TRENDS IN YOUR INBOX: Effort, emotion, and expectations—Tips for improving client service


Veterinary client expectations remain a moving target. People expect more from veterinary teams on several fronts, and they expect everything to happen faster and to be easier than ever.

by Roxanne Hawn

To meet the growing expectations of veterinary clients, it’s important to understand new deal-breakers that may drive people away and what strategies customer service researchers have pinpointed that correlate with the greatest gains:

Reducing customer effort because it’s a stronger predictor of loyalty than satisfaction
Understanding the self-service trap and how it results in more cranky calls
Connecting to key emotional motivators to increase clients’ bonds (and long-term value)
Supporting clients’ emotions through key phrases and opportunities for appreciation

Expectations and deal-breakers

Veterinary client expectations remain a moving target. People expect more from veterinary teams on several fronts, and they expect everything to happen faster and to be easier than ever.

Some of the shifts in what people like and don’t like link directly to technological changes and generational preferences and attitudes. Our increasingly connected society, however, allows those preferences to go viral, so to speak, across boundaries of age, geography, and even income.

“As millennials have overtaken [baby] boomers as pet parents, they are not only expecting a more personalized and on-demand type of experience, but they are influencing the boomer expectations,” says Lea-Ann O’Hare Germinder, APR, PRSA fellow. “Mobile and social media have had a tremendous impact. The sheer volume of information readily available online—from credible sources, I might add—it’s no longer a case of dismissing Dr. Google as being all bad. Clients expect an up-to-date website and hospital presence on social media as a given.”

Germinder, who is celebrating 20 years with Germinder + Associates and is the founder of a site called Good News for Pets, goes on to explain: “For example, with mobile devices, who among us doesn’t Google information wherever we are, order and compare products and services, and even schedule appointments from a mobile device? It happens in the veterinary hospital every day. [It’s] the same with social media. Today’s veterinary clients are online with their pets, and savvy practices engage with pet parents in a thoughtful and meaningful way in their space. It’s one key to bringing them back in the door. While the veterinary recommendation still ranks very high with pet parents, the veterinary profession needs to keep on its paws to keep up with these trends—and it can be done!”

In addition to multichannel connectedness, new and growing client expectations for what happens inside veterinary practices include:

  • Using Fear Free℠ and feline-friendly strategies
  • Offering titer testing rather than compulsory revaccination
  • Matching prices for prescription medications or other recommended over-the-counter products
  • Keeping pets in the exam room with their people as much as possible rather than taking them to the back

In many cases, people don’t simply see these things as nice to have. Instead, the absence of them can drive people away. As Nancy Freeman-Smith, a dog trainer in Maine, says, “At least attempt Fear Free, or I walk.”

When considering client complaints and looking at ways to improve client service, spend time and energy on systems and strategies that help clients avoid common obstacles that cause dissatisfaction.

Satisfaction, dissatisfaction, and effort

Satisfaction and dissatisfaction matter and are connected to client loyalty—just not in the way you might think.

We often assume that satisfied people equal loyal customers. However, in one study of 75,000 consumers done by the Customer Contact Council and published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), researchers found “little relationship between satisfaction and loyalty… Although customer service can do little to increase loyalty, it can (and typically does) do a great deal to undermine it. Customers are four times more likely to leave a service interaction disloyal than loyal.”

When considering client complaints and looking at ways to improve client service, spend time and energy on systems and strategies that help clients avoid common obstacles that cause dissatisfaction, including:

  • Having to re-explain an issue
  • Having to switch from the web to the phone
  • Expending moderate-to-high effort to resolve an issue
  • Being transferred to someone else
  • Being repeatedly contacted to resolve an issue

Researchers concluded that customer service must focus on “mitigating disloyalty by reducing customer effort.”

Self-service trap

More people than ever prefer to handle routine tasks without having to rely on or talk to anyone. They see it as easier and faster. Self-service has the potential to satisfy this sense of reduced customer effort. Veterinary examples include using a website or practice app to schedule appointments, request prescription refills, or access a pet’s medical history and full test results.

Self-service can also create a convenience trap. According to HBR researchers, “As customers handle more of the simple issues themselves, frontline service reps get increasingly tough ones—the issues customers can’t solve on their own.”

So if it seems like your front-desk folks face more cranky people than ever, self-service may be why. When people do all the easy stuff on their own, that leaves harder scenarios to your staff. Whereas team members may have faced 1 cranky person out of 10 in the past, now it might feel like all they get is cranky call after cranky call because the other 9 people happily handled things on their own.

If the self-service option failed for some reason, expect the grumpy factor to grow. As one study participant told the HBR researchers, “They are not calling us because they want to; they’re calling us because they have no other choice.”

The first, and only, time I tried to schedule a veterinary appointment online, I ended up having an exasperating phone conversation instead. Even though I selected three different days well in advance and a wide window of time options, the person who called opened with, “So, you’d like to make an appointment?” and proceeded to offer me dates and times that didn’t work. When I pointed out that my online request included dates and times that did work, the person replied with frustration, “Oh, I can’t see that. I’d have to get into another window.”

That’s not at all what I expected to happen. Self-service turned into a hassle, and that’s not good for anyone. Increased effort ramps up emotion, and not at all in the way that improves your bottom line.

Unlike other professions or businesses, veterinary medicine enjoys an abundance of emotional connections with clients.

Emotional bonds

Businesses as diverse as banks, cleaning product brands, and clothing retailers have found ways to use emotional connections with customers to their benefit. A bank increased credit card usage by 70% and new accounts by 40%. A cleaning product brand reversed market-share losses with double-digit gains. A national retailer focused on its most emotionally connected customer segments and increased same-store sales more than threefold.

Unlike other professions or businesses, veterinary medicine enjoys an abundance of emotional connections with clients. It’s time to take this strong foundation to the next level in client service.

HBR researchers identified more than 300 “emotional motivators” and found that they “provide a better gauge of customers’ future value to a firm than any other metric, including brand awareness and customer satisfaction, and can be an important new source of growth and profitability.”

Researchers narrowed down the 10 highest-impact motivators associated with a higher customer value, long term, across all kinds of businesses:

  1. Stand out from the crowd
  2. Have confidence in the future
  3. Enjoy a sense of wellbeing
  4. Feel a sense of freedom
  5. Feel a sense of thrill
  6. Feel a sense of belonging
  7. Protect the environment
  8. Be the person I want to be
  9. Feel secure
  10. Succeed in life

At the highest level of emotional connection, customers are “52% more valuable, on average, than those who are just highly satisfied. In fact, their relative value is striking across a variety of metrics, such as purchases and frequency of use.”

Emotional motivators do vary by client age and life stage, but veterinary teams can improve client service by at least recognizing the emotion behind veterinary client behavior in addition to the clinical or financial details up for discussion. Yes, people are worried about their pets, but it’s likely that a lot more is happening inside.

Money objections. Cost sensitivities, for example, may stem from a sense of failure rather than emotional motivator number 10 (wanting to succeed in life). Naysayers. Information-focused consumers may seem noncompliant, but their focus may really be emotional motivator number 1 (standing out from the crowd). The naysayers in the exam room may pride themselves on being early adopters of the latest and greatest of everything. If what you’re suggesting sounds outdated, it may demotivate them to comply.

Separation anxiety. For the growing number of people who balk at pets being taken away from them for diagnostics or treatment, you may be seeing a negative response that goes against emotional motivators 3 (wellbeing), 9 (security), and maybe even 6 (sense of belonging). Now that more employers, hotels, brew pubs, entertainment and vacation attractions, and other venues welcome pets, it seems strange to some people who’ve become used to having pets with them always. Especially for younger pet owners, for whom this is all they’ve known, the veterinary hospital suddenly feels like the outlier where pets are taken away.

Veterinary teams can improve client service by recognizing emotion behind veterinary client behavior.

Words and feelings

Recently a meme touted the benefit of turning negative statements into positive ones. When you’re running late, for example, instead of saying, “I’m sorry I’m late,” try thanking people for their patience instead—“Thank you for waiting while we handled an emergency.”

Groove HQ primarily works with technology-related customer service strategies, but the company honed a list of six customer-support phrases everyone needs to know. Some of them you’ll recognize if you’ve ever called any call center: “I’d be happy to help you with this” and “Is there anything else I can help you with?”

If used too much, these phrases no longer sound genuine. So if you’re going to encourage your veterinary team to use certain types of client-service phrases, be sure that you’re flexible enough in how individual people express gratitude to clients even in the face of complaints or criticism. One person might say, “I really appreciate you letting us know,” but another might say, “Thank you for bringing this to my attention.” Or if you want your team to empathize with how clients are feeling, one person might say, “I’d be frustrated, too,” and another might say, “I understand your frustration.” Typically, though, these kind of stock phrases apply to unhappy clients who need help resolving a troubling issue.

In happier interactions with clients, work as a team to pinpoint places where you can routinely validate, compliment, and otherwise show appreciation for individual people and pets and let them know that you do indeed like them because feeling welcome and liked matters to many clients:

“Fido is so lucky to have you and that you’re willing to monitor his food consumption and give his insulin injections.” “You’re doing a great job with Peanut’s weight-loss plan.” “Getting to see Chloe is the best part of my day so far.”

Action Items

The next time your team meets to talk about improving client service:

  • Brainstorm ways you can ease clients’ efforts and frustrations
  • Share insights about how self-service options also bubble cranky calls to the top
  • Look for ways to recognize and support clients’ emotional motivators when possible
  • Use words and actions to deliver client service that help people feel some of those powerful emotional motivators associated with higher long-term client value to your practice, including that they and their pets are special, secure in your team’s care, and truly belong to a unique community of pet lovers you serve 

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