New associates: Don't be daunted by clients (or yourself)
“Education is the ability to meet life’s situations.” –John Grier Hibben
“The great aim of education is not knowledge but action.” –Herbert Spencer
In veterinary school, everyone learns how to spay and neuter animals. It’s standard. You cut here, ligate there and are tested on that knowledge ad nauseam.
When you finally enter the real world, you realize that these textbook procedures are much more complex. Why? They involve two human variables you may not have accounted for in veterinary school: clients and yourself. Before you can even get to the procedure, you have to communicate with clients about it, and then they have to trust that you’re making a good recommendation and that you’re capable of following through on your promises. You, on the flipside, need confidence and experience in order to communicate effectively and authoritatively—two things that don’t always come with a veterinary degree.
Using three different topics (including spays and neuters) you’re certain to encounter as a newly minted associate veterinarian, I’ve outlined ways to gain confidence, own your expertise and communicate effectively with clients. I’ve also included actionable goals that should help get you started.
1. Spays and neuters
Gain confidence: Perform as many spays and neuters as possible before (and after) you graduate. The more surgeries you perform, the better you’ll get at tissue handling. Plus, you’ll see it’s not as scary as they make it seem in school.
Own your expertise: Cancer is your best friend here—or at the least, the goal to prevent cancer is. The second you say “cancer,” you will grab your clients’ attention. Be ready to share stats demonstrating the link between spaying and the risk of mammary tumor development. Know your testicular and prostate cancers too, all for the sake of educating clients. Most people don’t care about controlling the pet population. In fact, the thought of their beloved pet becoming a mommy or a daddy makes them feel all warm and fuzzy.
Communicate effectively: Make sure you’re checking back with the clients and using active listening techniques (this skill could fill an article by itself). Make sure you acknowledge any concerns so they feel heard. Most people are willing to trust you, so don’t try to force it. Be patient.
Actionable goal: It can be difficult to get people to trust you to do surgery at first. (Maybe you don’t even trust yourself.) You have to volunteer a lot in the beginning. Start easy with small dogs and cats, and then move up to the big dogs. I volunteered at the clinic right after I graduated in order to get more experience while waiting to take the state license exam. Even after becoming employed, I would go in on my days off for a few hours when another veterinarian was scheduled to do surgery, and she would usually let me do half of it until she was confident I could do it all by myself.
Gain confidence: This is one of those topics you’ll have to do outside reading on to gain confidence. (Psst! Get access to tons of behavior articles here, including one I just wrote on puppy socialization classes.)
Own your expertise: Even though we don’t talk about behavior much in vet school, we have way more experience reading animal body language than the average person because we spend so much time working with them in school (and likely years before school). Don’t let the “curse of knowledge” cloud your judgement.
Communicate effectively: Remember that it’s not always the client’s fault if they have an animal with behavioral issues. Ask clients what they think is normal versus abnormal behavior and pick their brains to learn more about the pet’s home life.
Actionable goal: As you know, having your own pets or fostering animals for shelters is a great way to learn about animal behavior. It's also helpful in staying sensitive to how your clients feel in the midst of behavior struggles. (For example, you’ll likely be more compassionate toward a client with a hyperactive pup if you have your own hyperactive pup at home.) If this isn’t possible for you, volunteer or do some part-time work training animals. When I first moved to Hawaii, I got a job working at a horse stable while waiting to take my state license exam. I would do basic work with the horses that really helped me learn about their behavior.
Gain confidence: Repeat this mantra: “I’m not a used car salesman. I’m not a used car salesman.” No matter how much you may want to, you can’t run away from sales when you work in a field where your knowledge is what makes the sale. The cardinal rule is, if you believe in what you’re selling, you’ll be able to sell it. If you don’t want to sell these products, you have to be open and honest with the people you work with so they don’t schedule you for these appointments.
Own your expertise: Know your products and how they work. When I first graduated, I didn’t know any of the products used in America because I went to veterinary school in New Zealand, which doesn’t make for a great salesperson. You’ll also need to know the prevalence of diseases in your state so you can appropriately recommend vaccines and other preventives. For example, Hawaii has the highest leptospirosis prevalence in the United States—a fact I use in my lepto vaccine recommendations.
Communicate effectively: Many people are against vaccines and medications for fleas and worms because they feel it’s unnatural or harmful. When I first graduated, I would say, “You need to get vaccines and flea and heartworm medications in order to protect your pet.” But I’ve learned that people don’t like being told what to do, and they also don’t like feeling that you’re trying to “upsell” them. Here’s what I usually tell clients now: “My job is to present you with the facts and make sure you make an informed decision, and you get to decide what to do with that information.” People seem happier that they get to make an educated decision, and I’m happier because I get to educate them.
Actionable goal: I used to think working at a vaccine and preventive care clinic would be the worst and most boring job ever. Now I do it once or twice a month for Petco with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and love it! There is no time limit on how much time I can spend talking to clients and educating them, and no one is ever upset about having to wait because there are no appointments. Bonus: I get to play with puppies, kittens and mostly healthy, happy animals all day. I think every veterinarian should try it. Even you.