3 Ways to empower your customer service team

Great customer service begins long before the client steps into your practice. Debbie Boone, CVPM, applies hospitality principles from vet med and beyond to train CSRs in how to deliver the best care to clients—including an appropriate level of knowledge to help triage common cases.

By Kristen Green Seymour

Providing clients and patients with exceptional care and service begins well before they enter the exam room. In fact, it generally begins before they even step inside the practice door. Their experience—and their first impression of the practice as a whole—generally starts when they first call to set up an appointment. 

The importance of making that first impression a good one can’t be overstated, and this critical job typically falls to our customer service representatives (CSRs). To do this job well, CSRs need more than a friendly disposition; they need to feel empowered to do the job with total confidence.  

And that requires proper training. 

Debbie Boone, BS, CVPM, president of 2 Manage Vets Consulting, LLC and author of Hospitality in Healthcare, is a firm believer in the importance of empowering CSRs. In fact, Boone—along with Jill Clark, DVM, and Rhonda Bell, CVPM, PCM-Digital, CDMP—is launching an association for veterinary CSRs this summer. They’ll provide a training hub where veterinary CSRs can earn certificates, links to key resources, a community where members can interact and share experiences or advice, and more. (There’s no official website or social media for this initiative yet, so if you want to stay up to date on the project, follow Boone on LinkedIn.) 

We spoke to Boone following a lively discussion in the AAHA Community about how much medical knowledge CSRs should be expected to have.  

“There’s always the concern that CSRs are going to offer medical advice,” Boone said, “but that’s a training issue. You must train your CSRs to the point where they are confident in their answers, but they also know they’re not doctors—and they understand that there’s a line there. No matter how much they learn, it’s just not their job to offer medical advice.” 

Finding the right balance can be tricky, but Boone offers the following recommendations for getting it right—and boosting your CSRs’ confidence, too. 

Training for triage 

“CSRs should have a base knowledge of the most common telephone questions we have coming in. They’re very repetitive,” Boone said. “People ask about basic vaccine schedules. They want to know why their dog is scooting on its rear, or scratching its ear, or licking its feet.”  

Having CSRs know enough to be able to triage those things, to know whether they’re urgent, to know if they can be scheduled in a few days or a week out—all of those things make a difference because they should not have to turf those back to the medical team, Boone explained.  

“The medical team has to deal with the pressing issues that are happening in patient care,” she said. “If we train our CSRs to answer those questions, it takes a lot of the burden off of the medical team.” 

Getting out of tricky conversations 

Practice owners and leadership must set a standard for who is going to talk about what at what level, said Boone.  

“The clients will try to press the CSRs for answers. If they can get an answer from the person who answers the phone, and it solves their problem, great! They don’t want to have to come in and pay if they don’t have to,” she said.  

That’s why it’s so important to make sure your CSRs understand the line between offering advice regarding the urgency of the situation (which lands in the realm of triage), and actually offering medical advice, which must be left to the medical team. 

“One of the things I used to train my team members to say was, ‘That’s beyond my knowledge base,’ instead of, ‘I’m just a receptionist,’” said Boone. “I don’t believe that ‘just’ is what we should be saying about anybody in our practice!”  

Instead of falling back on “just,” Boone suggests using language like, “I am not trained to give you an answer to that question, but I’m happy to take a message—or get a team member who has that medical knowledge to answer it for you.”  

Training CSRs on these kinds of answers enables them to get out of answering questions that clients are pressing them to answer in a way that still satisfies the client. 

Providing structured training for consistent messaging 

When Boone suggests structured training, she urges folks not to mistake “structure” for perfection. 

“I think sometimes people believe they have to make these beautiful, perfectly spaced [training] binders,” she said. “Mine were not. Mine were copies of everything I thought was valuable, and I would underscore and highlight what I thought was important. I’d put it all in a binder and say, ‘Here, read this.’” 

Boone always relied on standard operating procedures and protocols in our hospital. “We could use the AAHA guidelines and know that, if we’re looking at the senior wellness guidelines or the vaccine guidelines, there’s a lot of great information there, and we can pick parts of that and build client communication based on those protocols and guidelines. 

Boone included materials from a variety of sources, from magazine articles to training resources by companies like Ritz-Carlton and Disney, which are known for customer service. Everything she included in her manual was chosen with the intention of providing her CSRs with information that would help them speak to clients.  

“I would use client-facing materials, like the common brochures and handouts from the vaccine companies, because the customer service team is communicating in client language, not medical-ese,” she said. “We want to make sure that when we’re training our CSRs, we’re training them to not overwhelm our clients in medical language they don’t understand.” 

With these materials, Boone created four modules of training:  

  • Common telephone questions and the answers, which were based on standard operating procedures or protocols (sometimes using the AAHA guidelines), as well as how the doctors wanted the answers framed; 
  • Preventive care, including why it was important and what they were looking for in blood work or chemistry panels; 
  • Employee manual, because, as Boone said, “Everybody had to sign off on that!” 
  • Gold star customer service, such as how complaints are handled and how much autonomy the front desk is given. 

Then, she would test on it all. “They’d have to make a 90 or above,” Boone said; if they didn’t pass that initial multiple choice test, they’d have a month to study before taking an essay test, which, she said, nobody ever wanted to do. 

“After they passed their test, they got a dollar-an-hour raise, plus they were extremely confident in their answers, and everybody was giving the same answers rather than winging it,” Boone said. “And the clients had a great deal of confidence in us because the messaging was consistent throughout the practice. The CSRs, the technicians, and the doctors were all giving the same message.” 

Going beyond CSR training 

While the customer service team clearly benefits from this training, the fact of the matter is that the things listed above are helpful for the rest of the veterinary team, too. When your medical team understands how your CSRs are expected to respond to various questions and scenarios, it not only gives them a better understanding of the challenges of that job, but it also means they may be able to step in to answer the phone or assist a client at the front desk if needed. 

In fact, Boone is a fan of cross-training roles in a practice when possible. She finds that having technicians capable of answering the phone, and CSRs capable of assisting with minor restraint on friendly animals needing a bandage creates incredible flexibility.  

“It’s not always possible, but when everyone is cross-trained to work the front desk and help a little bit in the treatment room, everybody feels each other’s pain,” she said. “They all know the frustrations of every area of the hospital. And that makes for a great cohesive culture and team.” 


Kristen Green Seymour is AAHA’s copywriter.  

Photo credit: © akinbostanci  E+ via Getty Images Plus  

Disclaimer: The views expressed, and topics discussed, in any NEWStat column or article are intended to inform, educate, or entertain, and do not represent an official position by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) or its Board of Directors. 



Subscribe to NEWStat