We all have those demanding clients, for whom nothing we do seems enough. We know there is nothing more we can do for her pet, but she seems quite unwilling to accept this. We think she is being unreasonable. “I’ve bent over backwards for this client, but all she does is complain,” we may inwardly mutter.
What would you say if I said it could be your fault?
It’s hard to imagine, I know, but in reality an unhappy client is usually the result of undefined or mismatched expectations between you and your client.
It is important that we have satisfied clients because word of mouth is a huge part of our business. One dissatisfied client will talk to ten people about their poor service, while it takes five satisfied people to obtain one good recommendation. Unhappy clients pull our business down.
The Client’s Experience is King
Satisfaction is often a measure of the client’s perception of the quality of treatment they and their pet receive. If a client walks out feeling satisfied, they will hold onto the perception that the service was of a high quality; if they leave feeling frustrated, they will recall the experience as one of poor service.
In other words, your client’s experience is the basis of how you will be judged. Your clients cannot judge you on your veterinary rehabilitation skills because they don't have the knowledge to know whether what you do is correct or incorrect. They have only their experience to base a judgment on. Our job, as astute veterinary rehabilitation therapists, is to keep that knowledge uppermost in our minds. The client’s experience is king.
And the client’s experience is based largely on their expectations.
I always ask my clients at the initial consult what their expectations and hopes are for their pet. This is important, as we need to manage those expectations from the very beginning. If the client’s expectations are unrealistic then they need to be told this from the outset, not at the end.
Don’t promise the world
Always under-promise and over-deliver. This is difficult because we are often a client’s last hope. If there is hope, we want to give it to them. However, clients need to understand that there are many factors that influence how a body heals. Pets with similar conditions can heal differently from one another. Often we don’t even have a diagnosis. A paralysed dachshund, for example, came to me for treatment without having had an MRI or surgery. I had no way of knowing the severity of the spinal cord damage, or whether single or multiple discs were involved. In situations like these, I help my clients understand what I’m up against by referring to human bodies and human hospitals. An accurate prognosis is usually based on a correct diagnosis. If we don't have a diagnosis we can only update our prognosis as we see improvements in the clinical signs. We cannot promise much at the beginning; the client needs to know why.
Consistency, Consistency, Consistency
Your clients’ experiences need to be consistent. If the service you are offering is not consistent, you open yourself up to dissatisfied clients.
A Cup of Tea:
Initially a client may be impressed by your service, as it far exceeds their expectation. Perhaps they were offered a cup of tea on their first couple of visits. After a while they start to expect that cup of tea, and look forward to it during a busy day.
Then comes the day when you are short staffed, and there is no one to offer your client tea. Most clients would be understanding in this regard, yet a sense of disappointment may register.
Hot Air Drying:
Another example would be the use of the underwater treadmill. Perhaps one of your staff normally takes the pet to the drying quarters to be hot air dried after exercising on the treadmill. The client becomes used to this level of service. One day a new staff member, still learning the ropes, forgets to do this, and now your client is peeved because she has to put her wet dog into her brand new BMW. A level of dissatisfaction registers.
Have a System:
This all boils down to something I discussed in a previous business blog: systems. If you have a documented system for everything in your practice, the client will receive the same consistently great service, time after time.
Consistency builds trust and with it, your reputation. It will also make your practice more productive. Your aim should be to consistently provide a level of service where every client is satisfied, every time.
One of the most important skills in client services is communication. This is usually where it all goes wrong.
Be an Active Listener:
It starts with you. Be a good listener. Ask your client the relevant questions to understand what they hope to achieve. What is their desired outcome? Some people are really poor at communicating, and so I encourage you to make it a habit to repeat back what you have heard and ask the client to confirm if what you have said is correct. This way, no mixed messages remain; you will understand your client’s hopes and expectations from the beginning, and your client will feel heard.
Always be honest. We cannot give clients guarantees, as we cannot predict how a pet will heal and what a pet may do when out of our care. Measurable outcomes will help; use goniometry readings, muscle mass, weight bearing ability, etc., to show a client how their pet is progressing.
Keep your own communication style clear, pleasant, professional and positive. It need hardly be said that scolding an employee in front of a client is out, as is chatting about personal matters with an assistant while attending to someone’s pet. Show yourself a consummate professional, and maintain a strong line of communication with your client and their pet; a good manner goes a long way.
Work According to Plan:
Always have a treatment plan. Decide on the length of time you will treat each animal, and know what level of improvement you hope to see at the close of it. This gives you a basis for communication with your client.
At the very first consult, explain to your client that the treatment plan may have to be adapted as you progress, and will depend on outcomes. Tell them that you will keep them informed of any changes that need to be made before they are made, and then do so.
Before each treatment, ask the owner how the pet is doing at home, and after each treatment, update them regarding progress. This gives the owner a sense of being part of the healing team.
As treatment progresses, keep communicating with the client. If you don’t see the improvement you hoped for, tell them this, giving a clear explanation – if you can. If there is no explanation, you may need to revisit the diagnosis or consider another disease process that might be hindering recovery. Discuss this with the client.
Never be scared to tell an owner that a pet has regressed or is not doing as well as you had hoped. The owner will appreciate your honesty and will trust that you are on top of their pet’s treatment. Your original goal and plan will help. In communicating with your client, always refer to the original goal and show them how close their pet is to achieving it.
Appoint Someone to Communicate:
Often we work as a team; in such cases communication can be the one thing that slips through the cracks. Everyone thinks someone else has spoken to the owner, and in the end no one does. Prevent this from happening by appointing one person responsible for the patient and for communicating to the owner directly.
Sometimes staff members are too nervous to tell a difficult client bad news, and so they say nothing at all. We can avoid this by making client feedback an essential part of the system.
Keep it Direct:
Miscommunication creeps in when an owner brings a pet in but someone else in the family collects it. Always communicate with the original person with whom you started the treatment. If you cannot reach them on the phone, send an sms or email. They will appreciate the feedback and it will eliminate any possibility of watered-down versions of your message being communicated to the owner. We all know the broken telephone scenario.
Miscommunication also creeps in where a pet owner has taken time off work to bring a pet in. The person may be completely distracted with work matters, answering emails and whats apps on their phone, and cannot give you the attention you require. I always try and get the owner’s attention before the end of the consult, and make sure I communicate my updates. If it is not possible, I send an sms or an email to communicate the plan and the findings.
There is a perception with some pet owners that the care of their pets should always take precedence over money. But the bottom line is you are a professional offering a specialized service and you have overheads to cover. You have to charge a fair price, and you have to be upfront about it.
When talking about money I recommend:
- Give a price list: At the initial consult, give the owner an updated price list so that they are aware of the costs. Clients sometimes feel overwhelmed at the first consult and hear what they want to hear – cost is often not one of them. Give them a price list in writing.
- Give itemized invoices: Show individual items and services on invoices so that clients know exactly what they are paying for.
- Consistency re price increases: When you increase prices, try to do so in the same month each year. Regular clients will know what to expect and be prepared for it.
- Alert clients re increases: Even where increases are regular, put up signs in reception alerting clients of that fact a month beforehand. Send out emails to your client list. If a client has not been into the practice in a while, make sure your staff alert them to the increase before the consult begins.
- Payment plans: Offer payments plans if this is feasible and will not affect your cash flow.
It’s Not Only About the Pet!
Realistic expectations, consistency through established systems, and clear communication about progress and about money are all essential components of a positive client experience. It’s that which must always be our aim – apart from the excellent job we do as rehabilitation therapists. Never neglect your client’s perception of his or her experience with you. Try to understand the hour your client spends with you from her point of view; did she feel listened to, respected, and included? Did she feel that her pet was in the best possible hands? Was communication clear and professional? These are the aspects which shape a practice and its reputation, and ultimately impact on the success of our business.
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