Have you recently seen a wave of public articles from veterinarians about our challenges in working in a high stress and emotional career? Articles that highlight our struggle with student loan debt, the high rate of suicide, long hours, high client expectations, and the stress of having a less than desirable salary. Shocking statistics that are shining a light into the dark areas of Veterinary Medicine.

We all want a “spiel” that will help us convince pet owners to comply with our plan. Veterinarians have gone from well-respected community members to being open to scrutiny and abuse. As a practising vet for 20 years, I have seen a huge shift in my lifetime. When I first started practising, email was pretty new. It felt like clients had less access to random and anecdotal information from a variety of sources back then. All of this information and misinformation leaves clients distrustful and feeling powerless when it comes to their pet’s health care.

When I observe vet reactions to a client challenging their plans, I often see vets withdraw into defensive mode. WE aren’t in it for the money, WE love animals, WE just want to make a good wage, WE want to have qualified staff that last more than a few years, WE just want you to appreciate how hard we work to make your pet better. While pet owners can be very bonded to their vets, their primary concern is for their pet. They approach purchasing veterinary services just like they would any other purchase. Emotion first, rationalize later.

The roadblocks and criticisms we get from clients like “I don’t want to spend money on an old dog” or “I won’t pay for that test”, or even “my breeder says….” are just part of the buying process that is common among all industries. Are we just figuring this out? Objections have always been there, but clients are now emboldened by public support and an online forum to voice their concerns.

Here’s a crazy thought – why don’t we start to sell our services? I used to think, like many of my colleagues, that selling was unethical, manipulative, and demeaned my professional standing. I had an epiphany after taking a professional communications course. In the introduction to the course, our instructor defined the difference between Persuasion and Manipulation.

per·sua·sion – the action or fact of persuading someone or of being persuaded to do or believe something.
ma·nip·u·la·tion – the action of manipulating someone in a clever or unscrupulous way.

If you believe you are manipulating a client when you recommend pre-operative bloodwork, or that you are being unscrupulous when you advocate for a fine needle aspirate on that suspicious lump – then I would argue that you don’t believe what you are doing is in the best interest of the animal. If you are using techniques to “sell” them on these ideas, in the animals’ best interest, is that unethical? If you think yes, then don’t complain that your client is asking Susie at the pet store about nutrition, or Jeff the breeder in North Carolina about the lump. Because you can bet your bottom dollar that Susie is selling. Hard. And maybe not in an ethical way, with less education, and possibly an inferior product. I’m not advocating that you persuade people to spend money they don’t have, or to do unnecessary tests. That would be manipulation (see definition above especially the “unscrupulous” part). A treatment plan, as we all know, is always titrated to the individual situation and client. Let’s use sales to put adequate conviction behind a recommendation.

Learning sales techniques to increase your message’s effectiveness, is the same as learning the most effective technique to treat a disease.

Why don’t vets sell? We hear that sales objection, and it stops us dead in our tracks. We take it personally, we get offended, we roll our eyes and think “oh cripes not one of these….insert annoying client behavior here”. We feel judged, criticized, villified.

A google search on “dealing with sales objections” revealed 410 000 results. I guess it’s a common problem. Who knew? The first article that came up on my search was from Salesforce, a popular customer relations software. I found it helpful to summarize what are objections and some ways to handle them. In the book “To Sell is Human”, Daniel Pink speaks specifically on the challenge of “selling” ideas in healthcare and education. The three qualities that Pink suggests are the new requirements for moving people to action are; Attunement, Buoyancy and Clarity. A few of his tips that I believe veterinarians should be using in every appointment (read the book for more) include:

Listen – Stop waiting for your client to stop talking to give your “spiel”. How many of us are searching for a magic article or handout to “convince” people to listen? In one study, physicans interrupt the majority of patients in the first 18 seconds the patient speaks in an appointment. I doubt vets fare any better.
Take Perspective – when compared to a control and an “empathy” group, the perspective takers had better results than both groups. Empathy is valuable, but when your goal is to move people to make a decision, perspective taking wins.
Lower your status to improve it – Asymmetrical Information is when one party has more information than the other. This sets up for an uneven relationship.
Never argue: Use “yes, and” whenever possible to keep everyone on the same side – seek a win-win solution every time.
Serve First, Sell later – If the person you are selling to agrees to buy, will the purchase improve their life? Will the world be a better place? In our case, will the bond between the pet and the owner improve? Will the pet’s quality of life improve?
Don’t Upsell – Upserve instead – Do more for your client than they expect. First, it’s the right thing to do. Second, the memorable experience will be extraordinarily effective.
Act as if the client is doing you a favor – even if you don’t feel that way. Proceed with humility and gratitude and watch your perspective change
Self talk when a problem occurs – Ask yourself – Is this permanent? (i.e.are clients always going to say no?) Is this pervasive? (i.e. are all clients difficult?) Is this personal? (i.e. is it me or was it the information – the client probably just didn’t have the right information).
Count the “nos”. Take a few days in the week where you count how many “nos” you get to your recommendation. You might be surprised by how many you get. At the end of the day – guess what – you are still around. Many sales trainers say that you have to get through 9 nos to get to a yes – if you get excited for the nos because you are closer to a yes, it can be very uplifting.
Don’t try to eliminate negative emotion – some negativity helps to prevent unproductive behaviors from turning into habits. They alert us when we are on the wrong path.
Be clear using contrast. Use experiences and emotion to highlight differences instead of facts. A man begging in a park holds a sign “It is springtime”. A better sign? “It is springtime and I am blind”.
I passionately believe that embracing sales strategies in veterinary medicine will contribute to an improvement in veterinary wellness in general. There is no shame in ethical sales, with the aim to serve the pet and the client in the best way possible. When you have a “process” around dealing with objections and questions, your rational frontal cortex can step in and help calm our reactive and emotional amygdala. Instead of feeling attacked, dismissed, or judged, we can zoom out, and view the interaction from a more analytical viewpoint – that of the sales process.

So, the next time someone says “but that’s too expensive” you can think Ah!!! Here is the Objection!!! Put on your rational process pants, and realize “I know how to handle this”! Ask questions. Keep asking questions. Then ask a few more. Come from humility and service to the client and the pet. You might find you don’t need the “spiel” at all. In fact, I’ll bet you see better results without it.

Using ethical sales techniques, your patient, you, and your client will be rewarded with a richer, more fulfilling relationship. A side benefit may be a better bottom line and you won’t even have to mention your rusting beater car or your hefty student loan.