A loyal client of ABC Equine comes into the practice to dispute a charge. When Anna, a recent graduate and new associate at
ABC Equine, tries to explain the charge to the client, he becomes agitated at Anna's flat and long-winded explanation. The
client demands to speak with the owner, whom he's worked with for 20 years, As the owner resolves the conflict with the client,
he dismisses Anna and says to the client, "Sorry about that, she's new."
What made this situation go bad? Was it a gender issue? A generational issue? More likely it was a result of poor communication.
Poor communication and a lack of mentoring are problems found in many equine practices, says Dr. Mary Ann Vande Linde, a noted
veterinary communication specialist. In the situation described above, the clinic owner communicates to both the client and
the new associate, a recent graduate, that she is at fault. Anna becomes the scapegoat and her credibility with the client
plummets. That client may leave the practice because of his negative experience. The negative could continue if Anna hasn't
been given proper guidance on how to effectively communicate with clients. And if there's one axiom in the business world
that continuously rings true, it's that client loyalty dictates a business' financial success.
Why new graduates struggle
John B. McCarthy, DVM, MBA, CAE, wrote in his article, "New graduate growth hinges on mentoring,"* that the inexperience gap
between education and practice for new graduates manifests itself in several ways. Some examples, as noted by practice owners,
Poor client communication: New associates sometimes talk too much. They may try to discuss details of veterinary medicine
while trying to explain to clients what is wrong with their horse—too much information for a client to absorb in the span
of an examination. A major observation is that new associates sometimes use big words to sound authoritative or may spend
more time talking to the horse than to the client.
The money barrier: New associates are often reluctant or embarrassed to discuss fees. A sure sign of this is the new graduate
apologizing for having to charge whatever that fee might be.
The need for mentors
Recent graduates often need help transitioning from an academic environment into practice life. Owners and the clinic team
can facilitate this transition, helping new associates become an integral part of the practice. Under the guidance of a team
of mentors, recent graduates can exercise and improve their skills, get to know clients, and, most importantly, learn how
to communicate effectively with their clients. In order for this mentoring to be effective, however, the communication skills
of all team members need to be honed.
The team may be reluctant to communicate with the new associate because of past experiences they've had with new graduates.
They may feeling that new graduates lack experience or exhibit negative behavior. Team members may be disinclined to assign
responsibilities to the recent graduate, which communicates a lack of confidence in that person. As a result, the situation
is compounded because the new associate won't get the opportunity to gain experience and learn office protocol and procedures.
A communication strategy
Effective communication and mentoring starts with owners and practice employees communicating expectations to the new associate
positively and confidently. This will encourage the new hire to demonstrate his or her own abilities and skills. Have the
recent graduate spend a week in each department of the practice, learning and observing from the team members. Then have them
spend a week with a technician and a receptionist so they can learn how the practice runs—and more importantly—how to communicate
with their coworkers and clients.
The new associate should also spend a week with the practice owner, shadowing him or her on calls and experiencing first hand
the practice's standard of care. The owner can introduce the new associate to clients, which in turn exhibits confidence in
the new doctor and sets them both up for a positive relationship down the road.
The practice owner can help the new associate communicate better with clients and with the team, both by example and guidance.
When I was fresh out of veterinary school, I had the pleasure and opportunity to have great mentors who set the standard for
the rest of my practice life by teaching me how to communicate with clients, how to be an advocate for the horse, and how
to be an effective and valued new team member.
We are in the client service business, and the x-factor that all profitable practices possess is exceptional communication—with
their clients and each other. It just makes sense.
*McCarthy JB. New graduate growth hinges on mentoing. DVM Newsmagazine [serial online] 2005. Available at
http://www.dvm360.com/. Accessed July 9, 2008.
Dr. Guenther is owner and president of Mountain Management & Consulting Inc., in Asheville, N.C. He is also an Editorial Advisory
Board Member for Veterinary Economics magazine.