Maintaining Connections With Clients during COVID-19

A long time ago, my granddad told me that at least 50% of veterinary medicine was treating the people. What he meant was that the relationships practices build with clients are the gateway to treating patients. That's certainly something my team and I experience every day.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced practices to create extra barriers between pet owners and staff, leaving technology and phones to plug the gap. Making the best of these communication alternatives while continuing to refine safety protocols that protect team members' health will allow practices to sustain, and even grow, client relationships until operations can return to normal. My team has learned a lot in the last few months about building personal connections with pet owners despite the necessary safety protocols that limit face-to-face contact. Here's how to get started.

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Improve Verbal Communication

If you've ever tried to communicate a simple idea in an email or phone call, only to see the recipient get completely the wrong impression, you know how important nonverbal cues can be. Unfortunately, many of the safety precautions practices have taken have limited physical connections with pet owners. From curbside service where the doctor may never have an in-person conversation with a pet owner to face coverings that hide facial expressions, practices have lost many of the communication tools that were previously taken for granted. Keep the following recommendations in mind as you try to compensate for lost visual cues:

  • Remember that clients can't see your smile. Replace the welcome your face normally shows with a welcoming tone of voice.
  • Listen carefully. When you're in the room with someone, you can often spot confusion. When you're on the phone rather than face-to-face, listen for pauses, weak affirmations, or background conversations to ensure there's no miscommunication.
  • Approach interactions with empathy. If you can't see the client, you might not be sure how they feel. Be empathetic to how much harder remote communications are for them and be patient as everyone adjusts to the new normal.
  • Email or text estimates. Don't leave clients shocked by any charges on their invoices. Make sure the client has the line-by-line estimate in front of them as you explain each charge.
  • Share images and results digitally. People without a medical background may struggle to understand all the information in X-rays and other images and lab results without someone there to explain them in detail. Take advantage of your diagnostic provider's tools to share images and graphs digitally so you and the client are looking at the same thing as you walk through it.

Give your team a chance to understand how much nuance can be lost in remote communication. A condolence may come across as shallow or a joke be misunderstood. By sharing ideas among peers or reviewing call recordings, they can identify what doesn't work and brainstorm solutions.

Form Personal Connections

Almost every veterinary practice has competition, and pet owners have many options when it comes to care for their pets. While excellent medicine plays into a client's decision about which practice to choose, their personal interactions with the doctor and team are easier for them to assess. In other words, people come back to your practice because of the personal relationships you build.

With high call volumes clogging phone lines and tying up staff, it can be easy to forget the small things that make a client feel special. If you don't already, make sure you research the client before you start your interaction. Look for recent visits, other pets in the household, or maybe even notes you kept on previous conversations. Putting in an effort to get to know your client helps them trust you're looking after their pet while they can't be in the exam room with them. Starting an interaction by asking a client how their day is going or how they're feeling is even more important during this time of high stress. Pet owners need to feel you care about them even though they're not right in front of you.

For people new to your practice, personalizing interactions is even more important. Getting new loyal clients is difficult, so it's important to invest in keeping them. When meeting a new client for the first time, all team members, especially the doctors, should introduce themselves. Owners that can't picture their doctor will find them harder to remember. Share the same information that you would in an exam room, such as personal pets or experiences, to help them form that bond until you can meet them face-to-face.

Choose the Right Technology

In a perfect world, practices would have access to a solution as ubiquitous as telephones for video communication. The reality is that video calling is still relatively siloed, solutions don't interconnect well, and people may be reluctant to sign up for another service or download another app. I've found that my practice has to work with whichever software the client has access to, be that Skype, Facebook Messenger, FaceTime, Google Duo, or another product. This is certainly extra work for the practice but is an investment in minimizing the impact on clients. Keep in mind that video calls aren't the right solution for everything. If you normally communicate results by phone, that might still be the best method. If you use recorded calls to authorize treatment, keep doing that so your records are complete.

One other option to consider is a dedicated telemedicine platform. Telemedicine consolidates video calls, charge capture, and document sharing in one convenient location. When selecting a telemedicine provider, think about your process flow, how this will integrate with your existing practice management system, and how you can minimize any extra work involved in scheduling and note taking. A carefully selected and branded tool can help you stand out from other practices while offering a convenient solution for your team.

Above all, remember that COVID-19 is impacting your clients in many aspects of their lives. When they drop off their pet, they might be extra stressed, tired, and worried and looking for compassion and empathy. If veterinary practices can become partners throughout the process of adjusting to the new normal, helping pet owners through hard times rather than making their daily lives more difficult, they will remember and return even after the pandemic is over.

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Des Whittall
Practice Manager

Des Whittall is an owner and manager of two veterinary clinics and pet resorts in Texas. A software engineer by training, he worked with an investment bank for 13 years in roles ranging from technical support to business divestment, managing large international teams and complex vendor relationships. With his partner, he has grown the clinics and resorts and is focused on developing businesses that can provide high-quality medicine and development opportunities for their teams.

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