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The importance of communication and getting the client experience right

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01 December 2015, at 12:00am

DAVID GRANT presents the first half of a report from the Southern European Veterinary Conference, held from 15th to 17th October in Barcelona, this time looking at an American’s advice for practices to grow

BARCELONA is a great place to hold a congress, especially in October when the sun usually shines and it isn’t too hot. This year was no exception with temperatures around 22°C. There had been some rain about but it held off.

The conference centre was at the Fira de Barcelona with some nice views. The conference itself was a multiple affair this year. In addition to being the 9th joint venture of AVEPA (the Spanish version of BSAVA) with the North American Veterinary Community (NAVC) it was the 12th congress of FIAVAC from South America and the 21st FECAVA conference.

My initial thought was that it must have taken some organising but, this being Catalonia, it all went very well. A dynamic work ethic, typical of the Catalans, was evident with lectures starting at 8.30am, no surprise there, but going on until 7.30 in the evening.

As with other major conferences there were seven simultaneous streams going on with most disciplines covered – oncologic surgery, dermatology, ophthalmology, behaviour, internal medicine, feline medicine and practice management among many others. There was also a full two-day nursing programme.

The majority of the lectures were in English although I counted up to 50 in Spanish with simultaneous translation into English.

The quality of the simultaneous translation was variable with some of my colleagues commenting on the translators getting behind with a few talks. I don’t know whether these translators were fully briefed with transcripts of the talks but I also felt sympathy for them with the very rapid delivery of some of the speakers.

Of course when you have lecturers who feel passionate about their subject they tend to steam ahead – Ernie Ward being a good example.

I had heard him speak in Birmingham recently and had enjoyed what he had to say so I attended his lecture entitled 5 ways to grow your clinic in 2016 and beyond. For this his wife, an expert herself in practice management, joined him, as he wasn’t sure whether his voice would hold out. In the event it did but the double act also worked well.

In spite of a throaty voice, Ernie really went for it and a huge amount of information followed, with the translators struggling. In the American style there were lots of sound bites, such as “Your future is created by what you do TODAY, not tomorrow.” Another one was “Don’t close the door if you didn’t know what you made that day.”

He maintains that you should have a plan, a strategy with written goals. He also values the use of social media such as Facebook.

Statistics on gross expenditure on pets in the USA were detailed. In 1994 this amounted to $17 billion and by 2014 it had increased to $58.51 billion, with the veterinary sector getting less than a third of this sum. Food amounted to $22.62 billion, which he sees as a big opportunity.

The client experience

The bulk of his talk, however, revolved around the client experience, from walking into the clinic to leaving, having paid the bill.

The emphasis was on very good communication and training of all the staff, from the receptionist at initial contact to the veterinary surgeon, to the nurse and then handing over back to the receptionist/nurse responsible for discharging the pet.

Whoever discharges the pet should not be in the dark and know exactly what has been done. So how are the staff trained? Very thoroughly is the answer.

They cannot be trained properly unless potential problems are known about. This requires monitoring – something that might surprise some.

Ernie advocates having baby monitors strategically placed around the clinic. In this way he can periodically listen and see what is going on. Big brother perhaps, but how can you rectify poor communication unless you see it in action for yourself?

For example, veterinary surgeons are expected to do full physical examinations on all patients and explain what and why they are doing this. Is the vet maintaining eye contact with the client while explaining things?

The worse crime is to leave the client on their own in the consultation room (described as “death”). This is because by monitoring clients in these situations they will frequently get on their mobiles to get a second opinion from Dr Google. They also don’t know what’s going on and when the vet might return – five minutes may seem an eternity.

All the staff go through full weekby-week induction training. Ernie displayed the sheet used for the receptionist. Nothing is left to chance, beginning with how to unlock and lock doors, make coffee (!), and the importance of knowing which client is due next, the name of the pet and what their problem is.

The receptionist then greets the client and the pet by name while showing sympathy, if required, for whatever the problem (sore ear, off food) is perceived to be.

There are lots of other initiatives: role-playing, videotaping and feedback all designed to get communication in the practice to the highest levels. The appointment to bill the client was the final most important part of the process – requiring further training in how to talk about money and not to feel the need to apologise about the bill.

The talk continued with initiatives designed to maximise healthcare such as parasite control and health checks. These are factored in right from the start with a two-year pet care plan and scheduled appointments. Clients quickly accept these as the norm. From this side of the Atlantic it could be easy to be dismissive about some of Ernie’s ideas – particularly the baby monitors.

It seemed to me, however, that anyone who stuck with the intensive training would be far better for it whatever their role in the practice.