First Impressions Last

Proper phone etiquette in veterinary practice is good customer service and necessary for success. Here’s a look at what not to do.
Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ, Fear Free Certified
Published: January 24, 2018
A phone call is the first interaction current and prospective clients have with your practice and your staff, so it’s critically important to make a great first impression. Inappropriate on-hold music, nonseasonal messaging, poor manners and misinformation are all surefire ways to make an indelibly negative first impression.

During my career as a traveling surgeon, I’ve spent a lot of time calling clinics. Over the past few years, I’ve recorded dozens of funny, bizarre, false and downright scary statements I’ve heard on telephone recordings and from practice employees.

Following are a number of examples of bad phone etiquette. I don’t reveal these as a criticism of any particular individuals. Rather, I share them so you can benefit from my experience and avoid these common phone faux pas.

Seasonal Oversights
Here are a few examples of recordings I’ve heard when calling hospitals in various parts of the country:
  • “Warm weather means mosquitoes and the threat of heartworm disease.” Heard on November 1.
  • “Frostbites can occur even in early winter.” Heard on April 1.
  • “Clients often wonder when they should bring their pets inside. The answer is: when their water freezes.” Heard on June 12.

You get the idea. Phone recordings might mention the dangers of heatstroke in January or of ice melt in June. Someone should be in charge of your on-hold message, and that person should make sure it’s changed appropriately based on the season.

Corporate Lingo
Here are the types of recordings that tend to give me agita: “Your call is very important to us. Our options have recently changed, so please listen carefully before making your selection. Press 1 for blah, blah, blah; press 2 for blah, blah.” And this one: “Your call may be monitored or recorded.” Oh, and here’s one more example because it’s too insane to not mention: “Please listen carefully to the following prompts, as incorrect responses may go unanswered.”

Did I hear those things after calling my bank or insurance company? No, these were recordings from veterinary clinics. I tend to believe that the same messages that drive you nuts when you call big corporations also alienate Ms. Smith when she wants to schedule an appointment for Kiki’s anal gland expression.

And just when you think it can’t get any worse, I once called a practice whose phone message said, “For emergencies, press 1.” So I pressed 1 but was prompted to leave a message! An hour later, I still hadn’t received a callback. Good thing I wasn’t a client with a dog having a seizure or bleeding profusely.

Misinformation and Management Gaffes
The recording at one hospital proudly explained to eager listeners that “one year in a pet equals seven years in a human. Can you imagine not going to your physician for seven years or not brushing your teeth for seven years?” And I thought that everybody knew by now that this is a myth. Another news flash: “Tattooing is the latest technol-ogy in animal identification.” Really?

Then there was the recording that mentioned a doctor who had left the practice three years earlier. And here are some more comments I’ve heard when asking to speak with a doctor:
  • “He’s not available. He went outside to get the mail.” I have to wonder why the big boss is getting the mail, unless he needs the exercise.
  • “He’s with somebody.” Gee, I’m not sure his wife would be happy about that!
  • “She’s in the bathroom.” I didn’t need to know that.
  • “Let me grab him.” That’s a classic — and it sounds so very wrong every time I hear it.

Being Unprepared
A not-so-uncommon statement I hear when asking a client care representative to take a message for a doctor or a technician: “Hold on — I don’t have a pen,” or, “Wait. Let me find a piece of paper.”

Giving directions is another common source of fumbling. Here are a few responses that clients should not hear when asking for directions:
  • “I’m bad with directions.”
  • “I’m not from around here.”
  • “I’m new. I have no clue what our address is.”

And by the way, telling a client that your practice is “next to McDonald’s” or “behind the gas station” does not qualify as giving directions.

I once called an emergency clinic to check on a patient. The client care representative told me nobody could give me an update because the whole team was doing CPR on my patient. Horrified, I called five minutes later to hear that my patient was perfectly fine. “The receptionist got patients mixed up,” the technician said. Again, imagine if I had been a client.

There are simple ways to answer predictable questions. Familiarize yourself with hospitalized patients at the beginning of your shift. Keep a business card in your pocket to reference your clinic’s address. And for the love of pugs, have pen, paper and preprinted directions on hand so you can help lost clients.

Silly Expressions and Medical Jargon
If you use a commercial, prerecorded message, make sure it uses the correct terminology. A recent example included a new body part called the “urether.”

Other times, it’s difficult to decide what meaning a statement is implying. “Don’t feed your pet rich people food.” Should we not feed rich “people food” like chicken skin? Or should we be concerned about “rich people” food like caviar and lobster?

I’m all about client education, but some words and phrases used on recordings are likely to be meaningless to many:
  • “Is it time for your pet’s immunizations?” Why not “vaccinations” or “vaccines”?
  • “We use advanced monitoring such as pulse oximetry, electrocardiography and capnography.” Let’s simplify that one.
  • “We have digital radiography and ultrasound technology.” Why not “digital X-rays and ultrasound”?
  • “Does your pet have decreased food intake?” How about “a poor appetite”?

It’s most important to be understood, not to try to impress with medical jargon.

Music Trouble
When you are placed on hold at some hospitals, all you hear is complete silence. After a few minutes, you wonder whether you’re still connected!

If you play music, make sure it is not too loud. Which music you play is important when you put clients on hold as well. The style of music could convey the wrong message. Do you want country, classic, rap, elevator music or death metal? If your on-hold music is Britney Spears singing, “You gotta work, b*tch,” you may offend clients.

Get It Right
As the front line of customer service, client care representatives can make or break your practice. Your team has likely been educated about phone etiquette in the past, but ongoing training and monitoring are often necessary to ensure that your message and the personality you are trying to convey to clients always shines through.

Listen to team members on the phone periodically. When you hear someone not using proper phone etiquette, talk with that team member privately and remind everyone of the proper protocols at the next staff meeting. In addition, be sure your on-hold messages provide accurate, up-to-date and appropriately seasonal information.

 
Dr. Zeltzman is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and serial entrepreneur. His traveling surgery practice takes him all over eastern Pennsylvania and western New Jersey. You can visit his website at DrPhilZeltzman.com and follow him at facebook.com/DrZeltzman.

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