JAVMA News logo

January 15, 2021

Client communication in a post-trust era requires a new perspective

Communications consultant reveals what messaging works when talking to clients
Published on January 06, 2021

Dr. Lindsey Hedges-Gieseking, owner of Pleasant Paws Veterinary Care in Lebanon, Indiana, has had plenty of “those” calls.

Just a few weeks ago, she heard from a client with a dog that had chronic back pain and had been managed with symptomatic care and rest. Over the weekend, the condition had progressed and did not improve with medication, so the owner took her dog to an emergency practice. The neurologist there performed an MRI and determined the dog needed surgery. Yet, the owner insisted on calling Dr. Hedges-Gieseking before going any further.

Dr. Hedges-Gieseking
Dr. Lindsey Hedges-Gieseking, owner of Pleasant Paws Veterinary Care in Lebanon, Indiana (Courtesy of Dr. Hedges-Gieseking)

“She wanted to talk to me before having surgery just because she didn’t meet the neurologist face to face and wanted to make sure she was making the best decision for her pet,” Dr. Hedges-Gieseking said. “It wasn’t a question of money—she had pet insurance, and with the MRI she had already met the deductible—but questions of: ‘Am I doing the best thing for my dog? How will she recover from surgery? What can I expect going forward?’ Her mind needed to be put at ease by someone she trusted.”

A similar call happened a week later when a dog that had an ongoing heart murmur started to cough and had breathing difficulty overnight. The owner took the dog to the emergency clinic, and the veterinarian there recommended starting IV diuretics and hospitalization.

“She was worried the emergency veterinarian made it sound like the only option for her, so she called me asking if there were options that hadn’t been addressed,” Dr. Hedges-Gieseking said. Eventually, she reassured the client she was doing the right thing and scheduled a follow-up appointment for radiographs and bloodwork.

Both those calls illustrate that, despite the credentials and experience of the veterinarians at the emergency practices, to pet owners, the relationship and connection with their own veterinarian often matters most.

Bridging the divide

Michael Maslansky
Michael Maslansky

It’s not about you when communicating with pet owners. It’s about them. “You have to figure out how to communicate in way that makes it about them,” said Michael Maslansky, owner of Maslansky & Partners communications consulting firm.

His presentation, “Starting Off on the ‘Right Paw’: How to Build Better relationships With Pet Owners,” during the annual AVMA Economic Summit, held virtually Oct. 26-28, 2020, centered around building trust in a post-trust era—that is, one filled with overwhelming skepticism.

“Trust has never been more important and less common,” he said. “That makes it harder for you in your practice to make sure you are having the most productive relationship.”

Maslansky & Partners, along with the AVMA and CareCredit, conducted research that looked at pet owners’ purchasing decisions.

The goal of the research was “to convince more pet owners of the value and importance of veterinary medicine, and encourage more of them to bring their pets in for care and wellness visits.”

Multiple focus groups consisting of five to 10 people each—with efforts to achieve demographic and geographic diversity—along with sessions to assess emotional responses, stakeholder Q&A sessions, and other information gathering informed the results, explained Nicole Nichols, senior director at Maslansky & Partners. The full results will be released later this year.

Maslansky’s communications consulting firm focuses exclusively on the effective use of language based on one idea: It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear. That is, helping people understand how their audience is likely to interpret their message and helping them find the right language to communicate with that audience.

The firm’s previous research on understanding how people engage with one another showed three things occur when people don’t provide each other the benefit of the doubt: Motives are challenged, facts are questioned, and people respond emotionally.

“All of these challenges are amplified in the current climate,” Maslansky said. “It is that much harder to quickly build trust or regain it. So how can we accelerate the process to rebuild trust?”

He gave four rules of thumb for credible communication: Be plausible, personal, plain-spoken, and positive.

Maslansky said the first rule gets at whether we have credibility in communicating whatever message we want to communicate. In most cases, the audience or client doesn’t believe what you believe. That requires companies—or veterinarians, in this case—to first understand what their truth is and where they are coming from.

Another thing to consider is this: You can’t convince someone of anything if they are not listening to you. So, he said, give them a reason to listen.

“Instead of ‘These products are safe,’ say, ‘You deserve access to all the information so you can decide whether these products are safe,’” Maslansky said. “You can’t just say products are safe because people likely aren’t going to believe you. Instead, don’t tell them what to think, but that you have enough respect for them that they can make the decision on their own.”

That means shifting from an almost confrontational perspective to one that allows them to decide on the basis of information.

“You may be leading them in a direction, but the fact that you give them agency makes it more likely they will trust you and will get to the conclusion you think is the right one,” he said.

To be personal and plain-spoken, veterinarians would do well to avoid technical or clinical terms when explaining decisions to clients as they may take that as being talked down to.

“If you say there is only one answer, or you have expertise and nothing they read online is valuable, or dismiss their point of view, even subtly, it hurts your credibility,” Maslansky said. “You have to ask, ‘What is it about what you read that makes you think it’s right?’

“It takes more time, and you probably already know the answer, and in a perfect world, you shouldn’t have to explain that to them, but it’s important.”

Finally, he recommends focusing on options, solutions, and taking things to the next step when giving bad news so people will listen more, be able to make a decision, and feel more positive about the veterinarian and the veterinarian’s role.

“The journey is important in getting pet owners to understand why it’s the right answer,” Maslansky said. “They probably won’t take your word for it if it’s an answer they don’t like. That’s frustrating because you have expertise, but it pays off because you’ll build trusted relationships, and that can help build referrals or help your business in other ways.”

Make it personal

Dr. Hedges-Gieseking, who attended Maslansky’s presentation, said her biggest takeaway was the importance of strengthening client relationships.

“That is our continuum through an ever-changing atmosphere—political or economic—those connections we have with clients and strengthening those through not only our time in the clinic, but also through telemedicine and services we can offer clients they can’t get from online pharmacies. They don’t want to do telemedicine with doctors they’ve never met before,” Dr. Hedges-Gieseking said. “The ability for us to connect and get to know their pets and be able to offer advice based on knowledge of their family dynamic is invaluable. Using tools like telemedicine and personal online pharmacies, things like that, will help us strengthen that bond.

“Somebody who doesn’t live here may say: ‘Your dog doesn’t need a leptospirosis vaccine. It’s noncore if you don’t go to ponds and lakes or do water sports.’ But as somebody who lives here, I know we’ve had lepto cases with lapdogs who are only in their backyard because we have wildlife everywhere, so we make it a core vaccine.

“When we have those conversations with clients, I’m not just telling them, ‘This is what your pet needs,’ but also, ‘This is why.’ I’m putting value behind that so that they understand. I’ll say, ‘We weren’t concerned about Lyme disease 10 years ago, and now it’s a hot bed, so yes, your pet needs tick preventives even if they’re not going in the woods.' It’s the tiny things we take for granted during wellness visits that keep the bond going stronger.”