Why invest in communication (part 1)
In the US, there are 3 times more suicides in the veterinary profession than in the average population and the ratio is even worse for women. That is why it is so important to look at how certain communication techniques can prevent this phenomenon. Let’s begin this chapter with a clinical case involving Maria.
Leaders who communicate effectively with their team generate a positive work climate and better economic results for the company. They develop “positive psychological capital”.
INTRODUCTION: Maria’s story
Maria just got out of a feline medicine course with other colleagues from other clinics. They’d decided to have a soft drink before going back to their respective clinics. And like always, they spoke about medicine, surgery, difficult clients, complaints, objections and how thankless it can be to run a clinic.
That’s when the clinic’s emergency mobile phone rang. It was a very angry client whose cat had been seen by a colleague on Saturday morning. The cat had gotten worse and had to go to an emergency hospital early Sunday morning. Without knowing exactly what was happening, Maria’s colleagues watched her in astonishment. They saw her listen with full attention to what the client was saying, ask for permission to take notes to make sure she understood well and didn’t miss any details, ask questions to clarify what she did understand, summarize everything she had understood, and ask if she had really understood the reason for the complaint.
Finally, they saw her make an appointment to see the client the next day, and they thanked each other for the conversation.
• “Maria, what happened?” her friends asked her.
• “Nothing, it was an angry client, but it’s all worked out now”.
• “Maria, we meant what happened to you? We’ve never seen you so calm and secure with a client complaint. You were beaming with confidence and you even seem happy after the call. Tell us how you did it, that’s what we want to do too”.
Then images from the past came to Maria’s mind, like ghosts from a time that she had managed to put behind her. So many mistakes, so much avoidable unpleasantness with clients and employees. So many situations like the one that morning that had ended badly and ruined the day. She smiled, realizing how many things she had learned about communicating better and how they had improved her quality of life. Some of them were:
• Listening actively, staying totally focused on what the client was saying, trying to understand not only what was happening with their pet, but how they felt about it as well.
• Not interrupting.
• Asking more questions to make sure she was understanding.
• Being aware of her clients’ emotions, paying attention to their gestures and body language.
• Clarifying doubts using photos, drawings and any kind of tool that could facilitate the client’s understanding.
• Recognizing when she didn’t know something.
• Apologizing sincerely.
• Saying “No” with a smile when setting limits on excessive demands.
• Seeing objections as requests for more information and not as complaints.
And that was just the tip of the iceberg. What was important was that she had never felt such inner peace or had such healthy and sincere relationships with clients and colleagues.
It had been a long but incredibly productive journey through the wilderness. Maria had suffered a great deal before learning how to effectively communicate with her clients. As she liked to say, “If only they had taught us this at University”.
Maria looked at her colleagues and answered the question honestly:
“You want to know what happened to me, of course you’re surprised. I know that in the past I had a short temper when clients were demanding or doubted the usefulness of my recommendations. Look, this is what happened: some time ago I came to understand that my proficiency in medical knowledge wasn’t enough to be able to provide wellness to my patients. We can learn as much as we want about internal medicine, pathologies, new surgical techniques, new treatments, new diagnostic tests, etc., but if we aren’t able to communicate it properly it truly won’t pay out for us and won’t give us the satisfaction that we seek and deserve. I learned that effective communication, with my team and our clients is… A CLINICAL SKILL” (Figure 1).
One of her colleagues, quite surprised and heated, said to her:
“Maria, that all sounds great, but it doesn’t make sense. Right now, we’re coming from a feline medicine course where what we’ve learned will help us prevent and better treat certain pathologies that our patients have... It’s all medicine, Maria! It’s simple, you just must get to the clinic, create the protocol and voilà! Everything will work out”.
Maria listened carefully without interrupting and replied: “I agree with you about what we got from this course, but successfully implementing a new medical protocol in our clinics will require other skills. For instance, first with our team: knowing how to present it in a meeting, discuss it, get them to value and prefer it. Then, with our clients: for the pet owners to trust us and follow our new instructions and be willing to invest in them”.
The rest of the colleagues remained astonished by this conversation and they said: “Maria, you said some things that are quite true, and very calmly. And you’re even making us reflect on how we’re doing things these days”.
Maria thanks them for their comments and tells them that they are just offering their points of view, that it wasn’t a fight or a competition. She backed up her opinion by telling them that in the past, after attending several conferences and coming back to her clinic feeling motivated, she had come to realize a few things:
• Her work colleagues found that anything new was not applicable before even trying it.
• Her work team verbally agreed to do the new protocol, but there was poor implementation and results.
• When colleagues explained the new protocol to a pet owner, there was misunderstanding and confusion. They learned the hard way that “how we say things” requires practice and repetition in order to improve “what the client perceives and understands”.
• If the new medical recommendations required a more expensive service or product, my team felt uncomfortable about it, and claimed that it was difficult for them to manage the “high price” objection when seeing clients.
• Pet owners complained to me, saying that “the clinic was experimenting with new, strange and expensive techniques on their pets”.
• I got very frustrated and discouraged, and felt like going to conferences didn’t make sense, because as a team we were not able to convey the benefits of our suggestions to pet owners. Consequently, in order to avoid misunderstandings my team stopped making efforts to communicate with new clients.
• Many veterinarians were unsuccessful generating trust with clients, not because of a lack of technical knowledge but because they didn’t know how to listen and clarify doubts.
• I got tired of hearing that they preferred that I saw them in the future, because I “explained things to them better than my colleagues”.
• And how many more there could be…
Maria continued: “The truth is, I discovered a key that brought me solutions. It was learning skills to communicate effectively with my clients and my team. What’s more, I discovered that these same skills are useful in all aspects of life. I also learned that I must care for my personal well-being and quality of life, be aware of “how I feel” impacts my attitude at work and how I communicate, and hinders or boosts my performance, my enjoyment of what I do and my love of my job (Figure 2).
Our clients rarely have enough scientific knowledge to properly judge our professional value. It’s the same thing that happens to us when we go to a dentist, a lawyer or an architect. It’s how we communicate that generates trust and security, and a feeling of respect and interest. We live in the time of high tech-high touch 1.
Never in the history of veterinary medicine have we had such advanced technology, but paradoxically, to get the most out of it we need to be able to communicate amongst ourselves and with our clients with the same level of excellence.
This issue of Veterinary Focus Special Edition will help you find ways of achieving high touch, excellence in communication. We will help you develop these essential clinical skills for getting the most out of high tech: effective communication with your clients.
Leeds D. Berkley Books 2000, Smart Questions, page 1.
Other articles in this issue
Miguel Ángel Díaz
Miguel received a degree in Veterinary Science in 1990. After working at several clinics he opened his own clinic in 1992 Read more
Iván López Vásquez
Iván comes from a family of veterinarians; his father and older brother share the same passion. He obtained his degree from the Universidad de Concepción Read more
Cindy Adams is Professor in the Department of Veterinary Clinical and Diagnostic Sciences at the University of Calgary, Veterinary Medicine, Read more
Dr. Blättner studied in Berlin and Munich and after graduating in 1988 she set up and ran her own small animal practice. Read more