Make Conversations Count

October 2022 |

Help your team develop business-boosting communication skills.

As a member of a veterinary team, your specialty is working with animals, right? Not exactly, says Jason Coe, DVM, PhD, a professor at Ontario Veterinary College in Canada. Communicating effectively with your human clients is equally crucial in running a successful veterinary practice, he says.

“Communication is a core clinical skill,” says Coe. And the most effective clinical communication, he says, is “relationship-centered.” Research has found that using this approach leads to greater efficiency and accuracy in treatment, improved compliance and revenue, reduced malpractice, healthier pets and more satisfied clients.

Try these techniques:

Think frisbee. Think of client conversations as a frisbee game (back and forth) rather than a shot put throw (one-way delivery), suggests Coe. (See box below.)

Open it up. Ask open-ended questions that invite description instead of closed-ended questions with one answer (often yes/no). Honestly evaluate your skills in this area. Recorded interactions of 50 veterinarians and 300 clients found that, on average, veterinarians use two open-ended questions and 13 closed-ended questions per client interaction, and that 25% of all veterinary interactions studied did not contain any open-ended questions.

Invite more info. Use inviting phrases such as “tell me,” “describe” and “walk me through.” You’ll get more detailed patient histories and help clients reveal information they might otherwise omit. (One true example, says Coe: “My dog doesn’t eat much in the way of people food … except pizza.”)

Don’t rush. People want veterinary staff to take the time to listen and focus on them and their pets,” says Coe. Although you might think that relationship-centered communication would take too long to be practical, it can actually take less time overall (see box below), because the quality of information you get up front is so much better.

Quick Communication Pointers

Do say …

  • “Tell me about …”
  • “Describe …”
  • “Walk me through …”

Don’t say …

  • “Why …” (puts clients on the defensive)
  • “Can you …” (encourages less engagement)
  • “Do you …” (creates a closed-ended question)

“What” vs. “Tell Me”

The way you ask for information can make all the difference.

Prompt A: “What food are you feeding your dog?”
Typical answer: 1-2 words, typically brand-related information.

Prompt B: “Tell me everything your dog eats throughout a day, starting first thing in the morning right through to the end of the day.”
Typical answer: A detailed description of the food and treats given. One client revealed that she feeds her dog six times a day, including treats that derailed the prescribed diet.