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Issue: 43 - Jul 16, 2012
Don’t Talk to the Head, Talk to the Heart
By: Peter Weinstein, DVM, MBA
Veterinary Success Services
Veterinary clients come to our practices to have their problems solved.  These problems may be as simple as a need for Rabies protection for their pet or as complicated as a compound fracture of the femur as a result of a hit by car with other associated trauma.  No matter what the presenting complaint is, it is our role to provide them with solutions to their problems.  We are Professional Problem Solvers.  (Suggestion for name tags—Not Client Service or Reception—Problem Solver)
As a problem solver, we tend to focus on the facts, ma’am, just the facts.  We are trained in school and subsequently train our teams to focus on the facts, ma’am, just the facts.  And thus our approach is very clinical, very straightforward, very cerebral and very facts focused.  Sometimes too cerebral when we get all hung up on playing doctor and using medical jargon to those whose knowledge of medical terminology is limited to Doogie Howser, ER, Marcus Welby, or House.  
Did you ever see a dog cock their head to the side when they hear a strange sound or word that gets their attention?
This what your clients look like when they are listening to your discussions focused on their pet’s clinical needs and you speak doctor-talk. 

On the other hand, how does a dog respond when you call it’s name and sit on the ground; or, what does a cat do when you sit down on the coach and it climbs in your lap?  The dog licks your face and the cat purrs.  I’m not saying you want your clients to lick your face or to climb in your lap and purr.  But when you address your dog’s and cat’s heart they engage with you.  And similarly, when you talk to your client’s heart, they engage with you.
It’s a fact, a hard one to accept, that the best clinical clinicians are not always the best communicators.  Additionally, more lawsuits and veterinary medical board complaints are filed NOT for poor medicine but for poor communication.  Too much time talking over the head and not engaging the heart!!
Yes, clients want to appreciate your medical knowledge and want to be able to trust your skills as a doctor.  And to accomplish this takes the science of being a doctor combined with the art of being a ‘human’ being.  So, how can you do both?
I always found it useful to explain things in clinical terms while concurrently creating visual descriptions that people can relate to from their own experiences or from a friend’s or family member’s experiences.  A torn anterior cruciate ligament can easily be discussed as a common knee injury that football and basketball players get.  Heart failure can readily be extrapolated to a pump in a boat that is failing thus leaving the boat filled with water and sinking; you need to fix the pump so that the boat (lungs) doesn’t sink. 
But even more than dumbing down the clinical discussion, you need to warm up the discussion with the person in front of you by talking to their heart.  Talking about how you understand the importance of their pet to their family; or relating similar experiences with a pet of yours to the experience that they are going through.  Even showing empathy with them about the cost of care and telling them that you are eager to work with them to find a way to make sure that their pet gets the needed care. 
Phone calls just to check the pet and client with no effort to suggest anything that more than you are concerned.  E-mails work too but are less personal.  One of the best humanizing actions veterinary hospitals use to talk to a client’s heart are condolence cards and memorial contributions.  How do I know that?  When do you get the most thank you notes?  For a successful spay or for a compassionate end of life experience?
It’s OK to hug (when appropriate) or get choked up or shed tears, humanizing you will talk to their hearts.  You don’t always have to be selling something.  Selling yourself as caring, compassionate, emotional, will sell itself. 
Sitting down and making sure that your eyes are at the same level as your client’s eyes is less dominant or daunting and puts both of your hearts at the same level.  Make eye contact and observe for body language indicating understanding.  And listen from the heart to the heart of your clients.
As Professional Problem Solvers, there is a fine line that you walk as you help clients with their presenting problem.  But clients are people too and we forget that too often.  If you are strictly seeing your clients as transactions, make sure you have a good attorney and malpractice insurance coverage.  If you see your clients as the human beings that they are and treat their pet’s needs equally with their needs, your success will be without limits.
Clients think with their heads but they pay with their hearts.