Extracts from Chapter 6 (Continued)

The practice’s attitude to clients

In the middle years of this century, radio presenters working for the BBC were expected to wear evening dress when at the microphone, despite the self-evident fact that their listeners would never know what they were wearing. Common advice in training seminars on telephone manners is to always smile when speaking to clients.

Two examples of how getting the right attitude behind the scenes is important. What’s more, it works. If you feel disinclined to try the evening dress wheeze, then have a go at smiling the next time you talk to a client, or even your mother-in-law, on the phone. And once you have discovered that it does help you to be more pleasant, adopt this as normal procedure. Smiling is a tremendous way of improving your state of mind, whether on the phone, in the middle of a fiendishly tricky piece of surgery or meeting clients.

Imagine this scenario: you have had a busy night on call, the telephone bill arrived before you left home, one of your colleagues is off sick so you’ll be covering his duties as well. Before you see your first client, a new one to you, the receptionist says, ‘Mr Beast wants to see you this morning. He’s not happy with the way the treatment has been going.’ Glancing at the card you see a selection of the practice’s code acronyms or symbols which signify that the client is Satan in an anorak. You then open the consulting room door to call Mr Beast in. What chance does the poor client stand? You are primed to dislike him and to be on the defensive from the outset. He won’t get the opportunity to develop a relationship with you, and will continue to be a disgruntled client.

In every clientele there will be popular customers and unpopular ones. It is natural for staff to feel defensive or outraged when clients are short with them or raise complaints or question the treatment their pets receive. It is vital to learn to cope with these feelings, not to let them influence dealings with the public and not to let them prejudice staff against certain owners. All staff, including the veterinary personnel, should be discouraged from discussing clients in a derogatory manner, or from making fun of them. It all may seem harmless enough at the time, but such behaviour cannot help but influence you and them when they come to deal with these individuals. Avoid the siege mentality, the ‘them and us’ syndrome. Try to look upon your clients as your friends, as valuable allies in the practice’s quest to look after it’s animal patients.

Just as talking in an adverse way about a client will, probably unfairly, prejudice you against them, the use of codes on cards to ‘warn’ vets about certain clients should be discouraged. Even if someone fails to strike up a good relationship with one vet, it doesn’t follow that they will automatically clash with the next one they see. Give every new client you meet a chance. Don’t prejudge. And even if you find that they are not your cup of tea, there is never any harm in being pleasant, understanding and polite. Clients may be unpleasant or abrasive for many reasons. You should be prepared to understand this. They are in any case in a stressful situation – their pet is unwell, they are out of their home environment and they are going to have to part with money. They may have had a bad day. Their house may have dry rot. Someone might have just scratched the side of their new Mercedes. They may have suffered a bereavement. They may not have benefited from a bereavement. It matters not – what is important is that you are generous enough of spirit to appreciate that there are many reasons for being cantankerous, and there is no need to respond in kind. Even if a client is a genuine bad apple, keep on smiling. Believe me, it may take years, but persistent pleasantness will break down the hardest of hearts. There is a certain satisfaction to be had when you get the first smile or thanks from a particularly hard case.

Remember too that clients have a perfect right to complain. A practice should never be so blinkered as to ignore this fact. Complaints may be justified or spurious. Often they simply arise from misunderstandings. Learn to listen to them, consider them and address them. It may simply involve explaining a course of action to a worried client, or it may involve putting an error right. Always be prepared to accept that errors can be made. Even if you don’t always admit this to the client, don’t try to fool yourself. Dealing well with complaints will usually not only satisfy a client but bind them more firmly to your practice.

Take some time to sit in the waiting room and observe the way that the clinic handles clients. Encourage other staff to do the same thing. Get everyone to try and imagine how they would be dealt with if they were a client. If you can all honestly say that you are not just satisfied with the client handling, but that you would get positive feelings as a member of the public using the practice, then many congratulations.

Text © Carl Gorman 2000

Illustrations © Hayley Albrecht 2000