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Is Veterinary Medicine a Healthcare Based, or Customer Service Based Industry?


If you had asked me in another time and place, even 15 years ago when I graduated, whether or not I was in a “service industry”, I’d vehemently say no. When I was in school, we were shown statistics on how veterinarians were one of the most highly regarded, trusted and respected professions. People believed and trusted their veterinarian over their own physician sometimes. And our industry was definitely respected as a group of hard working, selfless, compassionate people.


But fast forward through the last few years, maybe even starting a decade or so ago, to the age of smartphones and social media. People have become an expert in every subject out there. What once took years of education for most of us to learn, comprehend, understand and then implement, suddenly someone could watch a video or read a few articles about and they are under the impression that they know more than us. In the latest Gallup Poll, veterinarians are not even listed as being a trustworthy or ethical profession. (Nurses Still Viewed as Most Ethical Professionals | Healthiest Communities Health News | U.S. News (usnews.com)


False information floods the internet, on every single subject. Not just veterinary medicine. I know my fellow teachers, researchers, anyone in healthcare from nurses’ aides on over to specialists, are constantly being told they are wrong and that the general public knows better. Now I am not above humbling myself and saying that we, as veterinary professionals, are not always right. Far from it. They call it practicing medicine for a reason. But there is something to be said for 8+ years of rigorous schooling, some of us spending time in an internship, etc., and then clinical experience.


Then there are my colleagues who spend their days in food or production animal medicine, that are literally out in the field, no matter the weather, working with the individuals, animals and products that feed our families every day. Some of us are in research. Spending hours a day in the lab studying the tiniest organisms, cells, up to entire organs and body systems to help develop new drugs, treatments, protocols and ground-breaking information.


So why would anyone consider us, Doctors of Veterinary Medicine, as customer-service based individuals? Well, the good news is, most of us in the industry don’t. Though surprisingly, this blog idea came about as a response I had to a social media post (ironic, isn’t it?). Another veterinarian posted a video, which was a segment from a podcast they were on, where they were discussing selling to clients. The intention was that we, as veterinarians, need to discuss what is going on with their pets, what our recommendations are, and try to sell the client on why doing or not doing certain things are recommended. Underneath that post, another veterinarian posted “PREACH. We are not in the healthcare business. We are in the customer service business.”


This comment shocked me to say the least. It’s a huge reason why I started this consulting business in the first place – because the customer, i.e. client, is in fact NOT always right in medicine. Whether it be veterinary or otherwise. We are not and should not be in the business of making all of our clients happy. There’s just no way around the fact that medicine is not always pretty. Diagnoses are not always great. And treatment options are sometimes few and far between, not effective, or grossly expensive. So no, I do not believe we should be in the business of straight customer service. But…does that mean we don’t do that at all?


Per Forbes, the definition of customer service is: “Customer service refers to support and assistance given before, during and after customers purchase a product or service. It includes a wide range of activities such as:

  • Answering questions and finding solutions

  • Resolving complaints

  • Interacting with customers

  • Following up on customer issues

  • Providing guidance and offering advice

Customer service can be provided through various channels such as phone, emaillive chatsocial media and in-person interactions.” (What Is Customer Service? Definition & Best Practices – Forbes Advisor)

 

Indeed.com defines the service industry as: “A service industry provides people with intangible products or services and completes tasks that are useful to customers, clients, businesses or the general public. Service industries, unlike, for example, manufacturing and production industries, do not rely on the sale of material goods and products to earn a profit. Instead, the individuals who work in the service sector focus on completing tasks and providing services. There are several types of nonmaterial goods and products that service industries provide to people”. (What Is a Service Industry? (With Examples) | Indeed.com”.


Reading these, it’s easy to see how we absolutely provide a customer service. Though I’d caution us to use the phrase “client service provider” instead. As our clients (e.g. customers) aren’t just buying goods and an experience – they are paying us for our education, expertise and knowledge in how to diagnose, treat and prevent conditions and diseases in their pets.


 The above definitions also do not take into account all of the facets of veterinary medicine. Those individuals who work in the public health sector, those who teach or do research, and it does not encompass people who work with food and production animals, wildlife or even zoo animals. It’s important to remember that not all veterinarians are in a clinical setting! That does NOT mean they aren’t doctors. It means they are not commonly interacting with clients.


Well, what about healthcare? We can all agree that we are, in fact, doctors of veterinary medicine. “healthcare provider is an institution (such as a hospital or clinic) or person (such as a physician, nurse, allied health professional or community health worker) that provides preventive, curative, promotional, rehabilitative or palliative care services in a systematic way to individuals, families or communities.”


But while we absolutely are involved in human healthcare – rabies and leptospirosis vaccinations, preventatives, food animal health and safety, research – and so much more – we are involved in human healthcare indirectly. Because of what we do and/or don’t do, human health and contact may be affected. However, because we don’t work directly on humans, we should not consider ourselves only a part of the healthcare system and nothing else.


According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (Veterinary Services - May 2022 OEWS Industry-Specific Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates (bls.gov), veterinary medicine falls under the category of “other professional, scientific, and technical services”. Great! So, after all of the hard work being recognized as “real doctors”, we’re classified as “other” …. (insert sad sigh and eye roll). As frustrating as it might be to classify ourselves as “other”, it is most appropriate. The AVMA sums it up well: “Today's veterinarians are the only doctors educated to protect the health of both animals and people. They work hard to address the health and welfare needs of every species of animal. Veterinarians also play critical roles in environmental protection, research, food safety, and public health. (Veterinarians: Protecting the health of animals and people | American Veterinary Medical Association (avma.org)

 

So Forbes, Wikipedia, Indeed and other business-centric groups aside, how do we view ourselves?


I took an online poll and posted the question: “Is Vet Med considered a customer service industry?”. This was posted on my business Instagram, in a story. There were only 15 people who answered, a few of which were not in the veterinary industry. The poll was small and did not allow for write-in answers, only leaving options for “yes” and “no”. However, the answer is interesting, as it showed almost ¾ of people answering “yes”, they consider veterinary medicine a customer service industry.

 

As for another poll question (378 participants) of “Is veterinary medicine a healthcare-based industry, or a customer service-based industry?”, the answers were even more interesting. This gained a lot of traction and was posted to two, separate, veterinary-only Facebook groups. The graph clearly shows 5 separate choices as this poll did allow for write-in answers. In addition, other participants could then cast their vote on a write-in option, or one of the original choices. The poll started with 2 original options – customer service based, and healthcare based – and ended up with 5 separate selections to vote from. Again, to stress, these were added and voted on by veterinarians only.

 


 

We truly are multi-faceted! While I don’t disagree with these results, it is important to remember all of those that do work in clinical practice, do interact with clients, and do provide a client service. But what I’d caution against is going full “We are not in the healthcare business. We are in the customer service business.” Also don’t forget about all of your colleagues that may or may not deal with clients on a daily or even regular basis!


It’s interesting that based on the graphs, when you simply ask people if veterinarians are considered customer service, the (albeit small), overwhelming response is YES. However, when you expand to add other facets of the job, it’s obvious that us veterinarians take our jobs as doctors and providing healthcare services very seriously. Ironically only 16% of those who answered the second poll, although all veterinarians, painted themselves as both – “Client Service & Unique Healthcare”.


So how can we do both (healthcare and customer service) effectively? How can we truly embrace and be one with our “other” selves? I would encourage all of you that work in a clinical setting to reset your focus to client education. Focus less on “how can I make this person happy”, and reset your focus to “how can I educate this client on what is best for their pet and why”. That client may still decline your recommendations. That client may still not understand what you are trying to get through to them. But that does not mean you aren’t providing them a valuable experience and service! You are using your education, experience and expertise to best inform the client on what their options are and why.


Those of us who work in clinics know the importance of spectrum of care. Educating owners on what is going on, or what you think is going on, and how to get answers and gold standard care. However, educating your clients on these things and still being able to offer other options are invaluable. I’ve had countless clients leave positive reviews or come back and thank me for giving them options, taking the time just to talk to them about options, and taking time to try and educate them on their pets’ condition. Many of these people declined every single diagnostic I offered – but were happy to just have someone listen and go over their pets’ care in detail.


We NEED to get away from the mentality of “we need to make every disgruntled person happy”. NO. The clients are not always right. Period. Full stop. We need to educate those disgruntled clients and provide CARE and OPTIONS to their pet. If they choose not to listen and still be unhappy, you have done your job providing both healthcare and a client service experience. You have done your job in successfully boxing yourself into the “other” category – as frustrating as that may be.


The excuse of “well they may or did leave a negative online review” should not be a deterrent from doing what is right. Which is taking the healthcare and what is best for the pet into account first. Then educating the client on what is going on, what their options are, and what may or may not happen based on those options. Repeat after me: You will not be able to make everyone happy all of the time. There will always be people who don’t like you.


We cannot expect everyone to understand. We cannot expect everyone to have the funds to do all that we ask. But we can expect our own actions and our own reactions to always be professional, educational, objective and honest. If you don’t know what is going on in a case, humble yourself enough to tell the client they can get a second opinion as you aren’t sure. Don’t keep offering more tests and useless treatments if it’s getting you nowhere.


Accepting that our profession does everything – as we’ve been trying to tell people for decades now – seems like something we haven’t been able to accept just as much as our clients. We want so badly to be seen as “real doctors” – which we are – that we’ve gotten away from realizing that we do provide client services. Others have become so aggravated with negative keyboard warriors and online experts, that they’ve moved the needle too far away from healthcare.


It is possible to embrace the other side and still be successful and happy. We as an industry, just need to start doing and quit talking. Make changes that will push the scales for balance.   

 

 

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