Shifts in human healthcare provision mean that it has become normal to utilise several sources and providers when it comes to meeting our own health information and care needs. We might google symptoms, see a nurse practitioner rather than a GP, source medications through Amazon or choose complementary medical practices. Multi-level service provision has become the norm.
Yet somehow this doesn’t seem to be OK when it comes to veterinary care. We see vet forums on social media swapping stories of “stupid” clients coming in with predetermined ideas about their pet’s prognosis or bringing their beloved dog in at 6.30pm on a Friday night when surely, they’ve had all week. “Hilarious” memes are shared, deriding the reactions and expectations of anxious pet and horse owners. But there’s no place for judgemental language and tone in a professional online forum, even if it is explained away as venting after a tough week. Because guess what, your client’s had a pretty tough week too. On top of the boiler breaking and their daughter’s school calling to say she is falling behind, the long work days and the lack of money left at the end of the month – on top of all this, the sore on the dog’s leg that seemed to be healing is now smelling strange and weeping. And it’s 6.30pm on a Friday night, but it’s OK because the local vet practice is open till 7pm and they’ll know what to do.
Great customer care starts when you put yourself in your client’s shoes. Understand that their lives are busy, and money may be tight, but that they almost always want what’s best for their pet. And if they’ve googled that first, then maybe they’ve done it because they’re trying to help you, and calm their worries, rather than undermining your professional competence? After all, we all google our symptoms too!
Embrace. Engage. Empathise
Growing numbers of academics are publishing research showing that we need to listen much more to our clients. To treat them as fellow humans with very real emotional concerns and issues, rather than as a barrier to getting home on time. In all honesty, if you work in a service industry it can’t be a surprise that you have to deal with people all day. People who pay your wages and recommend your practice to potential new clients. People who care about animals just as much as you do.
Two key PhD studies have proved the need to listen to clients and work collaboratively with them in order to ensure optimal patient outcomes: research by Alison Pyatt at Harper Adams University, and Louise Corah at the University of Nottingham. It might also help to know that providing warm and empathic customer care is actually good for you! The RVC’s Liz Armitage-Chan finds that vets with a more “challenge-focused” approach (whose priorities generally skew towards engaging with clients and understanding their context) enjoy stronger emotional health.
As vets we tend to look for patterns and explanations; numbers and science inform our decisions when it comes to formulating treatment pathways. But not everyone finds science compelling and speaking in textbook terminology can alienate many clients. Repeating the empirical evidence increasingly loudly is highly unlikely to persuade your client to change their mind, whereas couching your argument in terms of their pet’s unique lifestyle challenges and appreciating that with the best will in the world a lengthy course of hydrotherapy is simply unaffordable, so let’s look at other options, are far more likely to get you onto the same page. Labelling mums who may be genuinely concerned about the possible risks of vaccines as mad “antivaxxers” and throwing around facts and figures that prove they are wrong is more likely to make them wonder what there is to hide. Confirmation bias is a powerful thing, and it’s best left out of the consult room.
Pet and horse owners do know that you are far more qualified than Google to treat their much-loved family member – that’s why they’re standing in front of you at wine o’clock on Friday night. Trust me, they don’t want to be here any more than you do. So, if you can feel your hackles rising, please take a deep breath and imagine it’s your non-vetty partner or sibling standing there. Embrace the practicalities of their predicament. Engage them in what you can do to help and empathise with their desire to do what’s right for the animal, in the context of their busy life and existing priorities.
Showing clients empathy requires you to expose a degree of vulnerability, which quickly builds rapport and trust between you. Sympathy is actually a projection of our values onto others and implies some level of judgement – Mrs Smith hasn’t vaccinated her dog because she can’t afford it, and whilst you may smile and nod outwardly, you’re thinking that she shouldn’t have a dog if she can’t afford its care. An empath feels her pain in having to choose between paying the gas bill or booking an appointment for her healthy dog.
“Judging a person does not define who they are. It defines who you are” said Kristen Stewart. And she’s a Charlie’s Angel so she would know.