At DoveLewis we live and work in a 24-hour world where clients arrive at all hours in a variety of mental and emotional states. This helps keep us on our toes, but constantly dealing with the unknown of what could walk through the door can be a huge challenge too. Of course, even on the best-planned days the proverbial “wrench” can alter the course and add stress to push us to our limits.
In the peak hours of our hospital the wait to see a doctor or get results for diagnostics can be long. Especially when there are multiple emergencies and urgent care visits pulling staff in every direction. The wait can be a challenge for our clients who live and operate in a “have it your way and have it now!" world that the internet, fast coffee and on-demand services have created. We all know the x-rays might only take 15 minutes to obtain, but if a patient is third in queue to get x-rays the wait time is going to be extended. It could be an hour by the time the doctor is able to review the images and get back with that client.
The staff at the front desk is able to see the clients in the lobby and is the main conduit for relaying information on the status of both patient care and the client experience. So what are the “little things” we can do for our clients who are waiting, to help them feel more connected and cared about?
Honesty is the best policy
Let clients know about the flow of the half hour, or hour(s) and give them context not only at intake but during their entire visit. Even when we are not able to offer an exact timeline for these clients, letting them know what is occurring (like an all-hands-on-deck emergency or that they are the seventh client to check-in this hour) gives them a sense of how the visit will go. Simply keeping open communication and contact lets the client know they haven’t been forgotten, even if the wait is long.
A kind word or quick check-in can help calm a worried pet parent during a wait
When we don’t have an update on the patient's status, we can still inquire how a client is doing or an offer to grab tea or water for them. This shows great care for the client while their pet is receiving great medical care. Engaging with clients and acknowledging their experience and humanity helps make any lobby experience (especially a long night at ER) much more bearable.
Check for understanding
Always see if the client has any more questions at discharge. The client could be tired, confused, overwhelmed or generally "out of it" so it's helpful to assure they have all the information they need for the continued care of their pet. We also let them know we are always open (for most practices, it's helpful to let them know your business hours, and local ER contact for after-hours care) so they can call with questions after they've departed and had time to process the information from their visit. This lets them know they are not alone after they leave the hospital and have our support beyond the visit.
These longer waits for our clients necessitate a constant readjustment of competing priorities. At these times it’s so important to invest the time to communicate with our clients about where they’re at in their visit, as well as how their pet is doing. Constant communication with our clients is one of the keys to a successful visit. We let the medical team perform their magic with the pets in the treatment area, and it’s up to the CSRs (Client Service Representatives) at the front desk to keep their focus on the client experience and work their own magic with them.
Manage client expectations
Communication starts the moment a client calls. This is the best time to start managing the client’s expectation and gives them a clear understanding of what the process will look like when they arrive. A simple explanation like, “We operate exactly like a human emergency room, so pets are seen by the doctor in the order they arrive and by how stable they are. When you arrive, a technician will assess your pet and then we’ll get you started on paperwork.” This quick run-down of the process gives the client an idea of what to expect, which will also hopefully serve to calm their worries of the unknown. Managing expectations is important to continue during the entire visit and can occur at any stage of the visit.
Under-promise and over-deliver
We refrain from giving solid timelines, even though we know a specific blood test will take about 15 minutes to run. This is because the second you let a client know it will be 15 minutes, three stat (highest priority emergency) cases walk through the door requiring all hands on deck. This adds at least an additional 30 minutes to the first client’s wait time to see the doctor for results. It’s best to contextualize where the client is in the process, such as “The blood work is running right now and as soon as the doctor is available she’ll be out to go over the results with you. We just had a critical case arrive and she is assisting with that case. But she will be with you as soon as she is able.”
Beat ‘em to the punch
If a client has come up to the front desk to ask for an update on a timeline or how their pet is doing, then they have been waiting for too long without an update. Clients waiting in the lobby have nothing but time on their hands and will watch what is going at the front desk like a hawk. At times this helps in their understanding of what’s going on (like if they just saw that gruesome critical case come through the door, or saw five other clients arrive at once) but as soon as the flurry of activity is done the clients who have been waiting need an update. Just check-in with them or share a kind word. This attention can help make a long evening spent in a hospital lobby much more bearable, and hopefully they will feel valued.
As a 24-hour ER facility we have clients who call and come in worried, upset, nervous, angry, and/or frantic. Emotions run the gamut and sometimes bring a client to behave in an aggressive and confrontational manner. The goals when dealing with these clients are to defuse the situation, focus on the pet, and keep everyone safe. Here are few tips we use when training new staff members about dealing with difficult clients:
Manage yourself, and then manage the situation at hand. Each individual needs to keep their emotions in check and know what triggers them. The fact is that in this field you are going to get yelled at, cried to and be forced to deal with a rainbow of reactions and emotions from clients. If you can’t handle it with grace and professionalism you are in the wrong line of work. Several years ago I worked with a receptionist who could not handle being yelled at. She would become rude and shut down because she believed, “They shouldn’t yell at me.” It’s true they shouldn’t yell, but once it happens how are you going to deal with the situation? If your first inclination is to yell back you’re not helping the situation. You’re only making it worse. Self -awareness can’t be taught but it can be practiced. When we bring a new member of the team on we always discuss real life circumstances that have occurred in the past. We strive to arm the new hire with tricks and tips for handling confrontational clients.
We never know what the client experienced before calling or coming through our doors. Keep the focus on the care of the pet and what you can do for the client. Even if the client is behaving absolutely dreadfully, bringing the animal back into the conversation can help refocus the client. The health of the pet is the reason everyone is here (client and staff) and by bringing the attention back to care of the pet we shift the focus to what matters. A few years ago we had a client who yelled and screamed at time of deposit as their pet was being admitted to the hospital due to the cost. In that moment she was very unpleasant and the team did the best they could to calm her down. When she came back the next day to visit her pet in hospital she apologized to the staff and asked that they pass on the apology to the staff on the night before. She explained that her pet’s stay with us was just one more stressor in her life but that she should not have yelled at anyone as she knew we were being helpful.
Know your resources
Who’s your backup if a situation gets out of control? Is everyone trained on how to alert others in the hospital that there is problem? Occasionally another team member is needed to help with a situation, or even the police might be needed. We have an overhead page system in place to alert everyone working in the hospital that a situation has turned for the worse and help is needed either in the form of additional staff or (rarely) from the police. All staff members are trained on safety protocol and a quiz is mandatory to help the information stick. We keep the police non-emergency number handy in case it is needed, as opposed to 911. We also have the number to a local mental health organization that can help triage a client over the phone and talk them down from their emotional perch. If need be, they can come down to the hospital and assess the individual in person to see if additional assistance is required. We once had a grief-stricken client who threatened harm to herself after the loss of a pet and the mental health organization came down to help her get the care she needed. The client came back to visit the hospital several months later and share photos of her dog who had passed, as well as thank everyone for their kindness.
Talk about it
Make sure every team member working knows there is an issue. No one should every walk into an exam room with a volatile client without ever knowing that the client is upset. The team must communicate in the moment with each other to insure the client gets the best service and that everyone stays safe. It is also important for the team to communicate because the client may have offered little bits of different information to different staff members that could change how to best proceed with the client.
Talk about it again after the dust has settled
Every situation offers a learning opportunity not only for the team members dealing with a given situation but also for those not involved. Share the situation with the staff and talk with them about what went well, what could have been done better and what protocols need to be updated to improve the outcome in a like situation. The idea in reviewing the situation is to allow everyone to imagine themselves in the scenario and review how they would have handled it, as well as offering an outlet for the team involved to de-compress.
Client communication is vital to not only the front desk staff, but should be top of mind for the whole team. When the entire hospital keeps focused on the client experience then the client feels taken care of and valued. Any time a technician or a doctor calls up front with an update it helps out the client service representatives and it lets the client know that everyone in hospital is aware of their experience.