do not feel like they are being slighted and “so-and-so” is being favorited and doesn’t have to follow protocol. A doctor should have to fill out this request, as does a technician and receptionist. This will eliminate any tension within the practice due to schedule changes, and thus will keep your practice running smoothly.

Good communication is a necessity in running a successful practice. Although it’s hard to look inward at the problems occurring in the practice, identifying key issues is the first step. Then, decide as a team what can be done to modify these issues, and follow it through. Changes may take a while to be implemented, and that’s ok—“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”