Waiting Room or War Zone?

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Friday, 8 am: Surgical, dental, and grooming appointments are checking into the hospital.

The birds are chirping, the appointment book is full, and the phones are ringing. It’s going to be a great day!

Friday, 9 am: Or…maybe not. The most experienced doctor just left to deal with a childcare issue, and the new associate ordered a battery of tests that will set her appointments back 30 minutes. Mrs. Crank is impatiently eyeballing you from the waiting room, while Mr. Anxious sighs dramatically each time he checks his watch.

If this situation isn’t managed effectively, your waiting room could easily turn into a war zone. As a member of the customer relations staff, this means that you’ll be taking most of the bullets. Here are 4 strategies for salvaging the situation before the shrapnel starts flying.

1. Manage the Schedule

“Booked solid” should still mean the practice has a designated veterinarian (such as the surgery doctor) to handle emergencies. If you find that your practice is always running behind, revise the scheduling. If your practice doesn’t have a specific protocol in place for dealing with walk-ins and emergencies, develop one as a team before these unexpected patients arrive at your front desk (see Team Planning for Emergencies and Walk-ins, page 14).

2. Discuss and Deal with Displaced Appointments

If a doctor needs to leave early, ask her to go over the caseload before she takes off. This way, she can let you know which critical cases should be worked into the other doctors’ schedules, while the non-urgent cases can be rebooked.

You can then realign your resources as quickly as possible. Plan how to better manage each doctor’s appointment schedule and each client’s time.

Communicate with Clients
Via Email | Always communicate the situation clearly and professionally over email. “Due to an emergency this morning, our appointments are running about 30 minutes behind. If your schedule isn’t flexible today, we would be more than happy to offer you complimentary drop-off and daycare for Missy so that you won’t have to wait. Your pet’s health is incredibly important to us, and we regret this inconvenience. Thank you for your patience and understanding!”

Via Phone | When calling a client to rebook an appointment, try to be as diplomatic and friendly as possible. The “what” of this message is important, but the “how” of its delivery is even more so. Your tone must convey warmth and responsiveness, not guilt or stress over how your day is going.

“Hi, Mrs. Smith, this is Amy at Littletown Animal Hospital. We’re scheduled to see you and Sparky today at 2 pm, but I’m sorry to have to tell you that Dr. Gahn has been called away on an emergency. Unfortunately, we don’t expect him back by 2 pm. He did speak with me before he left though and asked me to call and find out if you’d like to come in anyway? Dr. Jones will be able to see you, but there may be a bit of a wait. The other option is that you could see Dr. Gahn this Thursday—he has an opening in the morning at 9 am, and the afternoon is totally free after 3 pm.”

As you relay that Dr. Gahn has an emergency (and protect the nature of this emergency so he doesn’t have to explain later), reassure the client that both you and the doctor care about the client and respect her time. Also note the phrasing: no one doctor is singled out for causing the delay—just “an emergency”—so that the focus stays on the client and what is best for her right now.

Take-Out, Don’t Go Out
See if the remaining doctors can work through lunch to catch up. Offer to order in food that they can grab and eat quickly without leaving the practice.

3. Handle Incoming Clients with Compassion and Care

Provide an Update and a Plan
After greeting each incoming client and pet by name, give the client an update on where things currently stand and what you can do. It might go something like this:

“Hi, Mary. Hello, Muppet – what a beautiful dog you are! Mary, before you have a seat, I wanted to let you know that because of an emergency earlier today, our appointments are running a bit late. Are you okay with a 15-30 minute wait? If not, I can check Muppet in for a complimentary day stay and have Dr. Smith examine her. Then when Muppet’s finished, I can give you a call.”

When you see that a waiting client is becoming upset, engage her right away. Don’t wait for her to launch verbal grenades at you. Try defusing the situation by saying:

“Mrs. Crank, I can’t thank you enough for your patience and understanding. As you know, we had an emergency to deal with just before you arrived.” [Then get to the root of the problem and solicit her input on how to make it right with her.] “Dr. Smith will be with you in about 10 minutes. If you can’t wait another 10 minutes, I totally understand—and again, I appreciate how patient you’ve been while he handles an urgent situation. What we could do is check Missy into the hospital with a free day pass. That would get you on your way right now, allow Dr. Smith to check her over, and we can call you when he is done. What would be best for you?”

This acknowledges that the situation is not ideal for her, and shows that you are doing what you can to set things right. If possible try to have the conversation with her away from other clients so that if she expresses her frustration, others do not hear.

4. Streamline the System
Manage and plan future visits with a system that works to continually decrease wait time, improves client satisfaction, and streamlines the delivery of medical care. Successful client service teams manage client communication before, during, and after each visit.

A Preemptive Strike List for Waiting Room Battles
I have had the pleasure of spending time in hospitals that have developed a number of ways to create a welcoming environment for clients in the waiting area. These strategies help to better serve clients and accommodate their needs. Here’s a list of some of my favorites:

  • Coffee/tea bar
  • Free Wi-Fi (or a separate wireless café where clients can work)
  • Tours of the building while clients wait
  • Separate play area for children
  • Separate waiting areas for dogs and cats
  • A pager or cell phone for the client from whom you need instant feedback
  • Coupon for a nearby café (free cup of coffee or cookie)
  • Thank you for your patience coupon or free post-visit product
  • Private area for checkout/payment conversations
  • Leash holder at payment counter to free the hands of clients
  • Separate emergency entrance
  • Helpful notices on training, pet sitters, adoptions, grief counseling
  • Educational media: TV, digital frames, pamphlets, posters
  • Scrapbook or online blog of thank-you notes from clients
  • Public computer with your practice's website available so that clients can fill out online forms and learn about your services while they wait
  • AND BEST OF ALL:

A friendly client service team who genuinely knows and cares about people and their pets, greets them by name as they walk in, and continually engages with them throughout their visit.

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Veterinary Team Brief delivers practical skills for team-based medicine—with clinical strategies for team training, peer-reviewed credibility, concise content, essential training modules, and easy-to-implement protocols. From the publisher of Clinician's Brief.