Six Elements of Successful Telephone Etiquette in Veterinary Practices

People like to feel as though they’re worth your time and attention. It’s only human nature, right? When clients or potential clients call your veterinary office, they want to hang up feeling as though their cats and dogs are important to you.

Here are six strategies to help you secure and retain clients through how your practice handles those telephone conversations.

Personalize Calls and Establish Relationships

If you’re a manager, your role in this can be to help ensure that people who answer the practice’s telephones have enough time to focus on the calls they take. You don’t want them to get overwhelmed by having to put too many callers on hold, or become distracted by having to do other tasks.

How many phone calls does your practice get on an average Monday? An average Saturday? At what times throughout the day does your call volume tend to increase? Have you adequately staffed for these times? If someone on your team points out that he or she can’t give adequate attention to callers, how do you respond? Is that response effective?

If you are someone who answers the phones for your practice, quickly find out who is on the other end of each call. Get the name of the caller and their pet(s) and use those names throughout the conversation. Let’s say, for example, that someone calls and wants to know how much you charge for a first-time visit for a kitten, including shots. You could respond by saying that it can be so exciting to get a new kitten, and then ask them for their name and their kitten’s name. In that one simple response, you’ve already set a friendly tone and obtained the information that you need to start to personalize the call.

If you ever feel as though you don’t have enough time to spend with each caller, let your manager know. Ideally, you can brainstorm effective solutions together.

Clarify Client Needs and Provide Appointment Information

During a phone call, find out information such as the pet’s age, how long the person has had the pet and the breed. Use language that’s clear and easy to understand, avoiding industry and medical jargon.

If the caller starts out by asking about the price of a service, let him or her know that you would be happy to provide them with that information, but you need to clarify a few details first. This gives you a chance to bond and build rapport, while ensuring that you’re providing the potential client with the information that he or she really needs. If you simply answer the question with a dollar figure, the caller may just end the call at that point.

Picture this scenario as an example. Let’s say that someone wants to know how much it will cost to neuter a male kitten. Through your conversation, you discover that the caller intends to adopt at a shelter tomorrow where that service is provided in adoption fees. You could then walk your caller through what a typical appointment is like for a kitten just adopted from a shelter and help to book an appointment.

Every situation is different but, in each case, clarifying the client’s needs is a crucial step in providing the best service possible to the callers.

Ask About Other Pets

Let’s say a client calls to make an appointment for his or her dog. While updating the records, you notice that the client’s cat is overdue for a checkup. Kindly remind the client of this information and offer to make appointments for all the animals during the same phone call. Ask what days of the week are best, whether morning or afternoon works better, and so forth, and the client will likely recognize how much effort you put into making the situation as stress-free as possible.

Then, offer two choices. “OK, so Thursday afternoons are good for you. Would you prefer 2 p.m. or 3 p.m.?”

Side note: Although the two-choice rule can be highly effective in this situation, it is best to avoid many of the types of questions that can be answered “yes” or “no”. For example, “Do you want to make an appointment?” makes it far too easy for a caller to say, “No.”

Be Aware of the Language You Use

Compare and contrast these sets of examples:

  • “Georgie needs a rabies booster shot” versus “I recommend that Georgie get his rabies booster shot”
  • “I’ve fixed your bill” versus “Your bill should be okay now”
  • “The doctor plans to call you today to answer that question” versus “The doctor is really busy but will call sometime today when she can”

In each case, the first response is more confident and helpful, while the second one is more wishy-washy. And, in the second two examples, the latter responses can be insulting to clients, perhaps making them feel that they aren’t important to your practice.

Be Knowledgeable, But Not Scripted

Clients and potential clients alike appreciate when the person answering the phone is knowledgeable about schedules, services offered at the practice, and so forth. Having said that, authenticity is what connects people and makes people want to engage with you, so an overly scripted presentation can turn people off.

Here’s another caution: as receptionists gain experience and knowledge, it can be tempting for them to guess what their veterinarians would say, and provide information to callers. Even though experienced team members may be correct with their advice, it’s not wise to provide answers to medical questions without getting the information from the doctor.

For example, a client might call and say his dog is lethargic and doesn’t want to go outside. A receptionist might respond with, “Well, it is pretty cold outside. Maybe you could wait to see how Brutus does tomorrow. I know my dog doesn’t like really cold weather, either.” That receptionist may be exactly right, or Brutus could be having a significant medical problem. If the latter is true, this opens up the practice to legal liability.

Be Friendly but Also Efficient

Friendliness and kindness can play significant roles in obtaining and keeping clients. For example, if you realize that there is no way for you to avoid putting a caller on hold, doing so in an empathetic way will make it much more likely that the caller will understand and be willing to wait, rather than if you sound frazzled or even irritable. This concept will hold true in virtually everything you do at the practice.

Having said that, efficiency is also important for many reasons. First, the person calling in may be busy; second, efficiently handling calls opens up more receptionist time for the next caller.

Conclusion

To help ensure that your practice provides quality telephone service and etiquette, here are four tips:

  • When hiring, consider soft “people” skills alongside the more resume-driven ones.
  • Thoroughly train people who will answers phones, providing them with solutions to deal with typical challenges that arise.
  • Provide enough resources so that receptionists are not forced to hurry. Efficiency is good; hurrying often leads to frazzled employees and dissatisfied clients, as well as potential clients who go to the practice across town.
  • Managers and receptionists should communicate whenever a problem arises and work together to brainstorm solutions that work well for everyone involved.

Auditing Your Company’s Mission Statement

Although no two mission statements are alike (nor should they be), it’s important to regularly audit yours—perhaps when you do your annual policy review, overall—to determine whether or not the statement is still relevant and actually being put into practice. Here is a helpful checklist.

  • Is your mission statement still relevant? If not, why not? What needs changed?
    • Is your purpose still the same?
    • What about your core values?
    • Do you offer different products and/or services, ones that have caused your mission statement to need to evolve?
    • What makes your business unique? Is that clearly indicated?
  • Can your entire team recite your mission statement?
  • When you ask each member of the team (or, if at a large company, a sample of them) what the mission statement means, how consistent are the answers?
    • How closely do they match what key staff believe the statement to mean?
    • If there are gaps, where do they exist? How significant are they?
    • In your policy manual, have you included concrete examples of how the mission statement could be put into practice? If not, would that be helpful?
  • How do you explicitly communicate your mission statement to your customers or clients?
    • Through signs that state it?
    • In your website and printed materials?
    • In your advertising?
  • In company meetings, how often do you discuss the mission statement?
  • When your company faces challenges and/or difficult choices, do you consult your mission statement when reviewing possible solutions? How is it your benchmark?
  • When you create new policies, do you ensure that they mesh with your mission?
  • How often do you review your policy manual to make sure that what’s included dovetails with your mission? As just one gut-check example, how well does your disciplinary policy match your mission statement?
  • You can also review the following for matches and mismatches:
    • Your organizational chart
    • Job descriptions
    • Forms
    • Any other employee handbooks or manuals
  • Take a look at how you reward employees. Are you rewarding them for phrases contained in your mission statement? If, for example, your statement includes “providing compassionate care,” do you actually reward and promote based on that value, or are your rewards based on how well a person increases revenues or reduces expenses?
  • What processes do you have in place for employees to report when they feel that procedures conflict with the mission statement? How are those reports handled?
  • What procedures do you have in place to update the mission statement, when needed?
  • As you read through this checklist, what items would be important to add or edit to match your business’s unique needs? Who will spearhead that initiative? What is the deadline?

Managing Social Media Behavior at Your Veterinary Practice

Originally Published by Today’s Veterinary Business, December 2018

Use of the internet, particularly social media, can be a double-edged sword, especially in the workplace. On the plus side, it can be a wonderful vehicle for marketing your practice and otherwise connecting with clients and potential clients. On the darker side, what happens when an employee posts content that can have a negative impact on the practice? Should you respond? If so, how should you respond? If a post is offensive, do you have the option of disciplining, even firing, that employee?

Because people in general are so openly sharing thoughts and opinions on social media, it’s not surprising that many experts believe that terminations based on employees posting inappropriate content will continue to increase. Handling this type of issue at your practice can be challenging for your human resource team, given that this is a fairly new type of problem to tackle – but, finding the right approach is crucial, given that just one post has the potential to blow up into a public relations and human resource disaster.

So, how do you respond to, say, a sexist-sounding post on an employee’s page? Although you don’t want to over-react or react emotionally in the moment, and you don’t want to micro-manage your employees, here’s the crux of the situation, distilled into just one sentence. How much potential damage could a particular post have on your practice’s reputation?

What’s important is that you respond fairly, not allowing one person who, say, has a knack of being humorous in his or her posts more leeway for the same type of material that another employee posts in a more serious manner. And, if you choose not to respond, be aware that you’re still really responding – giving the message that you either are fine with the posts or you aren’t concerned with the messaging. And, although a non-response is sometimes the right choice, in today’s business environment, your practice could also be harmed by this more passive approach.

What You Can – and Cannot – Do

At a minimum, you should create a policy about your employees’ use of social media while at work. Be clear about what an employee can and cannot do, and then consistently adhere to that policy. You have the option of banning social media use entirely while on the job. If, of course, someone’s job includes posting for the practice, you’ll have to clearly delineate what is and isn’t permissible during work hours.

However, you cannot ban employees from talking about work-related issues online when they aren’t at work, and they are legally permitted to discuss topics with one another on social media that fall within protected concerted guidelines. Employees can, for example, discuss their dissatisfaction about management style at the practice, how much they’re getting paid and so forth on Facebook or Twitter, as just two examples.

Employees are not protected and can be fired, though, when they discuss these issues online with someone outside of the practice, as this no longer falls into the category of co-worker dialogue about the workplace. They can also be terminated for sharing information that is deemed confidential, including but not limited to trade secrets.

Employees aren’t protected when talking about a workplace topic that isn’t related to employment terms. If someone calls a manager “lazy,” that communication may ultimately be protected. If the employee posts, though, that the manager is “fat,” then that may open the employee up for termination. Or if an employee posts that “my veterinary office is full of ugly people,” this is leaving the realm of employment-related discussions.

It can be difficult to discern when a post crosses the line, so your practice may need help with an attorney experienced in this type of law to determine legalities of particular posts. Note that laws can differ by state so, if your company has practices in more than one of them, you may not be able to make blanket social media policies. Employee protection is especially strong in California, Colorado, Louisiana, New York and North Dakota. Also, be aware that employee protection about social media postings applies to unionized as well as non-unionized employees.

Hate Speech and Protected Classes

You can fire employees who engage in hate speech. Sometimes a post clearly contains hate speech, while at other times, it is borderline. Hate speech is defined as communication that has no purpose or meaning other than expressing a feeling of hatred for a particular group, perhaps focused on race, ethnicity or gender, sexual orientation, national origin, religion and so forth.

When Creating a Social Media Policy for Your Practice

Your policy should contain clear guidelines about what is and isn’t permitted while at work, and also explicitly state that trade secrets and the like must remain confidential. The policy should ask employees to not use social media to post defamatory material that could create a hostile work environment. It is also reasonable to ask them to preface any social media remarks made about the practice online with a disclaimer that you don’t represent your employer’s point of view. It makes good sense to be proactive, too, and run your social media policy past your practice’s attorney.

As a creative solution, some companies are providing social media breaks for their employees throughout the day, perhaps 15 minutes in length, a couple of times per day. This can give everyone a chance to relax and refresh their minds. The goal isn’t to completely restrict your employees from ever using social media (which isn’t do-able, anyhow) but to encourage moderate use in appropriate ways. If you want to use this strategy, outline specifics in your social media policy.

Sharing Your Social Media Policy with Employees

How you share the news about your social media policy can go a long way in determining how well it is received. For example, you could pick a day to get some pizzas for your employees, and use that as an occasion to have a discussion on your social media policy. Explain why having the policy is so important in today’s times, and educate them on the problems that can arise when this form of communication isn’t appropriately used.

As you share the role that social media and its messaging plays in your practice’s culture and values, using a helpful approach is more likely to be successful than leaving the impression that you don’t trust your employees and plan to monitor their every message. And sometimes, by simply educating employees on privacy setting options in social media, you can help to prevent an unpleasant situation.

Share examples of appropriate/acceptable posts and ones that cross the line, and be open to questions, concerns and employee feedback. Getting employees to buy into your policy is a big step forward.

Monitoring Social Media

In general, avoid monitoring a specific employee’s social media accounts to watch for inappropriate comments. If you’re aware of a controversial comment, let that employee know how you plan to investigate and then review the situation with him or her. Then do exactly that.

When you follow up with the employee, get his or her side of the story. In some cases, the comment is so inflammatory that termination may be the only response. Other times, what the employee has to say may provide context that allows for lesser forms of discipline. Remember to be consistent and to follow up appropriately with everyone involved at the practice. As needed, update your social media policy and share it with all of your employees.

To view article on Today’s Veterinary Business, click here.

 

When Dream Team Employees Reach Pay Caps: Three Strategies to Use

Originally Published in Today’s Veterinary Business, March 2018

At your practice, let’s say you have the veterinary nurse of your dreams. Not only is she wonderful with the animals brought to the practice, she is compassionate with their owners. She communicates clearly with your clients; is highly experienced in necessary skills; is always on time; is willing to do her share and more; and avoids gossip, among numerous other positive traits. She is, without a doubt, a star-level veterinary nurse, one you’re extremely lucky to have on your team.

The problem? She is already receiving the maximum pay allowable in her range, according to your practice standards – and a nearby corporate practice is known for wooing away top talent. A cost of living increase is due soon, but that’s not going to make a significant difference in her pay. You may not have this exact same situation at your practice, but practices often face challenges that are very similar. If your practice is, what can you do?

Here are three possibilities, ones you can mix and match for your unique practice needs.

Strategy One: Double-check the Current Market

When is the last time you checked to see the going pay rate for, in this example, veterinary nurses? If it’s a been a while, it’s likely you’ll need to review the pay ranges you’re offering. As a starting point, review this chart of hourly pay amounts being offered in small animal companion practices, according to current key indicators. This is not an all-inclusive list. Rather, it’s step one to help you determine if your practice is on target with pay ranges or if you’ll need to consider some revisions.

Job Title Starting Hourly Compensation: Median Starting Hourly Compensation: 75th Percentile
Hospital Administrator $29.65 $35.10
Practice Manager $21.65 $22.80
Receptionist $12.00 $13.00
Credentialed Technician $15.00 $16.00
Veterinary Assistant $11.50 $12.50

 

How closely does your pay structure align with these figures? Where you live in the United States will likely affect the local rates paid, but this chart is a start. Is it possible to extend the upper range of your compensation rates to keep dream employees at your practice? Because the economy has remained strong for a while, the reality is that you may continue to lose your top talent if you can’t find ways to compensate them appropriately, and this unfortunate fact will continue to be true until the job market tightens. And, let’s face it. Your best employees will likely continue to find higher-paying opportunities, no matter the economic situation.

If you can’t offer a higher pay rate to a star employee, how you explain salary caps is crucial in your attempts to keep that employee at your practice, so be prepared to sit down and have an honest talk about your practice policies and budgets.

Also, be creative. Can you offer a one-time bonus to fill the gaps as you consider strategies two and three provided in this article? Can you formulate incentive pay structures for your team? This will help your star employees to add to their paychecks, and other employees may also become motivated by these incentives. Win/win!

Strategy Two: Career Opportunities

If you can’t offer more money for the person’s current job, consider what promotion opportunities exist for this employee within your practice and then talk to him or her about the possibilities. How does your star feel about the responsibilities involved in a new position? If the promotion will require more education and/or training, can you help to provide that – or at least do all you can provide a conducive work environment for this transition to happen?

Here, though, is an important caution. Let’s say a supervisory position is open at your practice and it would allow you to pay a star employee more than he or she is currently making. It’s easy to become enthusiastic about the idea of promoting this employee, but it’s also crucial to take your time throughout the promotion process for multiple reasons, including these two:

  1. You need to follow your practice’s standard policies and procedures each and every time you hire or promote.
  2. This new promotion may or may not fit your employee’s strengths. If it doesn’t, then not only have you promoted the wrong person, you’ve also taken a star team member out of the position where he or she was shining.

Whether you can or can’t employ strategies one and/or two in your practice, all practices should consider strategy number three.

Strategy Three: Creative Perks

What perks can you offer your employees? One of the most in-demand perks today is more flexible scheduling. And, while you may not be able to offer telecommuting to most of your employees, it may make all the difference in the world to your star employee if you re-arrange schedules so that he or she will have the flexibility to come in to work 30 minutes later in the morning – which allows him or her to see his or her children safely off to school. And/or, you can help to ensure that this employee can always take a lunch break when it’s time to pick up his or her children. In the relatively rare instances when telecommuting can work with a veterinary practice employee, this will likely be a treasured perk.

Caution: make sure you offer perks to all employees in a fair way. Although you do not need to offer the exact same perks to every employee, it’s crucial that you ensure you aren’t discriminating based on race or gender, as just one example. And, even if you aren’t providing perks in a discriminatory way, to keep office morale at a quality level, you also need to make sure you aren’t acting in a way that can reasonably be perceived as unfair. If you are unsure about what is legal, consult your attorney. If you’re unsure about what may cause other employees to lose heart, prioritize coming up with creative perks in the best way for your entire practice, including but not limited to your best employees.

What professional development perks can you offer? How can you help employees who take you up on bettering themselves and improving their skills to juggle all their demands? How can you relax dress codes to a degree that allows your employees flexibility while still keeping a professional look to your practice? In which instances can you allow employees to help choose the technology they will use at work?

When you ask your employees what perks are most important to them, how do they respond?

More about the Pay Plateau

Rather than waiting until a situation arises in which a top performer reaches his or her pay plateau, create a policy on how the situation will be handled and know what conversations you’ll need to have with that employee. How much information will you share about practice financials to help him or her understand why pay plateaus exist where they do?

Know ahead of time what options you can offer that employee (more flexible scheduling, incentive pay and the like), and be aware of those you should avoid. As in virtually every challenge, well thought-out policies and preparation are key.

Click Here for Link to the article Today’s Veterinary Business: https://todaysveterinarybusiness.com/put-on-your-thinking-cap/

Importance of a Practice Culture Audit – and How to Conduct One

If you’ve owned, managed or worked at a particular veterinary practice for any length of time, you may be so used to the workplace culture of the practice that you can’t effectively define it, much less analyze its strengths and weaknesses. If that’s the case, that’s perfectly normal. Having said that, it makes good sense for your practice to conduct a culture audit where you examine the assumptions, values and beliefs shared by people in the practice. This allows you to develop the healthiest culture possible for your practice, where the veterinary practice and individual members of the team can thrive and grow, and where the best service possible is offered to clients and their companion animals.

Organizational culture is comprised of all the elements of the environment of your veterinary practice. This includes the life experiences of each of the employees, along with how these experiences blend together – as well as how they clash. Add to this mix the influence of the veterinarians’ belief systems and life experiences, and the result is the practice’s culture.

People sometimes believe that culture is created through the spoken messages provided, including the policies stated by the veterinarians and the conversations occurring among employees. This is partly true, but culture is largely formed by unspoken messages received about what is valued by the practice. So, to improve the workplace culture, you need to appropriately change messages received by your veterinary team via spoken word but also by observing the behavior of employees at the practice, and determining what is considered acceptable. To change the culture, you’ll need to change the behaviors that are determined to not be acceptable.

For example, your policy handbook may say that gossip about clients is not permitted. But if, in reality, employees roll their eyes about clients and then laugh – and if that is allowed to continue to happen – then your culture is pro-gossip, not anti-gossip, even if no words are spoken.

This example also highlights the importance of performing a culture audit. At its core, a culture audit identifies messages conveyed, and then assesses whether they are the ones you want to be imparting and how consistent/inconsistent they are. This information will help to provide you with the insight you need to develop a healthier workplace culture.

Before You Begin an Audit: Authenticity Matters

As you begin to read more about workplace cultures, you will find ones that you admire – and ones that you don’t. It’s good to be able to identify what you want as part of your own culture (and what you don’t!). But, as the CEO and co-founder of UrbanBound, Michael Krasman, points out in a 2015 article titled Successful Entrepreneurs Understand the Importance of Company Culture, “Be true to who you are. Don’t define your company’s culture by the catchphrase of the day.” He also warns against creating a “grandiose vision and mission” that isn’t true to what you’re actually doing.

Performing a Culture Audit

You can gather information for your culture audit in multiple ways, and it’s more effective if you use more than one information-gathering method. To begin, it makes sense to simply observe your practice. Now that you’ve got a watchful eye, what are you noticing about the messages that are shared among team members and between them and your clients? Are they ones you want to impart?

You can also interview employees of the practice, both individually and as part of small focus groups. You can provide employees with surveys where they can choose to stay anonymous; if someone wants to share information with you but isn’t sure how you’d respond, he or she will most likely feel more comfortable with an anonymous survey.

It often makes sense to hire a consultant to get an impartial observer’s impressions. You are so close to what’s happening in your practice that it may be hard to be objective. This is especially true if your culture needs improved upon, but it can also be true with a practice where the workplace culture is largely positive and effective.

Throughout this process, notice how people are behaving. Note what they do and try to determine why they are doing what they do. What belief systems are driving their behaviors? As just one example, are they not trying to improve processes in the practice because they’re convinced that others won’t change what they’re currently doing? If so, how objectively true is that?

Assess the current procedures. How well do they dovetail with the verbal messages you are giving relevant team members? Perhaps, for example, you are telling your receptionist staff that nothing is more important than the client who is in front of them at the moment. That’s a great message – but if, in reality, you expect the same person to answer the phones while checking in the new clients, how realistic is it for him or her to provide a client with his or her undivided attention?

Take a good hard look at how you are using your finite resources, including time and money, and compare that against your ideal scenario. How close are you to the ideal? Where do disparities exist? Look at how you reward employees, how you develop them as leaders and how you promote them. This is not a comprehensive list by any means, but it should get you started.

Additional Questions to Ask Yourself

Consider what your communication style is, and whether you’re happy with it. Do you simply make announcements and expect your employees to run with it? Or do you solicit feedback and empower employees? What is your risk tolerance? Does your customer service style match your practice’s stated vision and values? How do your customers talk about your practice? Are you happy with what you hear? What is your competition doing well? Not so well?

Where to Go from Here

Once the audit is complete, you can then compare your ideal culture to today’s actual culture, and identify where gaps exist. Once those gaps are identified, then you can begin to create a plan to improve your practice’s culture so that it’s a healthy one, and one that serves the practice itself, the members of the team, and the clients and their companion animals well.

If you’re looking for an experienced professional consultant to help you with your practice’s culture audit, contact us online, email info@veterinarybusinessadvisors.com or call 908-823-4607.