A receptionist’s journey: what transferable skills do veterinary receptionists develop during their career? - Veterinary Practice
Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now

×

InFocus

A receptionist’s journey: what transferable skills do veterinary receptionists develop during their career?

“I can’t imagine a better job than being a veterinary receptionist for developing great work habits and grounding you with skills that can take you to many places in the future”

When you start as a receptionist, where can you go in veterinary practice? The answer is… anywhere!

As a 15-year-old with ambitions to be a veterinary surgeon, I was lucky enough to see my work experience morph into a Saturday and holiday-cover reception job at a fairly new veterinary practice. Not only did that job (which ended up lasting for many years, including while I was in vet school) help me enormously when I did go into practice, it also taught me so much that I have taken with me throughout my career.

These days, I’m a company director running a successful PR and marketing business serving veterinary companies throughout the world, and I still apply those principles now. So, what are the great lessons you learn working on reception? Here’s my take:

Don’t sit around

Initially, I worked Saturday afternoons – a time that, back then, was fairly quiet for the newly established practice. It became clear very quickly that you don’t just sit around waiting for the phone to ring – there were always jobs to do in practice. A big one was decanting Kaogel and Hexocil into brown bottles and sticking the labels on (this was a long time ago!). There were sometimes instruments to scrub and sterilise, and I discovered how to handle those pretty quickly. I knew how to remove a blade from a scalpel handle and that drapes often hid some unexpected surprises – whether that was cat testicles or something sharper.

Not only is it about doing, but it is also about “can do” – if you don’t know how to do something, find out and get on with it.

Know how to multitask

No job I have had since being a veterinary receptionist has ever required such a high level of multitasking. Checking in clients for appointments or to collect their pets while simultaneously answering the telephone were all in a day’s work. As it was a small practice, I often discharged patients, assisted in the consulting room and more.

No job I have had since being a veterinary receptionist has ever required such a high level of multitasking

Being bombarded from every direction without forgetting anything was brilliant training for the work I do now, where I am often contacted on social media, the telephone, email or WhatsApp, and juggle multiple projects, all requiring in-depth knowledge of that client’s business.

Be really, really organised and anticipate

Are you about to leave for the day after another hectic one? Unless you prepare the ops list, admittance forms and all the other prep work required for tomorrow, the following day can be just as bad! If you don’t pull your weight on preparation, there are consequences for the whole team and potentially the patient. So, I also learned to think ahead: to cover all the big tasks and the smallest details and clearly mark up the information that other people needed to know.

Know how to talk to people with confidence

It’s all very well knowing your stuff, but if you can’t communicate it, that’s a problem. Working in reception, I learnt how to talk to clients and when to listen rather than talk.

When it comes to triage, people often have no sense of what constitutes an emergency – they can be in terror over blocked anal glands but ready to leave that pyometra for a week. Sometimes both cases must be seen on a busy Saturday afternoon to avoid tormenting the on-call vet with a midnight call or something a whole lot worse. Being able to explain why an animal needs to be seen now (or preferably later) requires a receptionist to build confidence and trust in a very short period – so people need to believe you know what you are talking about.

Being able to explain why an animal needs to be seen now (or preferably later) requires a receptionist to build confidence and trust in a very short period

Being a confident speaker is an invaluable skill in any sphere of business, even when you are not dealing with life-or-death situations.

Be compassionate and relate to people

Empathy goes a long way, and being able to tune in to someone’s mindset helps tremendously with communication.

As a slightly socially awkward teenager, I had to cope with men bursting into tears over the death of their hamster and families distraught over the loss of a much-loved dog. But working in reception with some amazing receptionists taught me how to demonstrate empathy in a way that was supportive and professional. We’ve all had cases that bring a tear to our eyes, but you have to hold it together for the client to provide the steady support they need.

Empathy goes a long way, and being able to tune in to someone’s mindset helps tremendously with communication

Dealing with difficult conversations around payment and disposal of the body and ensuring that people were treated with dignity in how they entered and exited the practice when in a distressed state were big lessons for the young me. This is also important when dealing with my clients now – perhaps they are worried about their business, dealing with a difficult issue in the public gaze or just overwhelmed by their workload. Whatever the situation, I believe in working as an extended member of their team to help them in those moments.

Those situations also taught me the power of putting myself in someone else’s shoes so I can appreciate their experience. That is a lesson I apply every day – I may love a piece of design or copy, but how will the intended audience receive it, and will it instigate the behaviour we want to encourage? As they say, people forget what you said, but they never forget how you made them feel.

Be aware people sometimes treat others according to a perceived power dynamic

Screaming at the receptionist and being lovely to the vet is a common scenario. Throughout my career, I’ve been the cleaner, the receptionist, the vet nurse and the vet in practice, and I’ve been on the receiving end of some interesting “feedback”.

Not only should we respect everyone at every level of the organisation, but we should also understand that a lack of power can leave people vulnerable and support them accordingly

In general, the lower you are perceived to be in the hierarchy, the less you are respected by some clients, no matter how skilled or knowledgeable you are. It means the same communication techniques you use as a vet might not be the ones that will work at reception. Receptionists also rarely have the power to “fire” a client, so there is an actual issue around power too. Not only should we respect everyone at every level of the organisation, but we should also understand that a lack of power can leave people vulnerable and support them accordingly.

Work as a team

As a member of the reception team, you are a vital cog in the machine. Ensuring the information given by the client is shared with the vet and vet nurse prevents a lot of communication misfires that blow up into major issues!

Every receptionist learns to think ahead and do as many tasks in advance as they can. It’s like running a huge and perpetually changing project, which is great training for anyone who wants to work in marketing and PR.

Do it all again?

There is one thing I wish I had appreciated more when I was a receptionist, and that was that vets don’t always have all the answers. (My youthful self probably had a bit of a “God” complex when it came to the vets.) Sometimes we genuinely don’t know what to do next or feel we don’t have the surgical skills needed to handle an operation. But it is crucial to remember that all the roles in veterinary practice have challenges that we might not always appreciate.

It is crucial to remember that all the roles in veterinary practice have challenges that we might not always appreciate

Fate takes you down strange roads sometimes, but I can honestly say that I can’t imagine a better job than being a veterinary receptionist for developing great work habits and grounding you with skills that can take you to many places in the future. My advice, though, is this: value your receptionists – they have some fantastic transferable skills.

Susan McKay

After completing her veterinary degree in Edinburgh, Susan worked in small animal practice before moving into PR, comms and marketing roles. She gained a Masters in Business Administration and set up Companion Consultancy in 2002. The agency provides PR, copywriting, digital, marketing and design for veterinary companies.


More from this author

Have you heard about our
IVP Membership?

A wide range of veterinary CPD and resources by leading veterinary professionals.

Stress-free CPD tracking and certification, you’ll wonder how you coped without it.

Discover more