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Effective communication strategies for women—and men

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Jun 01, 2008

In Talking From 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work (Harper, 1995), Deborah Tannen, PhD, describes typical gender-based conversation like this: Men use banter, joking, and playful put downs to establish authority. Women try to maintain an appearance of equality, downplaying their own authority while taking the other person's reactions into account. These rituals play out with both positive and negative outcomes. All veterinarians want a positive outcome every time, of course. Here are three ways to make it happen.

1. Help clients, help yourself

Consider how the same client recommendation can sound different when it's made by a male ("Dr. Joe") versus a female veterinarian ("Dr. Jane"). The nuts and bolts of the recommendation might sound like this:

Dr. Joe: Mrs. Miller, Jeddy needs to have his teeth cleaned. It's critical to his quality of life and will help him live longer. We have time available in the schedule next Wednesday.

Mrs. Miller to receptionist: The doctor said I need to get Jeddy's teeth cleaned right away and he has time next Wednesday to do it.

Dr. Jane: Mrs. Miller, Jeddy's mouth is starting to show signs of periodontal disease. You really need to think about getting his teeth cleaned. We'll be happy to schedule that whenever you're ready.

Mrs. Miller to receptionist: No, I don't need to schedule an appointment for cleaning today; I'll give you a call later. Sure, send me a reminder.

In the first scenario, Dr. Joe established authority and credible urgency. In the second scenario, Dr. Jane made what appeared to be a casual suggestion. When making recommendations, it's crucial for women to convey their conviction that the procedure will make a difference in the pet's health.

Another client-communication deal breaker: a lightweight or vague response when a pet owner asks "Are you sure?" in response to your explanation of a pet's condition. When answering this question, Tannen says women more often downplay their certainty, whereas men usually downplay their doubts. What feeling do you get from these statements—both of which answer the question "Are you sure?" in essentially the same way.

Answer 1: In my experience, it is most often x, but I'm going to evaluate for y and z as well.

Answer 2: Well, it could be x, y, or z. We need to take a look at everything to be sure.

The difference is subtle but significant. Women more often give answer 2, presenting a range of possibilities. Clients could interpret this to mean she lacks confidence and they shouldn't trust what she says. Simply rephrasing your answer is an easy way to improve client compliance and establish your expertise without being heavy-handed or arrogant.

2. Ask for better business relationships

It's common practice to negotiate lower rates on business-related expenses, such as merchant services accounts. But most veterinarians I work with have no idea this is even possible. I coach practice owners to say something like this:

Practice owner: I've been a good client of yours for a long time and would like a lower rate on my account.

The typical vendor response: Yes, you are a good client. I'll lower your rate on the next billing cycle.

It's that easy. I've seen it happen time and again with almost every type of practice supplier. Just like you want to keep your clients happy in order to maintain and grow your business, your suppliers want to keep you as a customer. They're usually willing to work with you, but they won't offer a lower rate unless you initiate the discussion. I've worked with several women veterinarians during the last year who've realized expense reductions in the thousands of dollars simply because they asked.