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Effective Communication Strategies for Veterinarians with Pet Owners

As veterinarians, it's often not the animals that give us trouble. While a scared and defensive cat or dog can be a hazard, we know how to calm them and help them out, and in the worst cases, there are always sedatives. No, it's the people who are the most difficult part of the puzzle to deal with.

Not everyone is a difficult client, but many of your standard clients are nevertheless going to be a potential challenge, especially if you don't have the right kinds of communication strategies developed and trained for action. It's important to remember that while you see ill animals day in and day out, your clients are dealing with a stressful situation where their beloved pet is ailing, they're concerned financially, and they may be losing out on other parts of their life – like taking a day off of work they can't afford – to bring their animal in to be seen.

Effective communication can help in a variety of ways. It can help set minds at ease, build rapport, create relationships, and bring in recurring business. It can also benefit the mental health of both vets and pet owners. Conversely, poor communication can lead to altercations, lost clients, bad reviews, and worse.

So, what are the most effective communication strategies you need to consciously develop for your practice? Let's talk about it.

Honest, Yet Compassionate

No one likes bad news, but there's just as much, if not more, trouble to be found if you're minimizing risks or underplaying conditions to spare the feelings of a client. Honesty in what you know and what you don't know, what you aren't sure of, and prognosis is all absolutely essential.

The problem that arises is that honesty is often not gentle. Telling someone their beloved pet is suffering or doesn't have much time left can be devastating news to deliver, but doing so with a perfunctory or seemingly dismissive or flippant attitude can cause tangible harm, miscommunications, and lost clients.

Remember, even if you've seen much worse, in many cases, the bad news you deliver is the most devastating thing to happen to this pet – or this pet owner – and that can be heart-wrenching to learn without good bedside manners.

Compassion should suffuse all communications in your practice, from your front desk to your own appointments.

Open Communications

Bringing a suffering pet to the vet is a difficult decision for many, especially when steep costs are a concern. Moreover, overwhelming worries, grief, and other emotions can get the best of anyone.

What this means is that often, a client will bring their pet in, and they'll have questions, but they may forget to ask them. In a short vet consultation, it can be difficult to have the depth of communication necessary to satisfy the client and to make sure they truly understand what's being discussed.

You can help this in three ways.

The first is to be as clear as possible in your communications. There's a natural human inclination, at least among many people, to try to cover various bases and add details, but the truth is, a lot of that is going to go in one ear and out the other while the mind is dominated with worry. Be thorough, but don't waste time digging into details unless the client asks or seems like they want to know.

The second is to make sure those details are available. Modern vet management software can generate case reports and can be available to clients from email, your website, or even from an app. Your clients may not be able to parse and retain the information you give them, so make sure that information is provided to them. This includes both specifics of the case, like diagnosis and prognosis, as well as more generic informational packets on both diseases and treatment options.

The third is to make sure your communication lines are open. When a client has questions they forgot or didn't think of when they were talking to you directly, they'll still want to know those answers. Let them email you, send you a message through an app or SMS, or call your practice for clarification.

Your goal is to never leave a client feeling like they're lost without appropriate information. The last thing you need is for them to turn to Google and its notoriously terrible ability to present reliable medical information.

Reflective Communication

A tangible strategy you can use is reflective communication.

Reflective communication is rather simple. When your client describes an issue their pet is experiencing, actively listen to what they're saying. Then, before jumping into your thoughts, the possibilities, or questions, restate what they conveyed to you. This allows them a chance to hear a reflection of what they said and identify if they failed to convey a detail before that detail goes on to form a misconception.

Reflective communication works the other way as well. Though your clients are likely not trained for it, you can guide them into acknowledging and reflecting upon what you tell them, which can lead them to ask questions or request clarification if there are gaps they don't understand.

This helps minimize miscommunications and misinterpretations while also showing that you're listening and that you care, which further expresses compassion and builds trust. On top of that, it helps you fully understand a situation so you know what's going on and can respond appropriately.

Manage Expectations and Potential Outcomes

Sometimes, we like to hedge our bets. We've all seen cases where a disease that should be fatal in weeks seemingly clears up, and a patient has years of happy life. We've also all seen cases where something that should be easily recoverable takes a turn for the worst and ends up fatal. There's an urge to minimize the danger to spare the feelings, but at the same time, overblowing the risk of even simple procedures can put clients under undue stress.

On top of this, different people have different reactions to variable news. You see this all the time in cancer diagnoses; prognosis predictions are often ranged or expressed in year-based survival rates. Some people naturally assume the best outcome is most likely for their pet; others immediately assume the worst. It's important to temper these expectations, be realistic without losing that compassion, and explain how choices can influence outcomes.

It's also important to talk in terms of tangible actions and the impact those actions can have. When there are different treatment options, laying out the pros and cons in simple terms can help the client be more engaged in the process despite their emotions.

Simple Tips

Sometimes, little things can make a big difference. Consider these simple tips and integrate them into your communication across your practice.

  • Focus on experience. Saying, "I've seen this before, here's how it tends to go," is much more important and more trustworthy than "I spent eight years at veterinary school." No pet owner is going to care what the letters after your name are if their pet has a bad experience.

  • Personalization. Every bit of communication, from initial patient screening to emergency calls, should be personalized. Having a patient database you can easily access to refresh yourself on names and cases is critical, and personalization is important even for your desk staff.

  • Acknowledge finances. Veterinary care can be expensive, and many people are experiencing financial hardship these days. Being up-front with costs if you can and offering flexibility like a sliding pay scale, payment plans, and other options can be very important for providing the best care. You can also work on more profitable added revenue streams to help offset and minimize the costs of more expensive procedures or general veterinary care to keep people coming in the door.

  • Provide multiple communication channels. We've already mentioned this a couple of times, but the more ways a client has to communicate, the more effective communication can be, as long as you utilize those methods properly. Phone calls, video calls, web chat, email, text messages, app-based communication, and more can all be integrated into a central hub for communications, tied into your patient database. It's worth to set up, but it's extremely effective and valuable to have.

  • Limit choices. In general, even if there are a lot of different options, you want to limit client choice to just a couple of options. Giving them a smorgasbord leads to decision paralysis, and it's estimated that 80% of clients simply don't seek treatment if they're too confused.

Above all else, effective communication is what allows you to build rapport with your clients, provide the best possible treatment to the animals under your care, and keep those clients coming back. Everything else comes down to the details of how you build those individual relationships.

When in doubt, know that there are resources available as well. The American Veterinary Medical Association even offers courses and training materials that can help you learn to be a more effective communicator with your clients. They aren't the only resources available, either.

Know Your Limits

Another important consideration is that, sometimes, you don't have all the answers. No vet can know everything; that's why we have generalists and specialists. Generalists know enough about most things to guide clients to explore their options and can triage the simpler cases. Specialists, then, can take over complex cases and other situations where a general practitioner might not know the answers.

Whether you're a generalist or a specialist, you have limits, and it's important to know them. More importantly, it's important to know what to do when an issue is outside the scope of your knowledge. Rather than trying to do the best you can with the aim of retaining a client – and losing them when your knowledge fails – you can build a referral network.

If you're a generalist, your job isn't to know everything; it's to know enough about everything to know who can handle an issue appropriately. Likewise, specialists can handle very deep and complex cases in their areas of expertise but need to know what the limits of that expertise are and who to refer a case to when it's outside your scope of practice.

One thing to be aware of here is that some complex cases can be difficult to accurately diagnose. This is one of the worst situations! Why? Imagine if a client brought their dog into their generalist for an emergency issue. The generalist recognizes that there's something wrong but can't accurately diagnose what, so they refer the client to a specialist in internal medicine. The internal medicine specialist doesn't feel like it's in their wheelhouse because of certain signs and refers them to a different specialist. Now, the client has seen three different vets and is, potentially, no closer to an answer. Imagine how they'll feel!

It's even worse if one vet thinks another was wrong and it actually was in their wheelhouse. For example, a dog with digestive health issues might be sent to a gastrologist or internal medicine specialist, only to find a tumor and be referred to an oncologist. If the oncologist determines it wasn't actually a tumor and certainly not cancer and sends them back, it becomes a nasty circle of bouncing back and forth.

This is why the referral network you build needs to be partnerships, not hand-offs. When you refer a client to a specialist, you aren't handing them off and washing your hands of it; you're roping them in to handle the case together. Encourage everyone in your network to work together, not separately.

The other way to help minimize this is to validate decisions by seeking second opinions. That's where we come in! At Hope, we have a variety of specialists who are ready and willing to provide second opinions on these tricky cases, whether they're in dermatology, oncology, internal medicine, or another area of veterinary care. When you aren't sure what to do next or want your thoughts to be validated – or refuted before it's too late – you can request a consult quickly and easily.

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