Responsible pet owners are a savvy bunch these days. That was the consensus after speaking with a number of pet owners and several veterinarians about the client/veterinarian relationship. Pet owners seem to know a lot more about animal healthcare than they did decades ago, thanks to the many pet publications out there and the advent of the internet. More than ever, they want to be regarded as proactive partners in their animals’ care, rather than just being told what to do. This is perhaps even truer of those who favor the integrative approach to their animals’ care. These people have done their homework, which is why they are looking for alternative healthcare options in the first place.
Here’s a checklist of things your clients might ask or expect of you and your clinic and staff. By being prepared and open to their expectations, you will build up good working relationships with clients that will endure for years — and consolidate and enhance the reputation of your practice.
1. Today’s pet owners want a clinic environment that’s comfortable, friendly and unintimidating, just as they would at their own doctors’ offices. Waiting rooms should be bright, spacious, clean and welcoming, furnished with comfortable chairs and decorated with calming color schemes. Depending on how much space you have, you might even consider separate waiting rooms for dogs and cats.
2. Clients will want to know that both they and their animals will be treated with kindness and respect. All staff, including front desk personnel, should be compassionate, patient and warm-natured. Good communication skills are a must.
3. You want your clients to respect you as well as trust you. Always present a professional appearance and demeanour.
4. Listen to your client’s concerns and opinions, even if you don’t particularly agree with them. If you feel a client is wrong about something, explain it to him/her in a courteous manner. Honest and open dialogue is important, as it also builds client trust and respect. Offer clients as many options as you can for their animals’ care, and help them choose the best one/s.
5. Courteously provide advice to clients when you feel they need it. For example, not everything they read online about a particular condition or treatment will be true. Guide them to reputable literature or websites if they want to learn more, or have printed information available.
6. Ensure your clients understand what you are telling them, especially when it comes to diagnoses and the available forms of treatment. This is another time when good communication skills come into play. Although many pet owners are well educated, don’t assume they understand technical or clinical terms. Explain disease processes and treatment procedures in a way that laypeople can understand, and answer any questions clients may have.
7. Don’t discredit any type of treatment. “It’s not about ‘leaving your Western mind at the door,’” says Dr. Narda Robinson, director of the Center for Comparative and Integrative Pain Medicine and Natural Healing at Colorado State University. “I still vaccinate and use antibiotics when there’s a need,” adds Dr. Mark Newkirk of Margate Animal Hospital and Alternative Care Center. “Traditional methods like ultrasound and steroids help with acute problems; holistic methods help when there’s a chronic condition and vitamins or amino acids are healthier long-term than steroids.”
8. Don’t rush clients into making decisions. Unless it’s an emergency situation, give them time to think about how they want to proceed with their animals’ care.
9. If a client chooses a treatment you don’t offer, be willing and able to refer him or her to someone who does. “[You] may not want to do acupuncture or herbal care, but [you] should be able to refer [the client] to someone who does,” says Dr. Paul McCutcheon of the East York Animal Clinic in Toronto. “I don’t do dental surgery, but I refer patients to traditional surgeons.”
10. Make it clear to clients that the health of your animal patients is your top priority. Those who get the impression that money comes first will lose their trust in your clinic and start looking for another veterinarian.
In summary, try to treat your clients like collaborative partners in their animals’ care. While your knowledge and experience are vital to ensuring they don’t make poor or ill-informed decisions, today’s pet owners want to feel they are taking a proactive role in how their companion animals will be cared for.