Closing the communication gap (Sponsored by Intervet/Schering-Plough Animal Health)

Giving new associates a chance to develop positive relationships with clients and team members builds loyalty—and revenue.



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, are:

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.