As the COVID-19 pandemic prompts unprecedented social distancing measures and widespread community closures, solid communication with your clients is vital in a time when access to clinics and normal communication methods are being restricted.
“During this crisis, it’s important that essential veterinary services remain available for clients and animals in need,” says Michael San Filippo, senior media relations specialist for the American Veterinary Medical Association. “However, it’s just as important that veterinarians take steps to protect their patients, clients, and staff from potentially spreading the virus and getting sick.”
The following communication best practices can be employed in your practice throughout the coronavirus pandemic and beyond. Keep in mind that information is continuously evolving, so be sure to communicate with clients when circumstances change.
7 Ways to Communicate with Clients
A comprehensive communication approach will ensure you reach all of your clients. Some clients will visit your website or social media pages, actively searching for information, while others will read your emails or text messages. Other clients will call, wanting to speak with a live person.
“It’s important to talk to people in all the ways they want to talk to you,” says Mark Magazu, area business manager for Saint Francis Veterinary Center of South Jersey. “Email, texts, social media, and websites are important. But so are novel communication [platforms] such as FaceTime, WhatsApp, Skype, and other outlets that allow clients and doctors to communicate without physically being together.” Below is a breakdown of how to approach each channel.
“Direct email to clients is perhaps the best way to stay connected during this crisis,” says Ernie Ward, DVM, CVFT, owner of E3 Management, a veterinary practice management consulting service. “Nothing beats a personal email from veterinary providers. Many pet parents will be working from home, making emails more likely to be read and opened, especially if it’s from a trusted source.”
Every time you interact with a client, verify that their email address on file is still correct. “Sending emails to our clients is still a valuable tool, but only if we have updated email addresses,” says Travis Arndt, DVM, medical director of Animal Medical Center of Mid-America in St. Louis City and Maryland Heights, Missouri.
Your website is one of the first places clients will look for information. Update your website frequently to reflect adjustments in your hours of operation and post information about any changes to the check-in process or if certain services are unavailable.
Animal Medical Center of Mid-America set up a separate page on its site dedicated to coronavirus updates. “We have created a highly visible section on our website linking to a specific COVID-19 page on our site,” Arndt says. “This page includes clinic updates and resources and recommendations for pet parents. Our website was designed to be easily updated, which is very helpful for communicating developments frequently and quickly.”
Don’t forget to prominently state what clients should do in case of emergency. “Provide quick links and telephone numbers to available local emergency clinics,” Ward says.
You should also ensure links are active, especially email links. “I’ve seen hospitals that have an info@ email address, but the person who used to check them is no longer there and no one is monitoring,” says Stith Keiser, chief executive officer for Blue Heron Consulting, a veterinary consulting firm based in Danville, Kentucky.
“Social media posts are helpful for relaying hours of operation or changes in the scope of services,” Ward says. Don’t forget to update your Yelp and Google business profiles to reflect current hours of operation so clients don’t show up to a closed clinic.
Ensure a staff member is monitoring your social media pages and responding to client messages promptly. If you won’t be responding to messages daily, consider setting up an auto reply for messages that come through Facebook, directing your clients where to get up-to-date information (for instance, via your website).
Texting is a great tool for contacting clients in real time. Many practice management systems offer two-way texting so clinics can send and receive secure messages through their software. For instance, you can text clients when prescriptions are ready for curbside pickup, or ask clients to text the clinic when they arrive so a staff member can collect their pet from the car.
“For hospitals that use a communication platform—AllyDVM, PetDesk, etc.—I’ve found their texting functionality to be very helpful,” Keiser says. “If a clinic doesn’t have an app/platform, I do recommend the clinic cell phone versus having individual doctors give out their cell phones. It’s important to have a point person—that person can rotate—so someone is always responsible for the clinic phone and making sure that clients are engaged in a timely manner.”
Don’t forget about this important, personal means of communication. Provide extra training for your front office staff to ensure everyone is speaking calmly and providing reassuring and friendly service over the phone, even if they are getting used to new systems.
“Often overlooked, because it’s simple, we train our front desk on the high-level talking points as clients call in,” Keiser says. “We are proactively rebooking elective procedures and forward-booking appointments when a client calls with a non-emergency. Getting something on the books seems to be offering peace of mind.”
Remember this is an overwhelming time for everyone, including your front office staff, who may be dealing with the pressure of frustrated, worried, or angry clients. Touch base with your team often so you can help them provide helpful and courteous customer service, and encourage quick breaks away from stressful situations when possible.
When clients arrive at the clinic, they might need reminders about current operational procedures. Simple signage can cut down on confusion and make visits go smoother.
“We had signs made, including 18-by-24-inch yard signs [outside the clinic],” Arndt says. “A simple message of, ‘Please remain in your car. Text [your clinic’s number] when you arrive’ has been effective.”
Video Conferencing & Other Tools
For times that veterinarians need to speak with clients but are not physically in the same room, video conferencing platforms like FaceTime and Skype can feel more personal than a phone call.
“Waitlist options like WaitWhile.com are outstanding tools to use during the COVID-19 crisis,” Magazu adds. “They not only help clients who are waiting in their cars to see where they are in line, but they also allow for consolidated communication between your staff and your client.”
Communication Frequency & What to Say
Your clients are being inundated with COVID-19 messaging. Try to consolidate your communications to ensure they will be read, our experts recommend.
“It’s important to not overwhelm clients with too many emails, so we only send COVID-19 emails when necessary,” Arndt says. “We direct clients to our Facebook page and our website, as all updates are posted as they happen.”
Ward advises veterinary clinics to send out weekly updates, or as major developments occur. “Cite local news and announcements, along with steps the clinic continues to take to [help] prevent the spread of COVID-19 while preserving the health of their pet patients,” he says. “Be sure to include how your team can be reached, whether by phone, text, website, or messaging service.”
Your words matter as much as your method of communication. Keep messages clear, reassuring, and positive.
“Make sure your message is consolidated, so all your public channels are saying the same thing, and that all your employees are communicating a unified message,” Magazu says. “It’s important to be factual without being hyperbolic. You have important facts that pet owners need to know, and they are aware of the seriousness of COVID-19. There’s no need to ‘sugarcoat’ anything during this time.”
In addition to coronavirus-related procedure changes, consider including routine reminders (like parasite protection) and uplifting messages and tips.
“This is an excellent time to have pet owners conduct at-home health checks, such as teeth and oral exams, weight and body condition, skin and fur, lumps or bumps, and behavior,” Ward adds.
Animal Medical Center of Mid-America encourages clients to utilize their online pharmacy for their pet’s medication refills, reminding them to order early to account for potential shipping delays.
Staying Connected During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Veterinary professionals are uniquely qualified to provide pet owners with trustworthy information and also serve as a source of reassurance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This isn’t the first, nor will it be the last, challenge we face as business owners or as a profession,” Keiser says. “We are trained in science. We are trained in epidemiology. We understand people. This is an opportunity to lead the profession, to challenge how we’ve always done things as we’re forced to innovate. It’s a time to be a hero to our clients, the pets they love, and our team.”