Master this veterinary procedure: Client communication

Master this veterinary procedure: Client communication

The most difficult part of a tough diagnosis is telling your client. But if you view communication as a procedure you can master, your words become medical tools as well as bond-builders with pet owners.
Nov 01, 2011

A middle-aged couple presents to my clinic with an older dog to discuss therapy options for an oral tumor. The man stands across the exam room, arms folded across his chest. It's clear that he doesn't like what he's hearing. I notice his skepticism and address it directly. "It seems you may have some concerns with what I'm describing," I say. "Can I ask what your thoughts and concerns are?"

This simple question leads to the descovery that the client had a similar cancer himself and went through many of the procedures I was describing. Understanding his experiences and worries, I address in more detail how these things are different in dogs and provide more information along those lines.

By the end of the visit, the clients not only pursue multiple treatments for their pet, but the man is now standing next to me, chatting and smiling. If I had ignored the nonverbal cues and had just continued to educate about treatment options—rather than investigating, understanding, and expressing empathy for the client's concerns—I suspect the clients would have left without smiles and without treating their pet.

You've probably had similar experiences in your veterinary clinic. Talking to clients about a difficult diagnosis like cancer doesn't rank high on most veterinarians' list of favorite tasks. But the reality is that good communication allows us to practice better medicine. It bonds clients more tightly to our practice, which increases adherence to our recommendations and also benefits our bottom line.

The first step? Start thinking of client communication as a procedure. Since you speak with almost every pet owner who comes into the practice, it's actually the most common procedure you perform. And like with any procedure, you can improve your skills with practice. So stop thinking you're either a strong communicator or you're not. The following tips will help you become an expert in four key client communication skills—even if you're one of those veterinarians who prefers talking to pets rather than people.


A large part of all communication is nonverbal—and unintentional. Your clients' unconscious body language is akin to a poker player's "tell." If you know how to read these nonverbal cues, you can tell what a client is thinking or feeling. Case in point: How do you know when someone's angry? Usually it's because that person talks louder and changes her posture, not because she says, "I'm so mad!"

Often clients' nonverbal communication actually contradicts what they're saying. And body language doesn't lie. How many times have you asked clients if they understand, only to hear a soft "yes" in response while the client makes no eye contact? Nonverbal cues like this are signs that your cliens really don't understand. Paying attention to a client's tone of voice, facial expression, and posture will allow you to clarify the situation before a critical misunderstanding occurs.

Another plus: Being aware of and reacting to nonverbal clues takes up no extra time during an appointment. In fact, it may even save you time. All you need to do is note the nonverbal cues and, perhaps, comment on them (more on this below) to help guide the discussion in a more beneficial direction.