You hire staff who know animals, but do your people know people? What happens at the front of your practice, as well as in the treatment room, is vital to customer trust, animals’ wellbeing—and, ultimately, your bottom line, writes Merran White
Vet clinics may be all about animal care, but how your staff treat people—on the phone, at reception and in the examination room—is a key component of any successful practice.
“Most of us enter the profession because of a love of animals but at the end of the day, pet owners are our clients, so developing people skills is highly important,” says Dr Amy Lingard, feline medicine specialist and co-owner of the Cat Clinic in Melbourne.
Well-rounded veterinary professionals value ‘soft’ (managerial and people) skills as well as ‘hard’ (clinical) ones, contends the Australian Veterinary Association. “If you are going to be successful in your veterinary career… you need to [focus] on developing both,” states an AVA spokesperson.
“The importance of learning how to empathise with others, to build trusting and respectful relationships and to communicate well cannot be underestimated.”
This is especially true in large, busy practices. For Tegan McPherson, head of People and Culture at RSPCA Victoria, hiring staff with well-honed soft skills helps ensure things run smoothly—for customers, and behind the scenes.
“When recruiting for positions within our clinic, ‘people skills’ are a key component of what we look for,” she says.
“The ability to build effective relationships with clients, strong communications skills—written and verbal—and a sound teamwork ethic all contribute to an effective working environment.”
The best ‘people people’
“Clients are our gateway to helping pets,” says Amy Brewerton, who has been head nurse at Johnston Street Veterinarian Clinic in inner-city Melbourne since the practice was established in 2011. “Since pets can’t speak, vet practice staff must have great customer service and interpersonal skills to enable good relationships between owners and the clinic.”
As front-of-house staff are the first point of contact for clients, “it’s imperative they’re friendly, approachable and knowledgeable”, Brewerton says. “Because this initial experience is usually what impacts clients’ opinions about the clinic most.”
Vets and vet nurses also need people skills, including the ability to establish rapport, inspire confidence and trust, express empathy, and explain diagnoses, treatment options and follow-up instructions clearly.
Dr Sally Coggins, a feline vet at the Cat Clinic, says, “The role of veterinarians and ancillary staff is to interpret what’s wrong with the patient, make a professional assessment as to the best course of action, and communicate this with the owner—empowering them to make informed decisions about their pet’s care.
“Poor communication skills or a poor ‘bedside manner’ obstruct this process. You can be the smartest vet around, but if you can’t communicate effectively with owners, you can’t provide the best level of care for animals.”
Effective communication in the form of “clear, sensitive interactions characterised by trust, respect and empathy” can improve diagnostic accuracy, client compliance and health outcomes for pets,” contends Lingard.
“By gaining trust and respect, clients are more willing to follow diagnostic and treatment recommendations, which ultimately results in their pets receiving the best care—as well as improving the practice’s bottom line.”
Conversely, staff lacking well-honed people skills can undermine patient outcomes and prompt owners to take their pets—and wallets—elsewhere.
“On the occasion we are presented with a cat for a second opinion, often the reason that the client has sought another opinion is because of a perceived lack of empathy or poor communication regarding their cat’s health management,” says Lingard.
Dealing with difficult emotions
“It’s not uncommon for veterinary staff to be dealing with owners who are understandably anxious, distressed, in shock or grieving,” Coggins notes. “Being able to read and connect with people is very important.
“A veterinary team that can demonstrate empathy and patience and provide clear communication is paramount to ensuring owners are supported and in the best position to make the right decisions for their pets.”
Exercising such skills is especially critical when clients face difficult decisions, adds Brewerton. “Pets are part of the family, so when sickness, tragedy and stressful events happen, it’s our role not only to support animals medically, but to support their owners and families.”
Vet practice staff deal with a lot of grief, which can be difficult, she admits. “But we pride ourselves on being available to our clients, providing contacts for grief counselling as well as chats, house calls and hugs.”
Learning people skills
Though vets receive comprehensive training in diagnosis, treatment and care of animals, most get far less formal guidance on the ‘people’ parts of the job.
“Where actual teaching occurs, it usually focuses on medical knowledge and clinical care, with little emphasis on the importance of learning how to talk and listen to clients,” says Lingard.
While entry remains tied to academic performance, people skills are now part of many veterinary courses.
Coggins, who graduated from vet school almost a decade ago, says communication skills and training in dealing with stressful and difficult situations were an important part of her undergraduate training.
“I feel the profession’s aware of their importance,” she says. “Unfortunately, these skills are often difficult to teach and come with experience.”
“You can be the smartest vet around, but if you can’t communicate with owners, you can’t provide the best level of care for animals.”—Dr Sally Coggins, the Cat Clinic
Brewerton’s veterinary nursing course included “extensive” customer service training. “However, theory can never really prepare you for the real thing,” she says.
She believes placements should be extended to allow student vets and nurses more hands-on work in clinics “to experience ‘real-life’ situations.
“Many people don’t realise that, yes, you spend time with animals, but you still deal with clients most of the time.”
According to Lingard, most vet students hone their people skills via informal learning—observing others. Such “experiential training allows students to learn and practise communication techniques in a ‘safe’ setting”.
For many of the students, it is also their first practical lesson on the importance of people skills in