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9 Ways to Help Manage Client Communication During Coronavirus

By Distinct Advantage Partner

These are unprecedented times. In light of the coronavirus outbreak, your hospital’s protocols are changing day by day, even hour by hour. To all of our veterinary friends: we applaud the many preventive measures you have taken and continue to take to protect your clients, staff and community. As you navigate these uncharted waters, PawsTime will continue to support you in any way we can.

2 healthcare professionals wearing face masks and talking over laptop

Like you, we’ve been following the latest developments closely as they continue to impact the veterinary community. We’ve been hearing from many of you about the struggles you’re facing, and we want to share a few building blocks for your communications plan – with clients and with your staff.
At the center of a crisis, communication is key to retaining trust. With official guidelines changing constantly, your protocols today may not look the same tomorrow. Some hospitals have opened for essential and emergency care only. Some have switched to a curbside pickup model, using FaceTime or Zoom meetings to connect with pet owners while conducting appointments. Some are providing the same services but practicing social distancing, taking clients directly to an exam room and skipping the lobby.

While protocols may be different from hospital to hospital, everyone is looking at the same big picture: keeping staff healthy so you can continue to be there for clients and their pets. As you communicate with your clients and employees, keep these points in mind:
Make sure your messages are consistent

Be absolutely sure that the people answering the phones and interacting with clients are fully able to communicate the protocols you have in place.
Run through various scenarios. With new developments by the second, employees may face questions they don’t have answers to. Do they know where to look for those answers, and when a call should be escalated to a technician or practice manager? To ensure that employees aren’t giving incorrect information and to avoid confusion, develop a protocol for when they don't have the answer. Should they place a caller on hold while they get the answer or respond with, “We will look into this and get back to you as soon as possible.” And then have a protocol in place for following up with the client.

Hold daily team huddles

We know what you’re thinking: it’s impossible to add one more thing to your to-do list. But in the long run, these daily meetings will save you time. In times of crisis, team communication is more critical than ever. Employees are looking to leadership to provide structure, direction, and reassurance.
A morning huddle will clarify priorities, improve information sharing, and connect your team on an emotional level. Hold an end-of-day briefing to bring everyone together. Encourage your employees to share concerns, make suggestions and support each other to build a culture of camaraderie during these turbulent times.

Cross-train your staff

Chances are your employees will need to wear more hats than ever before as you scramble to provide services under very different circumstances. Some of your team members may be asked to perform duties outside of their regular responsibilities.

For example, your technicians may be expected to collect payments. If offering curbside service, they may need to process credit cards outside. Are there safety concerns associated with transferring pets in the parking lot?

If you’ll be offering telemedicine, are your doctors and technicians familiar with the software and how it’s utilized in your hospital? Ensure your employees are comfortable with any new roles and adequately trained to reduce stress and confusion.

Offer payment flexibility

During the coronavirus outbreak, some of your clients may be facing financial hardship from being out of work. Is everyone on your team aware of your financial arrangements? Do you have contingency plans in place for clients who cannot afford to pay? It's important that your employees know who to answer these questions.

During these times of uncertainty, you have your own bills to pay, and a family and staff to take care of. Offering in-house payment plans may be a kind gesture, but in these uncertain times it’s a risk most hospitals are not willing to take. This is an opportune time to make clients aware of safer financing options like ScratchPay that take you out of the equation as bills continue to come in.

Provide clear direction

Protocols will change, but it will avoid confusion if you’re clear with your intentions.

Have a plan in place for clients picking up medication and supplies. Encourage clients to pre-pay over the phone to avoid exchanging cash or credit cards. Guide clients to your online pharmacy so they don’t need to leave home at all. Include a link to your online pharmacy on invoices and send over text.

If offering curbside pickup, order signs for your parking lot with station numbers to designate where clients should park. Give clients peace of mind that you have extra leashes on hand to safely transfer pets from their vehicle into the hospital and consider double leashing.

Ensure your clients understand what “essential care” means. If you’re limiting your services to essential and critical care, the definition may vary between hospitals. Vaccine may be considered essential care, while a routine wellness exam for a healthy pet may not be.

Show up in people’s newsfeeds and be a familiar face. Nurture the relationships you’ve built with clients and foster new ones that will come as a result of your response to this crisis.

Support your staff

These times are physically and emotionally trying for everyone. While most of your team will be willing to step out of their comfort zone and step up to help where needed, you should expect some amplification of stress among your staff. How will you keep morale and productivity high? If schools or daycare close, how will you be flexible with your employees’ time?

How can you emotionally support your team and alleviate fears about employment or economic uncertainty? Your employees aren’t only worried about their health and families; they may also have concerns about job security. Be open and provide sources of information regarding any financial support that your county or state may offer.

Take precautions to limit further spread

Consider scheduling your team in shifts. Amid social distancing measures, some hospitals are staggering work hours to reduce contact between employees. This way if someone is exposed or tests positive, you have more control over the impact and spread of infection.

Ensure everyone on your team is aware of your protocol should an employee feel ill, or if they have been in contact with someone who has tested positive. If a client arrives curbside and is sick or is coughing in the exam room, do you have a protocol in place? What is your disinfection schedule like?
If you’re accepting clients inside your practice, post a sign on your door that says something like, “If you are showing symptoms of illness or have come into contact with someone who is ill, please remain in your car and call us so we can devise a plan to keep everyone safe.”

Make sure you are up-to-date with the latest guidelines for planning, preparing, and responding to COVID-19 by familiarizing yourself with the CDC website for workplaces, the WHO website for health workers, and the websites of your state or local health departments.

Be prepared for an increase in phone calls

We work with hundreds of hospitals around the country, and most of you are reporting an abundance of incoming calls. Apologize to your callers for the delay and ask them to bear with you, as hold times may take a little longer.

Have patient forms available on your website to complete prior to arrival.

Direct clients to request appointments and refills via your website or mobile app.

Up your social media presence

Whether you’re posting about coronavirus or sharing positivity on social media, remind pet parents that you’re there for them. A time of crisis may not be the best time to create selling opportunities; it’s a time to help your community feel safe and connected. Show up in people’s newsfeeds and be a familiar face. Nurture the relationships you’ve built with clients and foster new ones that will come as a result of your response to this crisis.

Be transparent about what your hospital is going through. Your clients will empathize with your situation if you’re communicating your efforts. Let clients know that you’re doing your best to navigate this situation of uncertainty, but protocols are changing by the day and even by the hour. Rather than flooding clients with details that will most likely change, instruct them to call before coming to your hospital so you can share the latest protocols you have in place.

The goal of social media should be to give pet parents reassurance that safety is your number one priority. Thank them for their patience and understanding as you navigate this crisis in a way that keeps clients and staff healthy.

It’s okay to express that you don’t have an official playbook, and that you’re doing your best under these circumstances to be there for your clients and their pets in the best way that you can. Encourage them to call with questions or clarification and let them know you’re still here to take care of their pets – but the way you provide those services may look different in the coming days and weeks. When clients call for updates, remind them to call again next time, as your protocols may change by their next appointment. As the situation unfolds, they’ll be looking for reassurance that you’ll thoughtfully adapt.

Feelings of fear and uncertainty can become prevalent in times like these. You’re scared for the health of your family, your coworkers, your own health, and the health of your business. Our thoughts are with you, and we’ll continue to reach out whether it’s sharing information of value or putting a smile on your face. Remember, this too shall pass. We’re all in this together!

PawsTime is a leader in veterinary on-hold messaging that educates and connects with your clients. Custom messages and themes differ from month to month. We provide a level of veterinary industry-specific expertise and a level of personalized service that’s unparalleled in this field.

PawsTime is an MWI Animal Health Distinct Advantage™ program partner. To discuss how your practice can qualify for a free Distinct Advantage program membership, contact your MWI Territory Manager.