As veterinary professionals, our staff and I have a unique challenge when trying to communicate our recommendations. Everything we do has to be paid for by the owners as an out-of-pocket expense. If we’re not careful, we’ll quickly start to sound like a door to door salesman.
I’ll apologize up front to any salespeople reading the blog. I don’t mean to disrespect the profession. What I’m trying to do is make it clear that there’s an important difference when the situation includes a living being as the focus point.
That’s indeed the catch. We have a LOT of information to convey in a short period of time. Pets need a lot of care. Each pet also deserves to have their health care delivered in a customized way. Not every dog is exposed to the same environment. Cats face drastically different risks if they’re outdoors at all. Age, gender, and breed are also factors.
Clients only have a limited amount of time to spend at the hospital. It’s our 10-hour-a-day work, but for our pet owners, it can be a 1-hour ordeal. Catching a cat or loading up the dog and kids makes things complex on the best days. On a bad day…well, let’s just say that I’ve seen some owners come in looking like they desperately need a warm, sunny beach and a margarita.
In the short time we have to get an owner’s attention, we need to convey recommendations for:
General care at home — feeding, exercise, grooming, lifestyle/activities
Parasite prevention — heartworm, intestinal worms
Vaccines — only what they’re at risk for, but we have to take lifestyle into account
Labwork — additional blood testing, urine analysis, x-rays, etc.
Ongoing or New Problems — if we find something wrong, we recommend treatments
I could spend hours and hours talking about all of the things on that list. The blog is proof of that! Many of those items have their own posts. Some even have a series.
Hours are exactly what I don’t have in an exam room. I’ve got 10 minutes or so. The technicians have another 15-20, during which they make the bulk of the recommendations. (We’ve trained them to know exactly what to select as priorities for a pet.) If I spend more than a few minutes on a given topic, owners are overwhelmed with information.
In order to make the visit more pleasant for owners, we try to condense our explanations to the most critical, key points. That sounds good in theory. A few simple, meaty phrases ought to convey the idea, right? It’s more tricky than it seems. I’ll provide an example.
Distemper vaccine is something nearly every dog should have. It’s a combination vaccine with distemper virus, hepatitis virus, parainfluenza virus, and parvo virus in it. We give a series to puppies, then a booster 1 year later, then a booster every 3 years. This is a critical vaccine. These viruses cause damaging and/or fatal illness. The viruses are out there in the environment or are transmitted by other dogs. (There’s more I could go on about…)
An owner sitting there while I babble on about each of these viruses and risks will know two things. First, that I could put a classroom to sleep with no trouble at all just by continuing this lecture. Secondly, that they’ve got 50 other things to do that day and my teaching on veterinary immunology isn’t helping that list get smaller. I know both of these things, too. What’s the solution?
“Mrs. Jones, Davy needs his distemper vaccine.” Efficient, clear, and utterly, totally lacking ANY clue for an owner as to whether I’m just saying that because we always do, or if Davy really does need that vaccine to keep him safe. Add the fact that I’ve also said the same thing about the rabies vaccine, the lepto vaccine, the bordetella vaccine, heartworm and flea/tick prevention, a glucosamine supplement for Davy’s bad hips, annual heartworm test and bloodwork, and some ear medication. He also needs his teeth cleaned.
Suddenly, that distemper vaccine is in a massive group from which an owner will have trouble choosing a priority. Which are critical and which could we put off a month or two? And how much is this all going to cost? There’s the dilemma, folks, and you’ve all been in that position. You’ve been on the other side of the exam room table while I lay all that stuff out and then wait expectantly for the OK.
My hope is that the clients know without a doubt that I wouldn’t recommend something that a pet didn’t need. I just don’t do that. If you’re meeting me for the first time, though, or if the recommendation comes from one of the techs, you may not realize that everything we’ve said should be done should, in fact, be done.
Bridging the gap between the blanket list of recommendations and the mind-numbing veterinary school lectures on each little pathogen is where “sales” comes in. We have to offer enough information so that owners understand the why of our recommendations without being overwhelmed with the “because” of our recommendations. Short, pertinent bits of info are helpful. “Marketing lingo” isn’t.
“Davy is a social dog that goes to daycare and plays in the dog park on weekends. He needs to be protected from diseases that are passed by other dogs or that he might be exposed to outdoors. Kennel cough, lepto, distemper, rabies, intestinal worms, fleas and ticks are all things he could run into. All dogs need to be on heartworm prevention, which also takes care of intestinal worms. You also mentioned that after playing, he seems to have trouble getting up from the ground, so I’m recommending a joint supplement that should help.”
Is that better, or does it sound like a sales pitch? I’m undecided. The longer the list, the more it sounds like a sales pitch. I didn’t even start talking about the dental care that’s needed (which I would during a visit). There’s just no perfect answer. It may seem rude to an owner, but asking “why?” is a really good thing. It lets me know where I should spend time explaining. If we all agree that Rabies is a vaccine Davy’s getting today, but you’re undecided about lepto, we can detail that more fully.
The truth is that as time goes on, we’re better able to care for pets. We learn continuously. We do our best to offer the very best we can to care for your pet. I recommend what’s needed. I mention things that are optional. I’m crystal clear if something is critical or essential.
It all comes back to trust again, doesn’t it? I’m always more than happy to explain things at length. On those days when the dog and the kid puked in the car, you’ve got ten more errands, and money’s tight? You’re likely to want the speech short and sweet. “You need to do a, b, and c today. Please consider x. In 6 months at the next appointment, we’ll do y and talk about z again.”
We start with what’s medically best so that we have an honest start. We can then move on to the economics and talk about the most affordable way to accomplish the best care.
Thanks for reading!