Client Frustrations: Too Many Puppies, Not Enough Appointments

Your veterinary practice needs new clients to maintain and grow your revenue, so you're likely eager to get all the new prospects you can. But running a practice during a pandemic is anything but normal — and with new client visits off the charts with puppies and newly rescued pets, most of us are dealing with an unfamiliar problem: Where can we fit them all in the schedule?

In a survey performed in February 2021 by IDEXX, approximately 30% of adopted pets went to new pet households and 12% of those were first-time pet owners. How can we help these clients, many of whom are interacting with the veterinary industry for the first time, to understand the current situation and be willing to wait for our services? If we handle these frustrated clients well from the start, we will hopefully gain loyal clients for the long haul.

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Adjust Your Schedule to Make Room

Many practices have safeguards in place to make sure there are appointments reserved for sick pets. During this time of increased volume, consider doing the same for new client slots. Although you may have to set a daily limit on the number of clients you schedule, make sure you block off times in the schedule just for new clients. Choose a color designation in your practice management system that is only for new visitors so it will be easily seen by team members when they're searching for an appointment slot. The team can quickly glance at the schedule and see where the new client slots are and when they are filled. Make sure that all team members are aware and on board with the system.

Also, create a plan for dealing with last-minute requests. At my practice, we block off times for same-day sick appointments, and those are typically used for current clients. However, if we end up with an unfilled sick slot that has not been claimed by a current client by noon that day, we will schedule that time with a newer client whose pet is ill. Create a waitlist for new clients that would be willing to come in to take any last-minute cancellations.

Set Clear Expectations and Be Empathetic

When that new client calls, full of excitement about their new puppy and anxious to get them checked out, it can be very hard to tell them that they have to wait. The reality is many new clients will likely be waiting a least a week, if not more, to get an appointment. Be very clear with prospective callers about your busy schedule and give a realistic time frame. Be sure to train your team to balance that reality with a large dose of empathy. It can be tempting to respond to a frustrated client with comments that they should be grateful you can get them in at all, but that won't smooth things over. Work with your team members to create thoughtful and empathetic scripts for dealing with impatient clients. Consider something like this: "I completely understand your frustration and we are frustrated too. We wish we could get all the puppies in right now as they certainly make our day brighter. Let's get you scheduled for our first available, and we will also put you on a list for cancellations. We'll be sure to call you if we can get you in sooner." A well-worded and empathetic response can quickly diffuse a tense situation.

Assure clients that once they are established with your practice, they are more likely to get in sooner for urgent needs as they will take precedence over newer clients. Take time to set the stage for the appointment, as well. Let them know that with precautions due to COVID-19, appointments are taking longer overall. Specify how long an appointment typically lasts. If they haven't been to a vet office for a while, it will not be the smooth process they remember from pre-pandemic days. Above all, thank them for their patience and let them know you can't wait to meet their new family member.

Reach Out Before the Appointment

Your team and practice management system likely do a good job of following up once a client has been to the practice, but making an effort to reach out before the visit can help create a bond before they even come in the door. Here are some best practices to consider:

  • Set up an automatic email to go out to newly scheduled clients with helpful welcome information.
  • Direct clients to your website or social media pages to search for information they might be looking for as new pet parents. They are going to search Google anyway, so make sure they know your practice is the place for accurate information. This could include new puppy and kitten handouts that they would normally get at their first visit.
  • Provide information about your referral partners so that they know who to turn to when you are not available.
  • Encourage them to call or email with questions they might have before the visit.
  • Designate a team member to handwrite a note welcoming the owner and their pet to the practice.

Above all, when communicating with new clients, emphasize how excited you are to meet them. It might be a wait to get through your doors, but they will hopefully see it's care worth waiting for.

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Julie Miles
DVM

Julie Miles graduated from Ohio State in 2006. Dr. Miles spent two and a half years working in private practice. She then joined Lighthouse Veterinary Personnel Services in 2009, where she worked as a relief veterinarian and manager for five years. In 2014, she opened Compassionate Care Animal Hospital, which has grown into a two doctor practice. Her professional interests include client communications, preventative care, dentistry, and feline medicine. She and her husband, Dale, have two boys, Henry and Evan. In a previous life, she earned her Master's of Social Work and worked in crisis intervention and discharge planning. Some days that degree is more helpful than her DVM.

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