By Caroline Brookfield, DVM
Have you recently seen a wave of public articles from veterinarians about our challenges in working in a high stress and emotional career? Articles that highlight our struggle with student loan debt, the high rate of suicide, long hours, high client expectations, and the stress of having a less than desirable salary. Shocking statistics that are shining a light into the dark areas of Veterinary Medicine.
In a short time frame, veterinarians have gone from well-respected community members to being open to scrutiny - in some cases being distrusted and vilified. As a practicing vet for 20 years, I've seen the transition from clue-less to "clued in" by Google, any random person with a dog, and anyone with access to a smartphone. I don't know how many that is, but it seems like a lot. When I first started practicing, email was pretty new. "Dr. Google" had just started through listserv groups, but most people still ultimately trusted their vet. If they didn't, they found another vet. It sure felt like clients had less access to random and anecdotal information from a variety of sources. All of this information and misinformation leaves clients distrustful and feeling powerless when it comes to their pet's health care.
When I observe vet reactions to a client challenging their plans, I often see vets withdraw into defensive mode. WE aren't in it for the money, WE love animals, WE just want to make a good wage, WE want to have qualified staff that last more than a few years, WE just want you to appreciate how hard we work to make your pet better.
I'm curious about this. Because, honestly, nobody gives a crap about us. What they care about is themselves. And their pets. So I don't think playing the victim card is going to be effective. Yet there is clearly a crisis among veterinary professionals. So what should we do? We all want to be appreciated, live a good quality of life, help animals live better lives, and have enough money to live on.
What if we switch from defensive mode to offensive mode. Hear me out. Those roadblocks and criticisms we get from clients like "I don't want to spend money on an old dog" or "I won't pay for that test", or even "my breeder says...." are just part of the buying process that is common among all industries. Are we just figuring this out? Objections have always been there, but clients are now emboldened by public support and an online forum to voice their concerns.
Here's a crazy thought - why don't we start to sell our services? I hate "selling" too. I'm still not overly good at it, but I'm learning. I used to think, like many of my colleagues, that selling was unethical, manipulative, and demeaned my professional standing. I had an epiphany after taking a professional communications course. In the introduction to the course, our instructor defined the difference between Persuasion and Manipulation.
per·sua·sion - the action or fact of persuading someone or of being persuaded to do or believe something.
ma·nip·u·la·tion - the action of manipulating someone in a clever or unscrupulous way.If you believe you are manipulating a client when you recommend pre-operative bloodwork, or that you are being unscrupulous when you advocate for a fine needle aspirate on that suspicious lump - then I would argue that you don't believe what you are doing is in the best interest of the animal. If you are using techniques to "sell" them on these ideas, in the animals' best interest, is that unethical? If you think yes, then don't complain that your client is asking Susie at the pet store about nutrition, or Jeff the breeder in North Carolina about the lump. Because you can bet your bottom dollar that Susie is selling. Hard. And maybe not in an ethical way, with less education, and possibly an inferior product. I'm not advocating that you persuade people to spend money they don't have, or to do unnecessary tests. That would be manipulation (see definition above especially the “unscrupulous” part). A treatment plan, as we all know, is always titrated to the individual situation and client. Let's use sales to put adequate conviction behind a recommendation.
Learning sales techniques to increase your message's effectiveness, is the same as learning the most effective technique to treat a disease.Why don't vets sell? We hear that sales objection, and it stops us dead in our tracks. We take it personally, we get offended, we roll our eyes and think "oh cripes not one of these....insert annoying client behavior here". We feel judged, criticized, vilified.
A google search on "dealing with sales objections" revealed 410 000 results. I guess it's a common problem. Who knew? The first article that came up on my search was from Salesforce, a popular customer relations software. I found it helpful to summarize what are objections and some ways to handle them. In the book "To Sell is Human", Daniel Pink speaks specifically on the challenge of "selling" ideas in healthcare and education. The three qualities that Pink suggests are the new requirements for moving people to action are; Attunement, Buoyancy and Clarity. A few of his tips that I believe veterinarians should be using in every appointment (read the book for more) include:
So, the next time someone says "but that's too expensive" you can think Ah!!! Here is the Objection!!! Put on your rational process pants, and realize "I know how to handle this"! Ask questions. Keep asking questions. Then ask a few more. Come from humility and service to the client and the pet. You might find you don't need the "spiel" at all. In fact, I'll bet you see better results without it.
Using ethical sales techniques, your patient, you, and your client will be rewarded with a richer, more fulfilling relationship. A side benefit may be a better bottom line and you won’t even have to mention your rusting beater car or your hefty student loan.
The Admin Team of NOMV is a group of veterinarians dedicated to improving veterinary mental health.