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Issue: 58 - Oct 15, 2013
How to Handle Online Advice Seekers … In a Traditional Practice
By: Patty Khuly VMD MBA
Patty Khuly VMD MBA

We all hate it. Whether our lives as veterinarians or veterinary staff are spent wholly engaged in a clinical setting or, as mine does, it strays occasionally into the murky ether-world of the Internet, online veterinary advice seekers have a way of annoying us. Those corner-cutting, freebie-seeking, information-indiscriminate would-be veterinary clients are not our friends … or are they?

I should know. I interact with them every single day through my blog, my Facebook page and my Twitter feed. These are the pet owners who send me plaintive emails, Facebook missives, Tweets or brazen phone calls in search of veterinary guidance, outright advice and/or free services. At least once a week I’ll even field a “special request” for payment –– as in, cash money ­­–– to help one such seeker shoulder the cost of a pet’s healthcare crisis.

As if dealing firsthand with clients who want x, y, and z product or service in place of my a, b, and c recommendation weren’t frustrating enough (especially when it’s based entirely on a decidedly unscholarly online rag’s opinion of traditional care), I have to network remotely with non-clients who believe they deserve my time, skills, and hard-earned money, too?

It’s enough to make even the most Pollyanna veterinary do-gooder turn against a life of Internet interaction forever.

And yet I haven’t. Not yet anyway. Which is largely because even the most cluelessly abusive veterinary advice seeker ­­–– whether I meet them in the course of my daily practice or online –– has the potential to become the very best kind of veterinary client and/or professional ally.

After all, even the most ignorant online behavior is driven by the laudable desire to advance animal healthcare –– a drive we all share. Our profession just happens to suffer collateral damage due to the cluelessness that too often underlies it  –– not by virtue of the selfishness or mean-spiritedness we often attribute it to. And, as we all know, ignorance can be remedied.

Then there’s the obvious to consider: A significant percentage of pet owners access online resources while looking for healthcare information to help them become a better-informed clients. This sizable demographic isn’t surfing for Door #1, a not-so-professional solution to their pet’s current illness in lieu of a veterinarian. Rather, they’re attempting to enter Door #2, a gateway to the information that’ll help them ask better questions, make better choices, and access a higher quality of care (which, of course, is right up our alley).

The hard part for the veterinary professional (apart from mustering the requisite patience), involves interacting with the questioner in a way that shows them the folly of Door #1 and leads them to –– and through –– Door #2. Here’s how I do it, in three simple steps:

#1 Applaud the client’s desire to learn more: “What an excellent way to seek supplemental information and acquire tools to improve your ability to become a better steward of your pet’s care!” 

#2 Note the pitfalls (and offer examples, if possible): “Of course, you understand that not all websites are created equal and that misinformation can do more harm than good. In fact, I actually had a client who took it upon himself to …”

#3 Offer very specific alternatives: “I’ve been doing a lot of veterinary website surfing over the past few years and I’ve put together a list of my favorite websites. Here’s a printout.”

Pretty simple, right? But here’s the catch: This method of redirecting client behavior requires that we actually embrace the Internet as ally. Until we do, I’d argue, we’ll not only remain stressfully resentful of our perceived competition, we stand to lose out on the very best the web has to offer: a higher quality, more engaged clientele.