“How soon can you get us in?” Managing client expectations during COVID

Veterinary professionals are “really good in an emergency situation,” according to Monique Feyrecilde, BA, LVT, VTS (Behavior), hospital manager at Mercer Island Veterinary Clinic on Mercer Island, Washington. “We batten down the hatches and triage, and then we just push really hard until we get to the end of the emergency. Then tomorrow is a new day.”

So it was helpful for veterinary teams to adopt an emergency mindset when the pandemic first hit.

But the pandemic has turned out to be a crisis with no end—at least not yet: “In the beginning, everyone thought, okay, this is going to be a month-long [ordeal]. Then it was going to be six weeks. And then it just keeps getting pushed out and out. It’s been 9 months, and it's wearing thin,” Feyrecilde said.

Feyrecilde told NEWStat she thinks it’s time to let go of that short-term emergency mindset. That means figuring out how to establish a new normal.

And that includes re-adjusting client expectations. Specifically, clients might need a new understanding of what the word “soon” means. At her practice, changing client expectations has meant spreading out elective and wellness care by prebooking well in advance, using telemedicine when appropriate, and working on their internal and client-facing communication.

Like most practices, Feyrecilde’s hospital used to send out wellness reminders one month in advance, which many clients typically ignored or put off until the day they finally called asking if they could get in soon. As in the next day or two. “And in my practice, for 24 years, we’d always been able to do that. Now we can’t,” she told NEWStat.

So, her hospital started sending reminders three months in advance. “In the reminder, we specifically state that we’re scheduling two to three months out for wellness right now,” Feyrecilde says. Those reminders are adamant: “This is how it’s going to be. So please call now to make your appointment.”

Clients weren’t happy about it—at first.

For clients who assume getting in “soon” means the next day, being told they can’t get in for six to eight weeks is a big adjustment. “They get angry, then that creates conflict, and then everybody feels bad,” Feyrecilde noted. “The client feels upset, and the staff feels abused because we're getting yelled at every day.”

But her hospital stood firm, and so far she says it’s worked out great. “People are actually calling to schedule appointments six to eight weeks out. And we’re getting fewer people who are upset with us when they do call. They say, ‘Yeah, I saw in the email that you’re scheduling really far ahead.’”

The biggest advantage at Mercer is no longer arguing with disgruntled clients on the phone about not being able to get an appointment right away, as they were accustomed to. “Expectation management,” Feyrecilde says, “is everything.”

The most important thing, Feyrecilde noted, is that clients aren’t likely to come around on their own. “I think that they need our help to do that, and really we have to help ourselves first.”

Wendy Myers, CVJ, owner of Communications Solutions for Veterinarians, a consulting firm that coaches veterinary professionals on how to communicate effectively with clients, told NEWStat that Feyrecilde’s experience is a familiar one these days.

Myers mentions a friend of hers who owned a practice in a small, rural town. When the only other practice in town closed permanently during the pandemic, her friend’s hospital got slammed with calls from the other hospital’s suddenly former clients frantically trying to book appointments. This was in addition to her hospital’s COVID-induced backlog. Myers says clients have been so been mean-spirited that one stressed-out 30-year employee is considering quitting.

Myers agrees that Feyrecilde has the right idea when it comes to sending out reminders far in advance. “Forward booking will help you clear the backlog and offer more appointment choices,” she said. 

More importantly, Myers says, focus on what you can do. “Help clients understand your unique situation of higher-than-normal appointment demands during reopening phases.”

That’s exactly what Mercer staff is doing. “We tell clients we’re working as hard as we can,” Feyrecilde says. “I would love to tell clients, ‘yes, I can get you soon, I can get you in tomorrow.’ But the real answer I need to give them is ‘I can see you in four weeks.’”

Feyrecilde sees the benefits of transparency every day: “If we aren’t transparent with them, they’re just going keep abusing us because they don’t know what’s happening—and that’s hard on clients.”

And that, in turn, is hard on everyone. “Veterinary medicine,” Feyrecilde says, “is hard enough as it is.”

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