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Phone Answering Strategies for Busy Veterinary Practices



Modern business requires communication with clients, and that means reaching them – and letting them reach you – effectively. While the internet is growing as a mechanism for communication, a huge portion of the way you communicate with clients and potential clients is going to be through the phone. So, how you answer the phone and handle client communications will directly impact your ability to get and retain clients at your veterinary practice.


To help you improve your phone answering, here are the best strategies we've seen and developed over many years and a broad array of experience.


Don't Resent the Phone


When the phone rings, is it a welcome sound or an unwelcome distraction? Most people find the latter to be the case, but it really shouldn't be. If the phone is "preventing you from getting work done," there's a problem that needs to be addressed. A phone call means a potential new client, a new appointment for an existing client, or an opportunity for an upsell – in short, an opportunity. These phone calls are the lifeblood of any business, and a veterinary practice is no different.


So why do so many people find they resent those phone calls? Typically, it's because you're understaffed. If your front desk staff is handling patients who walk in, paperwork, appointment fulfillment, billing calls, support calls, emergency calls, and more, every task ends up a distraction from some other task. That's overwork, and it leads to burnout, which can cascade through your whole practice as others need to pick up the slack and encounter the same level of overwork.



This might mean you need to hire additional front desk workers. Or, it might mean you should split duties and have dedicated phone operators in the back to help lighten the load. Whatever the case may be, the phone should be a welcome sound, not an interruption.


Furthermore, when someone who resents a phone call as an interruption is the one answering the phone, that resentment can come through in their tone and interactions. A huge amount of your practice's client retention will happen over the phone, so it can't be treated as a secondary or an afterthought.


Don't Force the Phone


Phone call volume can be reduced simply by integrating additional methods of communication and making sure they're monitored and effective. You can do this by passively adding those methods of communication (like an email contact, a live chat system, or SMS text messaging).


Additionally, it's often a great idea for any established client to ask them what method they would prefer for communication and do your best to use that method. Some people have anxiety about using the phone. Some may have hearing difficulties and find phone communication unnecessarily challenging. Some simply work in an environment where they can't have their phone on them very often.



Another opportunity can even be to use a self-service appointment scheduler on your website for common services. Obviously, people who call in can still schedule those appointments with you, but if someone needs to get their new kitten shots, they might benefit from being able to just visit your website, fill out a form, pick a date and time, and be good to go.


By offering and using these additional methods of communication, you can improve client relations and retention with those clients, as well as lighten the load on the phone system. It's a win/win situation.


Meet the Basic Requirements of Good Phone Communication


There are quite a few minor but important details that make all the difference when communicating via phone.


Pick up the phone within three rings. The longer someone has to wait, the more likely they are to hang up, and they may choose to call elsewhere rather than try to call back.


When answering, use a personalized script. "Hello, this is Jenna from VetPracticeName, how may I help you today?" can be a very effective opener.


Always be courteous, no matter how busy or how many calls you've had to answer that day.


Be efficient with gathering information. Try not to ask for repetitions unless it's necessary, and if the information is in a chart, only ask if it needs to be updated and is important to the issue at hand.


Understand the issue the client is calling about as quickly as possible and provide information or offer appointments as necessary.


Be technical enough to demonstrate expertise and trust but not so technical that you befuddle the caller. Avoid buzzwords and jargon as much as possible.


Make sure your operators have the training to exercise judgment over how urgent a request may be. Remember that for many pet owners, urgency is higher than you might treat it because while you see a wide range of issues, they only see their pet suffering.



Similarly, if an issue sounds urgent but isn't as bad as it seems and can wait slightly for an appointment (next day versus immediately, for example), take a moment to explain why it's not as bad as it seems and why the delay isn't dangerous.


Basic phone triage in the busiest times is also important. Answering the phone and asking immediately if the issue is an emergency or if it can wait on hold for a few minutes can help you prioritize conversations by importance rather than order received.


If your operator is ever unsure of the answer, rather than guessing and giving incorrect information, train them to take a moment to verify the answer.


Encourage operators to keep notes on hand; even something as simple as jotting down a name to use later in the conversation can be a valuable reminder and doesn't need to be typed or entered into your system to do it.


End each call with a summary. "Alright, so we have Max in for a new puppy appointment on March 13th at 10 am. Sounds great! We look forward to seeing you then."


All of these are basic business phone best practices, but some of them may need additional training and experience, depending on who you hire.


Another valuable best practice that is worth calling out separately is always presenting specific options rather than asking open-ended questions.


For example, when scheduling an appointment for a patient, instead of asking the client, "Which day of the week do you prefer?" you can say something like, "I have open slots available on Tuesday; is that okay?" If not, you can then ask when the next available day would be. Similarly, instead of asking what time they're available, ask whether they prefer morning or afternoon and pick a time within that zone to offer them. Overall, this can help speed up the process and resolve calls more quickly and effectively.


Train Operators to Use Personalization and Familiarity in Communications


A huge part of client retention in a veterinary practice is about building a relationship and familiarity with your clients. This can be expressed in multiple ways. In part, having long-time employees simply allows them to build familiarity and recognition of your common clients. However, there are tricks you can use to establish familiarity immediately in a call.


For example, say someone has adopted a new puppy and is calling to ask about your pricing and schedule for their shots. Your operator can mention how exciting it is to adopt a new puppy and ask for the name of both the client and the puppy. Using those names throughout the remainder of the conversation is a simple way to personalize a generic conversation while still providing the information necessary to forge that client relationship.



Many record-keeping systems you can use for your records will allow you to specify and record relevant information in a chart that becomes readily accessible to your operators when they look up the client or patient and can then be used without being prompted or asking for the information again.


Fortunately, a lot of this is relatively easy for veterinary nurses and the people who work in vet practices; it's a career that attracts empathetic and socially aware people in general, after all. It only tends to slip when burnout is a concern, and if you're doing everything right, you should avoid the worst of burnout.


Consider Broad Scripts for Common Calls


Consider why someone might be calling your practice. Broadly speaking, there are a handful of common reasons that will make up 90% of your call volume.



These 90% tend to include one of the following:

  • A first-time pet owner or an existing client is adopting a new pet, and they have questions about services and pricing and may want to book appointments for things like New Puppy Exposure, shots, physicals for strays, and spay/neuter procedures. 

  • Someone who has just moved to your area is looking for veterinary care and wants to ask you questions about what you can and can't handle, your patient volume and availability, and more.

  • Someone has a diagnosed issue or prospective issue with their pet, and they're calling local vets to price shop. Pricing is, unfortunately, a primary sticking point for most animal medical care, so training your operators to mention things like sliding fee scales or payment plan availability can help a lot.

  • Someone whose beloved pet has just been diagnosed with something devastating, like canine cancer, wants to get a second opinion from another local vet. Be willing to offer second opinions when you can, but don't try to offer them for issues you don't have a specialization in and can't accurately diagnose. If you can't offer a second opinion yourself, have a resource to offer them.

  • Someone has picked up a stray or lost pet, hasn't been able to find the owner through standard social media, and wants to have you check for a chip or other identification.

  • Someone wants to follow up on test results and ask questions or otherwise have a more technical discussion with the vet directly. These can be tricky, as your receptionist can't handle them, but you may be busy. Have a process in place to ask for information and call for a follow-up later.

There will always be the occasional call for something out of the ordinary, but a huge amount of your standard call volume will be the same handful of conversations over and over. Your operators should have a loose script they can follow to make sure they hit all of the adequate information and bullet points, but with enough room for customization so that it doesn't feel like they're just reading from a playbook.


For Advanced Practices, Consider Call Tracking


As your practice grows, there are a variety of systems you can use to help accentuate your call knowledge. For example, there are systems that allow you to track the calls that come in and go out from your practice, what their purposes were, and how they were resolved in what amount of time. There are also systems that can attribute calls to specific channels, like people who found your number through marketing or through a paid ad.



At the same time, be very careful with metrics. It's all too common in business to track metrics that sound good on paper but, when focused on, actually hinder your practice. Closing calls faster might seem more efficient, but if it makes clients feel like the calls are impersonal or they're just being pumped for appointments and cash, it leads to poor retention and canceled appointments.


Make Improvements Over Time


Perhaps one of the most important aspects of ensuring effective phone communication is keeping up with the state of your front office. It's far too easy to offload phones to a back room or just assume your operators are handling it, only to have things slowly slip and degrade over time. By then, the damage is done.


There are a bunch of different ways you can handle this. Everything from ongoing training and positive reinforcement for the appropriate behaviors to periodic call recording and listening in for review to asking for client feedback on their call experience can be valuable tools to understand the state of your phone systems.



The goal, as always, is to improve over time. Whatever methods you need to use to improve, don't be afraid to implement them.

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