First impressions last which is why the role of the veterinary receptionist is of critical importance, as Tracey Porter discovers.
There are few jobs in the veterinary sector that carry as much weight as that of a frontline receptionist.
While, as a general rule, they do not require the technical proficiency of a veterinary surgeon nor the intimate physiological knowledge of an anaesthetist, the job of veterinary receptionist brings with it an assortment of challenging tasks incorporating everything from accepting payment through to ensuring the health and welfare of both the sick or injured animal as well as those who love them.
To this end, time and experience have taught Lisa Scheepers all she needs to know about what distinguishes an ordinary veterinary clinic receptionist from an exceptional one.
In her role as both co-owner and practice manager at the Port Adelaide Veterinary Clinic, it has fallen to Scheepers to ensure the frontline reception staff at her practice have both the skills and aptitude necessary to fulfil their duties while also ensuring the practice’s hard-won reputation for providing first class treatment to both clients and their pets continues to be upheld.
In addition to a solid foundation in core customer service skills, she agrees veterinary reception staff should have empathy, patience and at the very least, a good nursing knowledge to be able to provide frontline client advice and make appropriate triage decisions for patient care.
Scheepers, who has run the busy Ethelton practice alongside husband Shaun for the past 10 years, says while it is generally not considered a high turnover position, the first thing she and her team look for when seeking to bolster the clinic’s frontline support is the tone and energy of the applicant’s greeting together with their overall ability to communicate.
Other key traits include the ability to take responsibility for their actions, a demonstrated willingness to train, grow, change, adapt (irrespective of experience or qualification); the ability to adhere to the clinic’s core values of consistency, attention to detail, care and shared responsibility, and proven problem-solving skills and initiative.
“I would think you would do your practice a very, very big disservice by putting your junior staff on reception.”—Lisa Scheepers, co-owner, Port Adelaide Veterinary Clinic
Another key consideration is how much value the chosen receptionist can add to the conversation, she says.
“One of the things we find is that generally the first question a customer will ask when they ring up is ‘How much does it cost?’ They ask this because this is the only question they know how to ask. They don’t know enough to enquire about details such as the brand of drug our anaesthetist uses.”
It is partly for this reason their clinic, which has between 2000 and 3000 active clients, currently employs four dedicated receptionist staff. Scheepers says the management team have made a conscious decision to ensure not all reception staff are junior vet nurses.
She says it can potentially cost a veterinary business up to $30,000 in lost revenue if an incorrect appointment is made.
“I would think you would do your practice a very, very big disservice by putting your junior staff on reception. As a business owner, I look at it like this—you are potentially risking thousands of dollars by missing opportunities to convert phone call enquiries into appointments.”
Since building ongoing and remarkable relationships with current and prospective clients is one of the core responsibilities of the reception team at Port Adelaide Veterinary Clinic, each team member is issued with a ‘reception protocol’ outlining everything from the way clients should be attended to, to how feedback should be dealt with.
In taking a team approach to client service, the clinic also expects other staff besides those on reception to answer incoming calls.
“The ability to give patient care and nursing advice and guidance while helping manage bookings, enquiries, accounts and general reception duties reduces reliance on other team members to provide service to the client.”—Natalie Woolley, academic director, Australian College of Veterinary Nursing
“We look for our receptionists to attend to calls within three rings [but that can prove] challenging in a hectic period. If the phone rings four times and you’re vet nursing in the treatment room then we like you to pick up the phone. If the phone rings five times and everyone else is busy then it would fall to myself as practice manager to pick up the phone. If the phone rings six times then I would expect one of our vets to take the call.”
But in this practice, as in many others, a pleasant telephone manner is one of a vast number of core skills required to efficiently carry out vet reception work with exceptional time management, coordination and critical thinking/problem-solving skills paramount.
It is partly for this reason Natalie Woolley, academic director at the privately run Australian College of Veterinary Nursing, argues that all veterinary nurses should be taught and practise customer service and reception skill sets throughout their career.
She says reception skills don’t occur just at the front counter, and internal customer service is just as important as external. Indeed, such is the importance of the role that all certificate level qualifications offered by the college now include some form of receptionist skill sets as these are now critical to the role of a well-rounded veterinary nurse.
“Most clinics prefer new nurses to start out in the treatment area to preserve a high level of client service in the front of the clinic,” Woolley says. “For this reason, we include communication and customer service in our Cert II and III qualifications, with a strong focus on developing nursing skills. This allows the student to develop their nursing vocational skills and knowledge as a primary focus. Once they have mastered this and move into the Cert IV, they are ready to commence intensive training on reception to build their customer service and reception/office skill sets while maintaining a high level of client service for the clinic.”
While veterinary receptionist duties will vary from practice to practice, Woolley argues that by selecting qualified vet nurses, as opposed to experienced clerical staff to man the front desk, vet clinics are able to provide a better, streamlined holistic service to their clients.
“The ability to give patient care and nursing advice and guidance while helping manage bookings, enquiries, accounts and general reception duties reduces reliance on other team members to provide service to the client. This reduces waiting times for enquiries and can improve customer satisfaction,” she says.