Conversations with clients about finances are some of the most difficult discussions veterinarians must deal with in daily practice. In most parts of our lives, talking about money can be viewed as indecorous or even downright rude, but in veterinary practice navigating financial discussions with pet owners can be critical when their animal’s health – or life – is literally on the line.
Costs associated with veterinary care have escalated in recent years, driven primarily by advancing technologies and changing client expectations. Many vets are offering higher levels of diagnostic testing and specialist treatment as these have become more readily available, and while clients are generally happy when these technologies provide early detection of diseases in their pets, they are sometimes surprised by the accompanying expenses. On the other hand, the growing tendency among pet owners to humanise their animals has produced a corresponding increase in their expectations regarding veterinary care for their pets. As a result, burgeoning treatment costs can also be linked to clients seeking higher standards of care for pets who are perceived to be much-loved family members.
Maria Neale is General Manager of GapOnly, PetSure’s innovative insurance offering which allows for on the spot claims and gap only payments for pet owners who take up their product. She presented at 2023 Vet Expo in Melbourne on the topic of ‘Managing Difficult Financial Conversations’, where she discussed challenges posed by talking about money with clients and provided insights into how vets can make those conversations less onerous.
“As vets, we’ve come to realise that communication skills are as important as our clinical skills,” said Neale. “A lot of vet teams feel a great deal of empathy, but sometimes they don’t communicate it well. There are lots of effective communication skills you can use to build relationships with clients and make discussions about money easier, which is so important because financial conversations impact the whole pathway of clinical decision-making.”
Here’s are Neale’s top six tips for tricky financial discussions:
- NEVER ASSUME!
When a client comes into a veterinary clinic, their financial situation is not always immediately apparent. Their concern for their sick or injured pet may be visible, but their ability to pay for treatment – especially if it involves sophisticated diagnostic testing and specialist care – may not be. This may be especially true if the pet’s illness or injury was unexpected.
When opening a financial discussion, it’s helpful to ask an icebreaking question that is non-judgmental and open-ended, such as: “What is your budget for your pet’s care today?”
- RECOGNISE WHAT MAKES FINANCIAL CONVERSATIONS HARD
Talking about money does not come naturally to many of us, and our relationship with discussing finances is frequently influenced by our childhood experiences or cultural values. Many of us, for example, have been conditioned to believe talking about money is impolite. Moreover, our financial situation is often linked with our sense of self-worth, and talking about money can bring up uncomfortable emotions. This, in turn, can make financial hardship isolating, as clients experiencing constrained financial circumstances may be unwilling to discuss things that make them feel awkward, embarrassed or insecure. When we become aware of what makes discussing finances difficult for us and for our clients, we can work on how we might remove those obstacles.
- CHECK YOUR BIAS
We may not think we are biased, but chances are that’s not true: bias is often unconscious. Unconscious bias is favouritism towards or prejudice against groups which influence our actions or perceptions. For example, we may have a biased perception that a pet owner is not looking after their pet or should not have the right to have a pet at all.
Being conscious of your potential for bias means you can be more aware of how you treat and interact with people, and recognise how these tendencies may influence difficult conversations with clients about topics like money.
- KNOW YOUR VET/CLIENT RELATIONSHIP STYLE
There are many vet/client relationship styles, and the way you interact with your clients can influence – positively or negatively – how pet owners feel and respond.
- If, for example, a vet adopts a paternalistic style with a client, communication is typically one-directional and often involves the vet telling the client why, in their opinion, a particular course of action is the ‘best’ option. While the pet owner may agree with the vet’s opinion, they may not have the resources to pay for the suggested treatment, which can cause them to become embarrassed and upset.
- In another example, if a vet adopts a vet/client relationship style aimed simply at informing the pet owner, the client may feel unable to make a decision regarding their pet’s care – regardless of whether they have the means to do so or not. In the absence of any direction or advice from the vet, the client may feel let down and unsure of how to proceed.
Knowing where you might fit along this continuum – from presenting only one opinion to offering only information – helps you understand where you may need to adjust in your vet/client relationship building. Making these changes will enable you to navigate all conversations with clients better, not just discussions about finances.
- INCORPORATE SHARED DECISION MAKING
Shared decision making, where vets and clients both contribute to decisions about a pet’s care is at the heart of relationship-based care. The key to this type of vet/client relationship is partnership, where both parties can offer information and expertise, state preferences and opinions, and make decisions as equals.
Research shows that when vets and clients are involved in shared decision making, not only are treatment plans more likely to be adhered to, but pet owners are also more likely to re-visit that vet because they feel safe. Having financial discussions with such clients is likely to be much easier, as an environment of trust has been created, resulting in both parties feeling more able to broach difficult topics of conversation.
- DEVELOP EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION STRATEGIES
Two of the most important communication strategies that can be used to communicate effectively with clients are asking open-ended inquiries and making empathetic statements. As noted above, asking an open-ended question like, “What is your budget for your pet’s care today?” can help create a safe space where clients feel they can discuss their pet’s treatment options within the parameters of what they can afford financially.
Following up an open-ended inquiry by making an empathetic statement such as, “It can be stressful to think about finances when your pet is unwell,” can then set the pet owner further at ease. Verbally communicating an empathetic response to the client’s situation can open a dialogue around finances where both parties feel comfortable having the conversation, rather than both parties having to rely on non-verbal cues.
“With cost-of-living pressures rising and pet health care costs increasing, pet parents are walking through the clinic door with financial constraints,” Neale said. “As vets, it’s important to navigate these conversations with them through more effective communication.” Neale hopes that by putting these tips into practice, veterinarians will feel better equipped to broach money matters with their clients and improve outcomes for veterinarians, pets and clients.