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Sure, veterinary surgeries are very busy, but abruptly refusing emergencies or forcing pet owners to endure long, silent waits won’t appreciate your hospital customers. Video or audio tours, anyone?
Ben will be ready to let off steam again when the cast comes off.
My 18 month old Great Dane rescue dog, the love of my life, broke his leg. Ben was playing in the back yard and grabbed his right front leg in something, causing a greenstick fracture of his distal radius. This happened in the early afternoon, so I called the vet practice where we have been clients for over a year. Now keep in mind that we have five cats and two dogs, all covered by pet health insurance, and we spare no expense in taking care of our animals. Safe to say we’re a pretty good and substantial customer.
When I called the receptionist informed me that the practice was booked, that there were no appointment slots available and that I should take Ben to the emergency hospital and to the practice. specialized in the city. I was not happy. I thought I had built a relationship with my vet. Ben knew the people there and would have been more comfortable, but I was told (a bit rudely) that Ben couldn’t be seen that day because they were too busy.
Fortunately, we have a great emergency hospital in town. We took Ben there and were greeted by several signs saying we had to call and due to COVID-19 we would not be allowed in. Some renovations were underway, as evidenced by construction workers entering and exiting the building.
We called the phone number, explained to the receptionist what was going on, and provided information to our clients and patients. The receptionist was really nice and spoke with us for about 10 minutes. At the end, she told us that someone would be outside to take Ben to practice. After about 15 minutes, a young woman with a face mask walked over to our vehicle. We repeated some of the same information given to the receptionist, and she took Ben inside. We were told to wait for the doctor to call us after the exam was complete.
Tick Tock, Tick Tock
We live in Parker, Colorado, and the weather that day was fine but warm. We waited in the car with the air conditioning on for about half an hour. The doctor then called to say that she had examined Ben and would like to get an x-ray. Of course, we approved and continued to wait.
About an hour later, the doctor called to say the x-rays showed Ben had a fractured green stick. The x-rays had been read by a radiologist and the two doctors did not believe surgery was necessary, at least at this time. She recommended a splint and that Ben be asleep for the procedure. We approved both, and the doctor said a receptionist would call with a cost estimate. I told her it wasn’t necessary and that she should do whatever she felt was best for Ben. (Come to think of it, I don’t remember signing any form or giving written permission for the procedure; it was all done orally.)
The doctor said she would call in an hour or two when this was all over. The hospital is about an hour from our house, so we left for dinner. After about 90 minutes, we returned to the emergency hospital and sat outside for another hour and a half until the doctor called. She said Ben was ready to go, reviewed the discharge instructions and told us the receptionist would call to review the bill. About 10 minutes later, the receptionist informed me that the bill was $ 960.61. I have provided a credit card number.
Again, we waited for what seemed like an eternity, but a tech finally got Ben out. He was as happy to see us as we were to see him. The technician went through the discharge orders with us. She suggested that we get a surgical consultation, but said “their” surgeon had a 60-day reservation for a consultation and could not see us. She had no suggestion of another board certified surgeon.
A broken relationship
I’m telling you this story because, unfortunately, this is what many customers are going through in these times of a pandemic and it was by no means a positive experience. Ben received exceptionally good medical care, but as a client I wouldn’t want to go back.
What could have been done to improve the experience?
Let’s start from the beginning. When we moved to Parker, we spent a lot of time looking at veterinary hospitals and deciding which one would be best for us. We knew our hospital was not open 24 hours a day, but it had three full-time DVMs that I thought would be able to meet our needs. Yet when we called this afternoon the receptionist told us that there was no way for a doctor to see Ben and that we should go to the emergency hospital.
I told the receptionist that Ben was limping and that while I wasn’t sure if the leg was broken, I knew he needed an x-ray. The receptionist insisted that Ben could not be accommodated. A doctor could at least have looked at Ben, I thought, and then, if necessary, told me to go to the emergency room. The doctor never spoke to me; it all came from the receptionist.
We are considering finding another veterinary hospital for our pets, who will be there for us when needed.
A better way
The emergency hospital provided excellent medical care for Ben, and I have no complaints about it, but never saw the vet. I spoke to him on the phone three times. She recognized my name and asked me if I was a consulting vet, but not once did she come out. The overall wait time was not excessive, but the hospital team could have been more precise with the time estimates. I would have appreciated being called more often to hear about Ben’s progress.
I suggest that many of my clients switch from curbside service to concierge service. Thanks to the concierge service, pet owners who make an appointment are offered a video or audio tour. An owner who wants a video tour – we use Zoom or FaceTime – receives a URL. Once in the office, the client can access the URL to see the doctor do the exam and a two-way conversation can take place.
The other option is an audio tour in which the client is called when the animal is inside the examination room. This allows the physician to communicate with the client and answer questions.
In both cases, the practices I work with indicate that an audio or video tour is much more effective. Instead of round-trip phone calls, the client can see or speak with the doctor. The perception of value is greatly improved.
The emergency hospital I took Ben to could have provided the service. It is not used only in general medicine.
A happy profession
Our profession is fortunate and blessed. Businesses are closing every day because of the pandemic. Movie theaters aren’t open, airlines have seen their business drop 90% and restaurants are closing en masse, but veterinary medicine is booming.
Most of the practices my consulting firm works with and monitors financially are doing remarkably well. Most have improved their income year over year, many substantially. In the middle of a pandemic!
Think about it for a minute. The boom in business says a lot about our profession and how clients appreciate and need our services. I believe veterinary medicine will be called a pandemic-proof profession when we are finally done with COVID. But I also think that we will be judged on how we treat customers during this time.
I know many offices are busy and some are booked for weeks or more, but we need to take care of how we treat our clients and their pets. I urge you to take a look at your practice from the perspective of your clients. What are they experiencing and what can be improved? Providing better communication, offering video or audio tours, or just going out and talking to a client can make a huge difference from a pet owner’s perspective.
How we treat customers today will be how we are judged in the future.
Practice Smarter Columnist Mark Opperman is President and Founder of Veterinary Management Consultation Inc. His column won first place at the 2020 Florida Magazine Association Charlie Awards.