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?

Staff Training: Teaching, Motivating and Developing Your Team

In the past, some companies offered staff training at two times only: when someone was new to the company and when a problem arose that they wanted to correct. The value of training is so much greater than orientation and problem solving, and today’s companies are more likely to utilize a form of ongoing education, allowing practices to build much more motivated, educated and proactive teams.

The most effective trainings are ones that truly engage your employees, so the quality of what you offer and the topics you choose are of prime importance. It’s also recommended to make a comprehensive, well developed training program, consistently provided, rather than sporadically offering trainings when someone comes up with an idea.

This article will share ways to create a staff training program that truly adds value to your practice and genuinely teaches, motivates and develops your team.

Orientation Training

This is a crucial element of your overall training program because this is when you can share policies and procedures with your new employee; have him or her receive and sign for an employee manual; discuss company culture with your new hire; answer any questions he or she might have; and so much more.

This is the single best time to effectively onboard your new team member, aligning him or her to your practice’s goals and values. Plus, as you consistently onboard each new employee in the same way, this can significantly help in creating a shared team vision, and can go a long way in preventing a conflict of significance from building.

This is also when you can discuss job responsibilities and timelines, along with who reports to whom, where to go for help, and so forth. If you’re going to pair your new employee with a mentor with more experience at your practice, this would be a good time to introduce them and set goals. At your orientation training, you can also share details about your ongoing training program for practice employees.

Ongoing Training Programs

Next, continuing education can be a combination of the following:

  • reviews of the policies and procedures of your practice; this could be, for example, an annual review of the entire employee handbook or reviews of specific sections of it at select times of the year
  • training in new technologies such as your practice software, or with new equipment used to care for animals
  • seminars on topics like active listening, conflict resolution, sexual harassment prevention, leadership development, effective communication, diversity, customer engagement, and productivity

In some instances, members of your practice could lead the training. Other times, bringing in an expert who doesn’t work at the practice can add variety and a valuable outside perspective. Sometimes, this expert could be from another veterinary practice, and he or she can share how his or her workplace successfully handles an aspect of work. Or, the person might not be from the veterinary industry, at all; rather, he or she may be in expert in social media strategies, ones that can be applicable to growing your practice.

As you plan and schedule these trainings, it can be helpful to determine whether you are focusing on enhancing the technical skills of team members or assisting in their personal development—or some of both. The advantage of a combination approach is that your employees will become more educated while also improving upon their critical thinking and problem-solving skills; employees with this range of abilities are more likely to come up with creative solutions to challenges and forward new ideas to consider.

Each practice will, to some degree, have differing needs and goals. As just one example, if employees in your practice are already polished in their writing skills, it would be less likely that you would focus on business writing trainings, whereas, another practice may have employees who need writing enhancement. Conversely, the other practice may have employees who are quite technologically-savvy, while perhaps some of your employees could use supplementary training in software use. Determine what skill gaps exist and fill them.

It can help to partner with relevant associations and community organizations with resources that provide what you’re looking for in employee training. Also, consider asking your employees what they’d like to see in educational opportunities at your practice. You can do an anonymous survey or hold a meeting to discuss possibilities.

You might decide to hold your trainings once a month, perhaps shorter lunch-and-learn sessions, or as breakfast meetings. It’s often better to have shorter trainings more often, rather than longer trainings every once in a while. Do your best to minimize distractions during the trainings so that employees can focus on learning, although this isn’t always possible at a veterinary hospital. There could be a dog needing emergency surgery that arrives in the middle of your lunchtime meeting, but make it a goal to allow employees to truly focus on training materials.

Also, make it fun! Nobody wants to hear lectures that drone on and on, so incorporate movement and interaction, as it makes sense. What about role playing? Turning certain topics into games? Not every single topic will lend itself to a light approach, but it’s surprising how many really can.

Using the Power of Technology

Consider also mixing in some computer-based trainings. For example, there could be a valuable conference going on that was too expensive or too far away for your employees to attend, but you may be able to access it livestreamed, either free or for an affordable fee. Other times, you can buy video recordings of these trainings and use them to educate your employees.

With today’s technology, it’s much easier and cost effective than it used to be to create your own customized trainings. Perhaps you could create an orientation video for new employees that specifically targets your practices policies, work culture, and benefits. You could also highlight the special expertise of the veterinarians, managers or other employees at your practice. Your videos may even become in demand by other practices in need of your knowledge and experience.

Pay attention to how well online trainings work for your employees. Some people learn well from computer learning while others do much better when sitting face-to-face with a teacher. Over time, you’ll discover what mixture works best for your practice.

After a Training Ends

Training shouldn’t take place in a vacuum. It won’t do your practice any good if you provide an excellent training on something such as handling especially fearful animals—and then, because you’re busy, not use the new ideas for calming them down due to time constraints. If something is important enough to become part of a staff training, then it should be important enough to incorporate into your work routines. Managers should be a role model for these behaviors.

Get feedback about trainings from your employees. You could ask them to fill out a brief survey after each session, while their memories are still fresh; and when you’re planning the next year’s trainings, you could ask employees to rate which ones have been the most helpful over the past year. Also, consider asking your skilled employees to lead your trainings.

The Bottom Line

As you enhance the skills, both hard and soft, of your veterinary team, you’ll likely improve the efficiency of your practice, which can boost your profits. More profitable practices can pay their employees a higher wage and offer better benefits. So, it would be accurate to say that training your staff can both grow your practice and serve as a recruitment and retention tool.

Should You Invest in Training and Career Development for Your Employees?

Should you invest in employee training and career development while we are still waiting for the economy to turn around?  Despite economic uncertainty, business savvy Practice Owners know that learning matters and is the key to survival, recovery and future growth.  What are the factors that influence a Practice’s need for providing training/career development?

  • Work environment and workflow changes.
  • The need for different types of jobs.
  • Advancements in technology.
  • Limited opportunity for advancement without certain skills.
  • Organizational philosophy and culture.

Aligning training and career development plans with the strategic goals of the organization is a win-win for all concerned.  A career development path provides employees with an ongoing mechanism to enhance their skills and knowledge, which leads to mastering their jobs and enhancing professional development. Creating a career development path increases employee engagement (a critical driver of business success) and has a direct impact on the entire Practice by improving morale, job/career satisfaction, motivation, retention, productivity, and responsiveness in meeting the Practice’s short term, as well as, long term business objectives. All of these factors have a positive impact on the Practice’s bottom line.

Do you know what really motivates today’s employees?  The top three internal motivators that provide deep personal satisfaction are as follows:

  • Autonomy – the amount of control and discretion in how the work is performed (focus is on the outcomes/results, not the process; decision making)
  • Mastery – to become more efficient and effective at performing a task (the opportunity to learn; teach and educate)
  • Purpose –  the desire to support something larger than ourselves (achieving personal goals, your ‘passion’ in life)

How would you rate job satisfaction at your Practice? Do your employees experience enjoyment as a result of performing the work itself?  Would the following top drivers for job satisfaction be available within your organization?

  • Opportunities to apply one’s talents?
  • Opportunities to succeed?
  • Opportunities to learn?

An additional benefit of investing in training and career development reinforces to your employees that the Practice is concerned with their well-being by providing an avenue to reach individual, personal career goals while growing the Practice.

You may have been thinking about this value proposition of investing in training/career development for your employees and your Practice and wondering what major elements need to be addressed. When framing the dimensions of creating training and career development plans, you should follow these guidelines:

  • Review the Practice’s functional organization chart in support of your mission statement and goals.
    • Analyze the needs of the Practice – do you have the right skill sets in the right positions to advance and sustain your business?
    • Do your employees have the requirements to meet the challenges or are there gaps in their skill levels to perform current or future positions?
    • Are you developing high potential (‘A’ players) employees for your bench strength succession planning?
  • Determine the employee development budget.
    • Plan a realistic budget in which you use internal resources, such as cross-training or web based training (lower costs, convenience).
    • Evaluate the need for specialized training and its impact on the bottom line.
    • Don’t forget competency training that does not necessarily involve technical skills.
  • Create a career development plan for the employee with information obtained in active, participatory discussions with the employee in line with the needs of the Practice.
    • Prepare large but attainable goals with established timeframes to meet the goals.
    • Establish the resources that will be needed in order to reach the goals.
    • Consider impact on staffing so that employees have the opportunity to receive the training/education (don’t plan empty actions).
    • Link the goals to the employee’s performance appraisal (essential component of performance reviews is employee development).
    • Consistently encourage employees to achieve and demonstrate established goals (give him/her the opportunity to use the new skill set).
  • Determine the types of tools/resources that could be used for development purposes (be creative).
    • On the job training.
    • Certification training.
    • E-learning/online training, webcasts.
    • CE, Seminars.
    • Cross-training, lunch & learns, knowledge sharing.
    • Mentoring.
    • Job rotation.
    • Internships, externships.
  • Monitor the employee’s performance in order to evaluate and provide feedback on knowledge gain and skill mastery.
    • Supervisors/Managers are accountable for planning/supporting the employee’s need for time off and the use of other avenues to assist the employee in achieving individual goals as well as the Practice’s goals.

Training and career development are strategic drivers for your Practices’ growth. Think about it as a positive, joint venture. The Practice reaps the benefit of an enhanced expertise that was not in place before and which allows the operations to function more efficiently. At the same time, the employee has satisfied an internal motivator.

State-Law Savvy: How to Find and Follow State Employment Laws

Employment laws have been created to protect workers from wrongdoing in the workplace, addressing issues such as the following:

  • minimum wage requirements
  • protection from discrimination
  • workplace safety
  • child labor laws
  • workers’ compensation

These laws have been constructed to protect both the employee and the employer. In the United States, the relationship between employer and employee is known as a “master-servant” situation because the employee is expected to perform specified duties under the auspices of the employer. Labor laws have been created to prevent employers from abusing their power. These laws continue to be created and modified with the changing times.

Two good examples of employment laws created to balance the master-servant relationship include the following:

  • Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)
  • Age Discrimination in Employment Act

They aren’t the only laws providing this balance, but are good examples of the kinds of laws created to help ensure that employers cannot discriminate against their employees or otherwise abuse their position. The goal is not to create laws that simply favor the employee over the employers, but to create a more balanced and equal relationship. For example, employers are protected in that if they don’t believe a person is capable of doing a particular job, they are not required to hire the person. They also do not have  to keep someone indefinitely who isn’t performing to a reasonably-established standard.

There are federal laws addressing each of these topics, and states also make their own laws, as well. States cannot create laws that contradict existing federal laws, and if no relevant state law exists, then the corresponding federal rule applies.

Next, we will address state laws in two different but equally important ways:

  • how to discover what the laws are in your state
  • how to best follow those state-specific laws

Finding State-Specific Employment Law Information

You can find answers to questions about employment law, in general, through the United States Department of Labor. There are also links to state-specific law information. Ways to contact this federal agency include:

U.S. Department of Labor
AGENCY NAME
OFFICE NUMBER

200 Constitution Ave NW
Washington, DC 20210

The U.S. Department of Labor may direct you to an agency in your own state to get the state-specific answers you need, so you will often find answers more quickly by going directly to your State Labor Office; you can find a comprehensive contact list here: https://www.dol.gov/whd/contacts/state_of.htm

Another way to find this information is to talk to an attorney well versed in your state’s employment laws. This is often the best way to understand how a particular law applies to your specific situation.

Following State-Specific Employment Laws

Step one to following any law, of course, is to thoroughly understand that law and its implications. You will also need to investigate how your specific situation fits into applicable laws.

Here’s just one example of an employment law that differs from state to state: final paycheck laws. Because the FLSA does not address this issue at all, you need to look to state laws to find out how and when you must issue a final paycheck to an employee leaving your practice. Does it matter, for example, whether the employee was fired or if he or she quit? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, no. It depends upon the law in your state.

Regarding finally paychecks, four states currently have varying laws on this topic: Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi. In Missouri, no law exists about when you must give a final paycheck to an employee who quits, but a fired one must receive it immediately. In Ohio, no state law dictates when a fired employee gets his or her last paycheck, but one who quits must receive it by the first day of the month for wages earned in the first half of the prior month, or on the fifteenth of the month if wages were earned in the second half of the previous month.

So, by examining just one state employment law in six different states, it’s easy to see the wide variety inherent in today’s laws. When someone leaves your practice, how vacation time payout is handled is also subject to varying state laws. Some states have no laws whatsoever on the subject. Others say accrued vacation time must be paid out, while others state that it must be paid out if the employee agrees to certain conditions—and, for example, in Maryland, employers can create a written policy that states they don’t pay out for accrued vacation at all. If employees are notified of this policy when first hired, this policy can stand.

Here’s an example of one type of employment law that is covered by federal law, in which a state is allowed to offer more to employees, but not less: minimum wage laws. You can find information about each state’s laws at the U.S. Department of Labor’s site (https://www.dol.gov/whd/minwage/america.htm) via a color-coded map that indicates how that state’s laws compare to the federal standard. Hover your mouse over your state to see the current rate for you and click on your state to find more detailed information about applicable laws.

For example, in 2018, the federal wage law is $7.25. Click on Nevada in the map described above, and you can see that they have established a two-tiered system. If an employer doesn’t offer health insurance benefits, the minimum wage is $8.25, with premium pay required on days that exceed eight hours or weeks that exceed 40. However, if the employer does offer health insurance benefits and the employee accepts them, then the minimum wage is the same as the federal rate of $7.25.

Meanwhile in Missouri, they have established a minimum wage rate of $7.85, with no daily premium pay requirements, and premium pay is only required if an employee works more than 40 hours per week. Employees who work for a retail or service business with gross annual sales of less than half a million dollars per year, though, are not required to receive more than the federal minimum wage rate. And, if an employee works in a “seasonal amusement or recreation” business, premium pay is not required until “after 52 hours.”

In Arizona, the minimum wage is $10.50 per hour. In Oregon, it is $10.75, with premium pay after 40 hours – and, if someone works in “nonfarm canneries, driers, or packing plants and in mills, factories or manufacturing establishments (excluding sawmills, planning mills, shingle mills, and logging camps)”, premium pay is required after ten hours in a day.

Not all examples apply to veterinary practices, of course, and the point of these examples is to show how widely state laws can vary. So, it’s wise to fully use the resources available to you through government offices and websites and, when needed, through advice of employment attorneys. Laws can change, so make sure that your practice is state-savvy for this year’s laws.

Following State Laws: Vital for Practice Success

Because employment laws are created to help maintain a healthy balance between employer and employee, carefully following them helps you to create and/or maintain a healthy work environment for everyone in the practice. Conversely, by not following these laws, you’ll open your practice up to a significant risk for lawsuits.