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AVMA members have access to a 24/7 hotline at (626) 531-1140 staffed by crisis management experts at Bernstein Crisis Management.
Your online reputation is an extension of your overall reputation It can also have an impact on your practice’s bottom line. While the Internet and social media pose unique challenges to reputation management, it is largely because they provide a platform for amplifying complaints, rather than creating new ones.
That means that your clinic’s actual business practices are an important key to managing your reputation. The best way to “manage” a complaint is to avoid it in the first place.
But even with the best practice, anyone can come under criticism. So it’s also important to have plans in place to help determine whether and how to respond. Equally important is having a monitoring operation in place so that you know about any criticism as quickly as possible.
Following are best practices you should follow at your clinic to help minimize both the likelihood of complaints and the damage to your reputation from any criticism that you do receive.
Measures for protecting your online reputation and reducing the risk of complaints or attacks include:
Good business best practices can include:
- Create a cushion of goodwill. Make it a habit for your entire staff to cultivate client loyalty through compassionate care, communication and a policy of “no surprises” in disclosing information to clients. Loyal clients will generally support you in a crisis and may even come to your defense, but this loyalty isn’t created overnight, or in the face of criticism – it’s built over years of quality service and care. In several cases reported to us, veterinary practices actually have seen an increase in business during and following a crisis because their loyal clients rallied around them.
- Provide clinic tours as requested, to allow clients and prospective clients to see the facility and the areas where their pet may be examined, treated or housed. Assume that a clinic tour can happen at any time, and ensure that your staff members are always on their best behavior and that the clinic is as clean and welcoming as possible.
- Post photos of all animal areas (where animals may be examined, treated or housed) on your website to showcase your practice.
- Discuss client issues as a team to build a workplace culture that supports good client relationships alongside good medicine.
- Recognize, acknowledge, and resolve issues with dissatisfied clients – before they leave the hospital. Responding to complaints and grievances quickly and face-to-face can help prevent a client from escalating their complaints online.
- Clearly communicate exam findings, diagnostic and treatment options. Observe the client’s body language – does it appear they understand? If not, try a different explanation and ask if they have any questions. Provide written documentation and, if in doubt, ask the client to sign a copy of the documents and keep the documents on file. For complex cases, consider following up (or having a skilled technician follow up) with the client later that day or the next day to provide an opportunity to ask and answer any questions that may have arisen after your conversation.
- An informal evaluation of Yelp reviews about veterinary clinics showed that the majority of negative posts focused on problems with customer service and communications, not the level of care provided. Common complaints included rude or uninterested staff; unexpected costs; and lack of understanding of what care was provided to their animal.
- Provide written, itemized estimates for care and regularly update clients on the ongoing costs. Acknowledge financial limitations with compassion and understanding, and offer options (financing, payment plans, credit programs, etc.) when possible.
Communications in the clinic
- Develop and implement appropriate measures for resolving staff conflict and preventing workplace bullying. One of the more disturbing results of our 2014 cyberbullying survey was the number of comments from veterinarians regarding the frequency of bullying among veterinary practice staff, both on the premises and on social media channels. Seven out of ten cyberattacks were initiated by former clients or staff.
- Cultivate an open environment that fosters productive dialog and is exemplified by all higher-level staff in the practice. Two certificate programs on AVMA Axon include modules to support you in creating welcoming workplace environments: the Brave Space program includes CE on preventing workplace harassment, and the Workplace Wellbeing program covers topics including creating a culture of wellbeing and transforming conflict.
- Make sure you have appropriate HR policies in place and that they are enforced.
- When a staff member resigns or is terminated, immediately remove their access to your social media channels and any editing access to your website. Change any necessary passwords to prevent their access to the profiles once their employment ends.
- Do you have a process for immediately revoking that staff member's access to your website and social media channels, even outside of office hours?
- Seek training for your entire staff on effective conflict resolution techniques. Training your staff to effectively resolve conflicts will not only reduce conflict and stress among staff; it will reduce client complaints and dissatisfaction.
- Train staff to avoid "oversharing" on the phone. If a caller begins to ask probing questions, or questions that seem to be unrelated to their pet's issues, train your staff to politely end these conversations. If your clinic performs any procedure that may be perceived as controversial, train your support staff to encourage inquiring pet owners to make an appointment to discuss the procedure thoroughly with the veterinarian. For example, the staff could state, "Let's set up an appointment so you can discuss your pet's problem, your concerns, and the pros and cons of each of the options for resolving the issue so you can make an informed decision.
- Provide your staff with support to reduce compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue can be a significant problem in veterinary practices, and can negatively impact staff interactions with each other and with clients or potential clients.
- Establish and maintain appropriate and ethical professional communication with your colleagues, even if you disagree on case management. Avoid making comments about colleagues in front of clients.
- Never discuss clients where they or other clients can overhear you. This includes discussions you might have with colleagues in the clinic, as well as comments and posts on social media. Anything you post online, especially on social media, can take on a life of its own and be distributed far beyond the audience you originally intended. Never use social media as a platform to vent frustration about your workplace, your colleagues, or your clients; it’s just too risky.
- Keep interpersonal drama out of medical records. Ensure medical note entries are relevant to the medical care of the patient and not used as a platform to discuss grievances between staff and clients. All medical notes must be provided to clients upon request – without first being able edit insulting content from them.
- Ensure you have permission to post client or patient photos or videos. It may seem formal and uncomfortable to ask, but protecting your reputation includes ensuring that the photos you post of patients and clients 1) are appropriate; 2) demonstrate your mission and level of care; 3) do not violate your clients’ privacy or trust, or create a perception of violation; 4) do not upset the client/owner of the pet; and 5) are approved by the animal owner and each person shown in the image or video.
- Your legal counsel may have a template form or may develop one for you; or there are many sites, such as Rocket Lawyer and FormSwift, that allow you to create these forms free of charge. Ideally, your legal counsel should review the form to ensure that you are adequately protected.
- Consider adding a generic release on your treatment authorization form or client registration/information form that allows pet owners to authorize the sharing of appropriate photos.
- Steer clear of photos or videos of pets under anesthesia, in surgery, or compromised in any way.
- Protect your staff and clinic from unauthorized recording. Post a notice in your waiting area, exam rooms, and anywhere else that clients may enter, stating that photos or video may not be obtained without written permission. Although this may be difficult to enforce, when combined with the “don’t give them a reason to film/photograph” rule, it can reduce your risk of harmful photos or videos being recorded and posted online to damage your reputation.
- Provide opportunities for training on personal safety. Consider contacting your local police department to request that they provide a regular personal safety talk yearly, and at times when you may be facing cyberbullying or other threatening situations. This could focus on general practices to keep employees safe and reduce threats.
Communications with colleagues
- Remember to remain professional when interacting with colleagues or their clients online, even when you're using your personal social media accounts.
- Avoid second-guessing colleague's decisions in public or in front of clients or staff, especially when it's based on hearsay in person or on social media.
Owning your online presence
- Provide positive stories to the media during times where there is no negative issue, and nurture good relationships with local media outlets and others in the community.
- Invest time and effort into developing and maintaining your practice’s website. Your website is both an advertisement and a front door to your business. Make sure that it projects an image that really reflects who you are – professional, caring, and compassionate.
- Include up-to-date staff biographies that showcase the credentials and expertise of your staff.
- Be sure that your contact information – including address, phone number and an email address that will be monitored constantly – is displayed prominently on your home page. It’s important to give anyone who might be unhappy with you a private means to get hold of you and voice their complaints; if clients view social media as the only route to get your attention, they’ll be more likely to make their complaints public.
- You might also consider a blog function, as blogging can help you showcase your knowledge, professionalism, and compassion; but only go this route if you have time to maintain the blog and post quality content on a regular basis – at least once a week and preferably more often.
- Your website must be mobile-friendly as well; some clients will look for you while browsing on their smartphones, and your Google search rankings also will be hurt if your site is not mobile-friendly.
- Make sure that your important contact information is just as prominent in the mobile display as on your full website.
- Take ownership of your practice’s domain name. If someone wants to seriously harm your business’ reputation, an easy way to do it would be to create a fraudulent website presented as that of your business. Several businesses and politicians have learned the costly lesson of the reputational damage that can result from not owning your domain name.
- Take ownership of your Google Places presence, and make sure you include your official website. This helps prevent other businesses from purchasing Google AdWords for your practice's name.
- Take ownership of your online listings on review sites such as Yelp and Google Reviews. This allows you to better shape how your practice is displayed (images, description, etc.) and prevents someone else from hijacking your online presence. Once you’ve claimed your listing, you can also be notified via email when a review is posted.
- Encourage your clients to review your clinic by prominently displaying your presence on review sites and social media. Do not, however, attempt to ‘bribe’ your clients to give you positive reviews, as sites such as Yelp penalize businesses for doing so; simply provide clients an opportunity to review your practice.
- Implement a social media policy for your clinic and staff that describes what is and is not appropriate behavior on social media regarding clients, patients and coworkers. It should address the tone of your practice’s posts; who is allowed to post on the practice’s behalf; the use of images (including obtaining permission to use photos of clients and/or their animals); and a chain of command for responding to potential developing crises. Modify this template to address your clinic’s specific needs. (Please note that this sample is not a legal document, and you should consult with legal counsel as necessary when developing your own policy.)
The plan should include response plans for likely scenarios and training of employees to implement the plan. Sample scenarios for private practice include:
- Specific questions posted on social media by clients about their animal’s care
- Questions asking for advice outside of an existing veterinarian-client-patient relationship
- Comments from terminated staff
- Comments from terminated clients
- Comments from clients turned away because they could not or would not pay for care
- Clients complaining about the bill or the quality or outcome of their animal’s care
- Clients alleging negligence or malpractice that may have led to the death of their animal
- Team error or misconduct, such as posting inappropriate or unauthorized material on the practice’s social media channels, or making social media posts that impact and reflect poorly on your practice
- Threats made against your practice or members of your team
- Copyright images associated with your business, including photos of staff. This will give you better standing, legally, should someone “steal” one of those images to post elsewhere for the purpose of harming your reputation.
- A tutorial on the Photoshelter blog provides a good overview.
- Develop, implement and enforce a moderation policy. Develop guidelines for conduct by those who interact with you on social media, and enforce them as needed. When you need to step in and moderate, be professional and polite. Our community guidelines can serve as a template for yours.
- Respond quickly and compassionately to clients with complaints, whether voiced in person, via email or phone, or on social media. See Responding to Complaints and Criticism for best practices in handling complaints posted to social media, as well as sample responses to both negative and positive reviews. Use this social media response flowchart to help determine whether and how to respond to individual situations.
- Regularly perform environmental scanning to monitor what is being said about you, your staff and your clinic online.
- Remember that interactions outside of your practice can also impact your reputation, and things you post on your personal social media profiles could also affect your practice. And most importantly, remember that what goes on the Internet stays on the Internet…forever.
The Partners for Healthy Pets website provides a useful toolkit of online and social media resources for practicing veterinarians.
How AVMA can help
Social media guidelines template – This customizable template gives you a great starting point to develop a comprehensive social media policy that's right for your veterinary clinic.
Flowchart: Veterinary practice social media response assessment – This flowchart can help you determine whether and how to respond to online criticism.
Community guidelines and moderation policy – Use our Facebook community guidelines as a starting point for writing your own.
Reputation monitoring checklist – Use this checklist to set up and maintain an internal reputation monitoring program for your clinic.
24/7 cyberbullying helpline – AVMA members who are facing an immediate cyberbullying situation have access to a 24/7 hotline staffed by crisis management experts from Bernstein Crisis Management. As an AVMA member, you receive up to 30 minutes of free consultation and advice. You also qualify for significant discounts if you want additional consultation.
This resource was developed with the assistance of Bernstein Crisis Management.