Client Service Communication

Much has been said of the challenges veterinarians and veterinary technicians have faced during the pandemic, but little has been said about the customer service representative (CSR) team members who face a daily onslaught of problematic clients. They are cursed at, berated, hung up on, and sometimes physically threated when clients don’t get their way.

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How to Strengthen Emotional Intelligence for Turbulent Times

As anyone who has been working in a veterinary hospital over the last two years knows, clients have become exceedingly difficult. Much has been made of the challenges veterinarians and veterinary technicians have faced during the pandemic, but little has been said about the customer service representative (CSR) team members who face a daily onslaught of problematic clients. They are cursed at, berated, hung up on, and sometimes physically threated when clients don’t get their way.

Through multiple studies, we know that mental health has taken a serious decline during the COVID-19 pandemic. Humans are meant to be social, and the constraints of isolation, chronic fear of disease, political upheaval, and cyber misinformation has created a population “living on the edge.” Add to that universal mental stress veterinarians who are limiting capacity due to overwhelm or overbooking, and you have a client service disaster ready to erupt any moment.

The client service team is charged with navigating the demands of persistent clients, protecting the boundaries of their medical team, and providing opportunity for care for their patients. Their job is much like walking the tightrope over the Grand Canyon—a slight misstep could lead to disaster.

The Emotional Factor

I started my career as a part-time CSR in a two-doctor AAHA-accredited hospital. The practice was walk-in only at that time and clients would get cranky having to wait to be seen. Prior to veterinary medicine I worked as a cashier, hostess, and waitress in my family’s restaurant. “Hangry” people are a real thing. So, I grew up dealing with people and learning to manage my emotions and the emotions of others. Years later, I discovered this strategy has a name: emotional intelligence (EI). It is found to be a better indicator of success than the intelligence quotient (IQ).

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The constraints of isolation, chronic fear of disease, political upheaval, and cyber misinformation has created a population “living on the edge.”

How do you build emotional intelligence? Obviously, life experience is a good teacher because people learn from communication failures and then rethink their actions the next time that type of situation occurs. But we don’t want our clients to have to experience negative communication events just so our staff can learn from their mistakes.

I believe the first step in training CSRs, and all team members, to have better EI is to inform them about how the human brain functions as it pertains to EI and limbic responses. The term “behavior acumen” is the best description of this type of knowledge. The components of behavior acumen are:

  1. Ability to focus and actively listen. People who have this ability can parse out what the customer is saying, get to what they are “feeling,” and then appropriately respond with empathy and finesse.
  2. Understanding the consequences. With high emotional intelligence, people can understand the consequences of allowing their emotions to hijack their logical thought and have mindful skills to control their reactions.
  3. Affinity for problem solving. Using the “smart part” of our brain to overcome negative emotion and to “work the problem” for the client will help lead them to an appropriate solution.
  4. Recognizing stakeholder needs. Consider this adage: “Why do people want to buy a drill? Because they need a hole.” The drill is not what we are selling, we are selling the ability to make a hole quickly and easily. Clients need medical education on their level, empathy, information about costs, no surprises, and a guide in fearful times, all provided by someone they can trust.

The challenge in training is how to develop these skills in our CSRs when time is limited.

Training Tips

Without a plan, very important areas can be missed, leading to frustration, failure, and job abandonment. Hiring is a tedious and expensive task; we don’t want to waste the effort and lose the employee because of poor planning.

The first step in training is to develop a step-by-step checklist that begins with the simple tasks of orientation (see sidebar “CSR Training Resources”) to the practice and moves up to client conflict resolution. Over the years, I have advised teams to develop these lists by simply placing a notepad or creating a Word document that the experienced staff can access.

Then, have them document what they do all day. No one understands a task like those actually performing the work. Then we take this task list and organize it for beginner, intermediate, and expert levels. Once the list is formulated, the trainer can work with the new employee in a step-by-step manner until proficiency is reached in each level.

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Many studies show that having a mentor during the onboarding and training greatly increases retention and successful skills acquisition.

In addition to the official trainer, a new employee should also have a mentor. The job of the mentor is to be a “friend in need,” a connector to others on the team or sounding board that the trainee can go to if the trainer is not providing sufficient explanation. They can also help navigate the many personalities on the team and help the new person avoid any social faux pas. Many studies show that having a mentor during the onboarding and training greatly increases retention and successful skills acquisition.

This does not release the manager from the obligation of checking back regularly with the new hire to confirm they are happy, getting the training they need, and enjoying the work.

Once the employee is trained in the beginning level tasks and the trainer and the employee have signed off on the skills list, it is time to begin the real work of client service. I found that having new staff members wear a button that said “Bear with Me, I Am New” with a picture of a cartoon bear was very helpful.

Everyone who has ever started a job knows the discomfort of being the new kid. Our long-time clients would often guide new employees in tasks because they knew the drill so well. It was really amusing to see, and the clients loved being “insiders” and knowing the routine.

The new employee should be allowed to perform beginner tasks while being monitored by the trainer. Having a phone system like Weave that records calls can be a big help in training call management. It is often the nuance of language that can create a successful encounter or quickly lead to an escalating conflict.

Having the trainee and the trainer listen to recorded calls helps uncover the language being used and train for better communication. For example: A client calls to book an appointment and there is no immediate availability. A typical response to the client is, “Mr. Jones, I am sorry, but we don’t have any appointments until June third.” This sets up a negative tone from the beginning. Instead, try: “Mr. Jones, I am happy to help you—would June third work for your schedule?” The client is getting the same answer, but the tone is very different.

Don’t Forget About Experienced Staff

Much effort is focused on new employees, but we can’t neglect training for our experienced staff. Much like learning algebra, if we don’t continuously practice our skills, we will lose them.

AAHA Communication Standards

AAHA has many standards related to effective communication. Here are a few examples:

  • The practice should utilize a documented training program to effectively communicate with clients, including:
    • Initial greeting (acknowledgment)
    • Patient’s health status
    • Treatment plan and cost
  • The practice should utilize a training system to enable practice team members to perform telephone-related functions such as answering the phone, using the intercom, transferring calls, and taking messages.
  • Client feedback should be actively solicited. Such feedback might include focus groups, client surveys and evaluations, and client input discussed during client service meetings.
  • The practice should utilize a written client conflict protocol to help effectively address upset and unhappy clients. Topics include client communication and how the conflict and follow-up will be handled.

Today many practices utilize monthly paid wellness plans. The success or failure of these plans is greatly dependent on the comfort and skill level of the CSRs to present and sell them. In 2015, Wendy Hauser, DVM, and I wrote a book on implementing monthly paid preventive care plans. In the appendix of this book, we developed a step-by-step roleplay along with a list of the typical components and the client-friendly explanations of those services for the team to learn.

This training helped many CSRs understand the reason behind the services and guided them to the language needed so they didn’t feel like a pushy salesman. This same principle works for dental care, flea and parasite prevention, and all the other maintenance-type care that practices provide. Knowledge is power, and it manifests in confidence. Confidence shines through our conversations, and clients trust those who easily share their knowledge with conviction.

CSR Training Resources

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Never think you have to invent the wheel. There are many great training resources available to utilize for your CSRs.

Set up an organized plan for utilizing any of the below resources, and keep in mind that you can’t expect employees to learn on their own time.

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD A LIST OF CSR TRAINING RESOURCES

When I managed practices, my staff was required to take four training modules. Gold star customer service, common telephone questions and answers, preventive care, and the employee manual (because no one ever really reads it). They then took a 50-questionmultiple-choice test on each module, which they had to pass with 90% or above. If they didn’t make the grade, they were given one more month to study and then they took an essay test.

Once they passed all four tests, they were given a $1.00 per hour raise. This was the best investment I ever made as a manager. The team was all on the same page, solid in their recommendations, and proud of their knowledge—and clients felt it. Our hospital had a 90% compliance rate on preventive care as measured by an outside company. Training pays off for the pet, the owners, the team, and the practice.

One of the constant pushbacks I get when it comes to training is, “We are too busy, we don’t have time.” No—we make time for what we believe is important. We will squeeze in one more appointment or one more surgery because we believe it is necessary for the health of a patient.

Training your team is just as important for your patients’ health. Training is an investment! Some of the most successful hospitals I have encountered as a consultant will close down and take the team offsite for training. In larger hospitals, this can be a $20,000 or more investment. Yet they do it. Those hospitals have good retention, positive culture, great compliance, and positive cash flow and profit.

People will always be your wisest investment. 

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Debbie Boone, CVPM, Fear FreeSM Certified, has worked for the veterinary profession for more than 30 years. After earning her bachelor’s degree in animal science from North Carolina State University, she began as a client care representative and quickly moved into hospital administration. Debbie has experience in the management of small animal, mixed animal, specialty, and emergency practices.

 

Photo credits: SolStock/collection via Getty Images; SolStock/collection via Getty Images; Juice Flair/collection via Shutterstock; Irina Strelnikova/collection via Shutterstock; Darrin Klimek/iStock via Getty Images

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