How to master face-to-face communication with clients

Talking to clients in practice
Virtually everything we want to achieve as practice team members relies heavily on the effectiveness of our communication skills. We employ many communication methods to elicit information from, and to impart information to, our clients, in order to best take care of the patients under our care.

We use many types of media to communicate with our clients; from websites, Facebook and Twitter, to more traditional media such as newsletters, posters, leaflets and personalised letters. These examples of static media have their place and are valuable in allowing us to extend our contact with clients and to reach a wider audience, but it can be difficult to ascertain their true results in seeking what we are trying to achieve.

In today's world more and more commerce is carried out over the internet. In practice we are lucky that the majority of our work necessitates the presence of the client, and every encounter with a client provides us with golden opportunities to employ the most effective means of communication available: face-to-face communication.

Get a clear and comprehensive history

Much is written about how we can interpret what clients are trying to convey to us, but here I will look at skills that we can employ to ensure clients are listening to us. At the start of our consultation the main objective is to get a clear and comprehensive history from the client and to this end this we employ various types of questions; open, closed, multiple-choice, clarifying, etc. During this section of the consultation, it is fairly easy to ascertain, by the nature and quality of the answers received, whether a client is listening or not. We can then alter our approach if necessary, for optimum results.

But what about when we move to the explanation and planning section of the consultation? How can we ensure clients are listening and, more importantly, understanding what it is we want to share with them? As enthusiastic vets, how can we avoid the situation whereby our clients leave the consulting room only to ask the receptionist what we meant when we talked about the growth plate or myocardium?

"We must actively listen to ascertain the client's ICE - ideas, concerns and expectations"

In what circumstances do you listen and, more importantly, understand best? Surely it is when you are most motivated to do so; when you feel you are going to benefit from the effort; when your questions and concerns are being addressed. In communication circles we talk about ‘ICE’ – ideas, concerns and expectations. These are what the client brings to the discussion, the matters the client is most interested in. Vets are considered to be scientists and, as such, are interested in what things are and how they work, their features and functions. For example, when a new method to repair a ruptured cruciate is published or when a new anthelmintic is launched, vets are intrigued by the surgical steps of the former or the pharmacology of the latter. Most of our clients just want to know whether it will solve their pet's problem and whether it is value for money; they want to know, and we have to convey the benefits.

So, in the first instance, we must actively listen to ascertain the client's ICE. We must not interrupt in the process. If we do, it should only be to encourage the client to tell us more, not to hijack the process. Even if we establish that the client's ICE is somewhat misguided in terms of solving the presenting problem, we must address it to maintain the client's interest. In their opening statement, they may provide clues as to their knowledge base. This is important when we wish to provide information in a format that the client will understand. You don't want to pitch an explanation to a client regarding their pet's cataract in basic terms, only to have them fire a question back along the lines of, ‘Will this be carried out by phacoemulsification?’ Who could blame you for failing to appreciate that this client was an ophthalmic surgeon? But, by asking if cataracts were something they had knowledge of, you could have avoided the embarrassment. Don't get caught out by recommending a glucose tolerance test to the next client who happens to be a ‘Dr’ only to find out that it is of divinity and not medicine. ‘Is diabetes something you are familiar with?’, would have saved a lot of trouble.

Active listening

However, listening is not enough, we must demonstrate ‘active listening’ to show the client that we are interested and taking on board what they are telling us. We must reverse the process by looking for signs of active listening from the client. What is their body language? Hopefully there is maintenance of eye contact, a smile, a nod of the head, a leaning forward, all accompanied by the occasional ‘mm’, ‘ah’, or ‘really’. They may even ask you to tell them more.

"We must demonstrate ‘active listening’ to show the client that we are interested and taking on board what they are telling us"

If there is a significant amount of information to impart, we need to ‘chunk and check’ it, to ensure we have conveyed the information. That means providing it in chunk-sized pieces, dependent on the client's level of understanding, and checking that each chunk has been assimilated before providing the next piece.

Having paid attention to all of the above we could be excused for assuming that we have delivered the message successfully – if they have been listening. How can we be sure? We could ask the client if they have understood, but this could come across as being patronising. We could put the blame on ourselves by asking them whether we have explained it sufficiently or whether there are any aspects they would like us to clarify. The danger here is being greeted by either a ‘yes’ to the first question or a ‘no’ to the second, only to find they are at the desk asking the receptionist or nurse additional questions. It's better to be sure by asking something along the lines of, ‘I appreciate I have provided you with a good deal to do between now and when I next see you in a week's time. Just to make sure I have explained it thoroughly, would you mind going through what it is you need to do with Tiddles in the interim?’

The next time you consult, think about ICE, benefits, chunking and checking and look for signs of active listening.

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