Managing Conflict Before it Starts

 

By: Debbie Boone, BS, CVPM – Originally published on Weave.

Since veterinary medicine has been considered essential since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have been unfortunately entangled in the downhill progression of human behavior.  

In the beginning, when veterinary teams determined the best way to keep everyone safe was to move to curbside care, practices found the majority of clients appreciative of their concern and the creative solution to pet care. As the weeks of confinement and limitations wore on, clients became less collaborative and more demanding.  On the opposite side of the coin, veterinary teams were working short-staffed, with split teams, and dealing with an ever-increasing caseload.  These circumstances have developed components for the perfect storm – overworked veterinary staff and over wrought clients.  Managers, in efforts to protect their staff, fired unruly clients and risked the inevitably one-sided negative review.  But what if none of this had to happen? 

In stressful situations, humans are not doing their best thinking.

Enter a pandemic, racial unrest, financial insecurity, and kids out of school two months before summer vacation and you have stressed people.  Similar to fearful animals entering the vet’s office, the limbic brain is running the show.  It is fueled by adrenaline and cortisol- a cocktail sure to create havoc.  How can we overcome reactive thinking?  

Communication!

During abnormal times like these, every normal routine and habit has been disrupted.  The cerebellum – smart brain– can’t take over and create logical thought because the limbic – reactive– brain is telling us to freeze, flee or fight.  Even though we may think we are fine, the underlying vibration of fear is unusually close to the surface – only taking a minor event to set off the explosion. 

To avoid the eruption, we must learn to communicate negative events with positive “spin”

For example, since most hospitals are booking weeks out for routine care, they are going to have to inform a client who calls of this fact.  Rather than saying, “ I am sorry Mr. Jones we are booked solid until 3 weeks from today” we should say, “I am happy to help you, I can book you and Sam at our first open appointment Sept xx” Will that work for your schedule?”   

The subtle difference: the first comment is a barrier statement that basically said – I don’t want to help and here is the roadblock why.  The second statement is offering to serve and giving them the first opening.  Each statement sets a different tone but has the same end result- an appointment 3 weeks out.  In the second statement, the client hears a positive offer to help rather than a “we don’t care we are busy” statement which could set them off.   

Here is a helpful tip. Use your recorded calls from your Weave phone system to review client interactions. Discuss how a more positive spin could have been accomplished. Allow staff members to listen to themselves and critique their performance. Where did it go wrong and how could the language used have been changed for a better outcome?  There is no better training tool than the recorded call. 

Second tip: We are instructing clients to call us from the parking lot and then not being able to answer the phone because our lines are busy. This is certainly ramping up frustration. Get Weave and have unlimited phone lines and the ability to text to remove the phone call pain points from the front desk and medical team.

Blindsiding people is one sure way to launch anger.  When you change your workflow dramatically, it is imperative that you inform your clients many times of the changes. The typical practice communicates the new curbside protocol when the client service representative makes the appointment. The client is instructed to bring a phone and call when they are parked in the lot.  Yet they are arriving without phones, thinking that curbside is like the Sonic and a carhop will just arrive, then getting upset that no one is coming to help them.  

 

Stressed brains don’t THINK well, and they listen even worse. Clients should have at least 5 communications about protocol changes to prepare them for their visit, provided it is not urgent.  

  1. Send an email letter to all clients informing them of how the new protocols work (here is a template for you to use Open Letter to Clients Template).
  2. At the appointment call – inform them again to bring a phone, call from the lot, bring paperwork and have the pet secured in a carrier or with a harness or leash.  
  3. During the call, inform the client you will be emailing a checklist to them and when the appointment is booked send this checklist reinforcing all the things you just told them
  4. When calling or texting to confirm the appointment a few days before, reference the checklist and ask the client to confirm they received it.
  5. The morning of the appointment, send a text or email again reminding them to bring their phone, etc.

*Add the new protocol information to your on-hold message.  

This seems like overkill, but the repetition stresses the importance of what you need them to bring and do.  People don’t listen well in normal times, and they are so distracted now they are really not focusing on our instructions. Repetition is the key to success.  

Empathy, understanding, good listening and positive messaging will go a long way towards guiding on-edge clients down a calm and cooperative path.  

If I can help with your communication training, please reach out. Remote training is available!