Sounds pretty basic, doesn’t it? Every time we open our mouths, we are communicating, right? That’s pretty easy. One person speaks words to another person, the other person hears the word and interprets them. But how often does this seemingly simple process result in a serious disconnect? How is it possible that one person, speaking the same language as their audience, can fail so miserably to convey their intended message?

We don’t limit our communications to just the words we utter, whisper, shout or spew forth. How about tone of voice? Or facial expressions and body language? Cue images of exasperated (exacerbating?) teenagers here. Simple language becomes intensely nuanced when we add these non-verbal components. For some people, controlling these components of their communication is vastly difficult. But developing and awareness of this is well worth the effort.

To illustrate the impact of the non-verbal components of communication, I imagine two cashiers at a grocery store. Both ask all the right questions: How are you today? Did you find everything alright? Would you like any help with your groceries? Seeing these words in written form, you probably envision pleasant discourse and acceptable customer service. Changes in the cashier’s demeanor, however, take this from a neutral interaction, to either an exceptional service or a truly disappointing (irritating) one.

Cashier One: The cashier meets your eyes before you reach the front of the line. She smiles as she asks these questions. Her body posture is relaxed and open. Her tone of voice and cadence of speech are upbeat. She actually LISTENS to your answers and responds appropriately. While she continues to check your items efficiently, she does not rush you with a receipt shoved in your face and a quick “Come again.” She thanks you sincerely. When you depart, you most likely feel like she was interested in providing check out service to you, and maybe that she really did wish you well on you way out.

Cashier Two: This time you know before you reach the front of the line that this cashier is NOT in the mood to be there. You can see her sulky scowl from the other end of the magazines and candy bars. She does not face her customers, instead slumping against her register. She certainly is not making eye contact. She mumbles the routine questions because if she doesn’t, the supervisor will mark her record. Maybe she asks if you want paper or plastic. Regardless of what you say, you’re getting plastic because she’s not listening to your answer anyway. She works at the pace that suits her, even if the line stretches back to the deli. When she’s done, you get a receipt and a curt “Thanks.” Maybe.

Almost all of the words were the same. Yet, Cashier One seems like a friendly, capable service provider that appreciates your business. Cashier number two… well, no so much. She seems annoyed that you are there to make her labor. The non-verbal cues completely overwhelmed the words. Maybe Cashier Two was having a bad day. Maybe an earlier customer yelled at her for no good reason. Who knows? But you still leave with the impression that you were an unappreciated imposition. If possible, you skip her line next time.

As veterinary professionals, we are all one of these two cashiers to our clients. The way we communicate with them affects the way the feel about their experience with us. It determines the value the place on our services, perhaps even more that the results of those services. It’s a big part of what bonds them to us, and to the practice, or what drives them to seek care for their pets elsewhere.

Just like our second, grumpy cashier, we all have days where we. can’t. even. We honestly don’t want to talk to or smile at anyone but our dog. Sleep deprivation, anxiety, personal stresses, financial worries, disgruntled clients and a plethora of other things can color our outlook on life. But we are asking clients to trust our judgements and recommendations for the care of their pets. It is often information that is foreign to them. They must rely on their impression of us, and our level of interest in them, to decide if they should follow those recommendations. They may have read reviews, or talked to their neighbor about your practice. They notice the way the lobby is maintained and the staff conducts themselves.

But the interpersonal interactions that occur between the client and the team members can be the biggest test. From the tone of voice of the receptionist on the phone, to the body language of the technician while he explains the need to spend money on parasite preventatives, to tone of the vet as she explains the treatment options one more time, our mannerisms belie our words. Do they feel that you want to be there in that moment with them?

Our interpersonal communication skills are vital to achieving strong client relationships. We need to train ourselves, and our team members to put our best face on, to ensure that we provide clients with the respect and consideration they deserve EVERY DAY. I’ve seen it estimated that about 10% of communication is comprised of words. The other 90% is made up of body language and tone of voice. If we allow a negative mood to impact our non-verbal communication, it won’t matter what our verbal contribution to the relationship is. Nice words are quickly lost under an avalanche of unpleasant tones, postures and facial expressions. Cue that teenager again… I’m SORRY I missed curfew, Mom (eye roll and dramatic sigh)… The right words, the wrong tone and expression. Sorry, not sorry.

We can repeat a script we’ve recited a thousand time before, even in a royally foul mood… Fluffy needs to be on heartworm prevention year- round. Heartworms are transmitted by mosquitos… Providing the client with the pleasant tone and body language they deserve is harder sometimes. It takes practice for most of us, myself included. Like I tell my teenager- It’s absolutely okay to be angry, but it is absolutely not okay to take it out on others. In customer service these days, it seems that this is an oft forgotten mantra. We may tolerate a moody cashier, as the stakes are very low (beyond squashed bread and broken eggs). But we ask our clients to trust that we have the best interest of their pet in mind always. The negative impression caused by an irritated or impatient tones, dramatic sighs or slumping, disinterested posture can do permanent damage to the relationship. When we address them this way, it does not matter what you say or how smart or capable you are. All the client can hear is I don’t want to help you and your pet.” Those non-verbal cues are so strong, they will believe them.

Written by: Dr. Kristen Arp

Dr. Arp graduated from the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine in 2002. She has practiced in the Metro Atlanta area since graduation. Dr. Arp lives in Loganville, Georgia with her husband, Trey and their two children. Tempe, their chocolate lab, can regularly be seen riding in Dr. Arp’s van, always ready to help with her patients.