India McKeown is Senior Client Services Administrator for Langford Small Animal Referral Hospital. She sat down with us to discuss the importance of excellence in front-of-house skills and their impact on keeping a veterinary practice running smoothly.

Please could you give a brief summary of your career to date?

My veterinary career began aged 19 when I was hired as a full-time receptionist in a busy first opinion practice in Bristol. It was a steep learning curve as I had never worked with animals before, nor as a receptionist. I learned a lot, and fast! I stayed there for two years before moving on to my current workplace, Langford Small Animal Referral Hospital. 

Moving from first opinion to referral brought a wave of new experiences. To make matters even more complicated, Covid hit when I had only been at Langford for a few weeks. With half our team furloughed, and my training not complete, we all had to adapt quickly to a new reality. Having made it through several lockdowns and many other changes since, we went from strength to strength.

Whilst at Langford, I have worked to improve our service for bereaved clients, organised training days for my colleagues on emergency triaging and bereavement, and I have been elected to represent my team on the employee forum.  I have since progressed to my current role of Senior Client Services Administrator, working with a team of 11 on front-of-house. Having been here for four years and counting, now the role is still as rich and varied as ever.

Which skills do you feel are the most important for front-of-house staff?

I think we have the most diverse role in the industry! There are numerous skills that are indispensable to an effective front-of-house team member. Firstly, I would say adaptability. Whether this is on an individual level when identifying and suiting a client’s unique needs, or more broadly when managing an ever-changing workload and managing multiple different expectations.

Secondly, I would highlight patience! The nature of our position means we do have to deal with some pretty tricky situations. It is important to be able to sit back, breathe and take stock of the moment in order to approach it with a level head.

Finally, I cannot undervalue compassion. Ultimately our role is to support the client. They may be in the midst of navigating a major event within their family life. A receptionist’s ability to empathise and anticipate another person’s emotions in that moment is our defining factor. It can be what makes or breaks that client’s overall experience.

What do you feel has been your most valuable learning experience so far in the area of client care?

Training new starters has been invaluable in expanding my understanding of the nuances of client care. It has given me new perspectives on how I interact with clients and communicate with my peers. Learning how to identify my teammates’ strengths and helping to teach them the skills to use them has been one of the more enjoyable areas of my new role.

Supervising a team as well as doing my normal work has been more challenging than I’d expected. I feel that my ability to be adaptable and resilient is serving me well; both things I have learned in my time working on front-of-house. My current working environment is very collaborative. We rely on each other and are constantly learning from each other’s skills. Cultivating a strong team bond is crucial to keeping the place running smoothly and I don’t think any of us would be able to function without it.

Aside from this, the best learning opportunity of all is our clients. Empathy and compassion can’t really be taught, so learning how best to read their cues is something that will be done on the job. Some clients really need extra support by listening and reassuring them, whereas others will need very little from you aside from efficient service. Knowing how to provide the correct service to suit a client’s needs is a skill I am very proud of.

“A confident, assured and resolutely un-flappable receptionist at the helm of whatever chaos is really going on is a powerful thing to behold!”

How do you feel that excellence in front-of-house skills benefits a veterinary practice?

It may be a cliché, but we quite literally do provide that all-important first impression, both on the phone and in person. However, our effect runs much deeper than that. A confident, assured and resolutely un-flappable receptionist at the helm of whatever chaos is really going on is a powerful thing to behold! Even more satisfyingly, witnessing a frustrated client melt before gentle, consistent reassurance, or a very distressed client relax ever so slightly because they feel they have been heard and taken care of; all of this is provided at the front desk.

The same can be said for our impact on the cases that, despite our best efforts, cannot be fixed. Having experienced the sad reality of pet loss myself many times, even the simple example of not having to explain myself articulately on arrival because the person on the desk was expecting me is completely invaluable.

Aside from this, our influence reaches into the clinical team as well. Communication and organisation affected by the administrative team facilitates streamlined operation and service across the board. We have the unique opportunity of being able to advocate for both the clinical team to the public, and vice versa. By doing this, we can both help our colleagues and also ensure the client feels valued and informed.

Are there specialist skills needed by front-of-house and client care staff working in referral practices? How does this differ from general practice?

The main difference between referral and first opinion is that the timeframe we have to build a relationship with our clients is much shorter. In general practice you will see most clients at least once a year for annual vaccinations, many of them will come regularly for preventative treatment or chronic illnesses. At referral level we may only see our clients twice: once on admit and again on discharge. Our opportunity to provide gold-standard care is therefore greatly reduced so we must work even harder to show them how much we care about them and their pet.

By the time our clients reach us, their pet will either have already had investigations done locally with no answers or be very poorly indeed, so the client will likely be very stressed. With all this in mind the client may not be as receptive to our efforts. A referral receptionist, coordinator or administrator will need to have thick skin, quick reactions and effective problem-solving skills. However, having experienced both areas, I can say that first opinion has its own unique pressures. When asked, I always say that each is challenging and enjoyable in equal measure but in different ways!

How can the front-of-house team lead the way in communicating the vision of the practice?

Langford on the whole is proudly focussed on continual professional learning and development both for students and staff. This vision filters through to all areas of the hospital’s daily operations, including front of house. We are encouraged to be creative and actively workshop problems to reach a suitable solution.

Our client service team develop their skills through regular training days, benefitting from the expertise of our colleagues across the clinical spectrum. Our aim is for this to teach confidence and knowledge which will assure clients of our professionalism. I am proud that our team can deftly triage our emergency referrals, occasionally knowing which department they need to see when the referring vet doesn’t!

Communication is also vital for providing the best client experience. It aids organisation, meaning that we can achieve the smooth, seamless appearance we strive for. The standards and image any practice or hospital want to convey must be consistent throughout all levels of the business, but especially in the team that are greeting, booking and assisting the clients at every stage of their journey.

“Advocate for yourself and your own learning.”

What is your top piece of advice for others embarking on a front-of-house veterinary career?

Know your value! Our skills are unique amongst our veterinary colleagues. We bridge the gap between the black-and-white clinical world and the more emotional needs of client care. I know from experience that we often feel pulled from pillar to post between clients, clinicians, management, nurses and everyone in between. I would encourage you to stand your ground and trust your instincts. We may not be a vet or a nurse, but our involvement gets clients through the door and to the right people to help the animal, so we are equally as important to the overall process.

Our expertise can be as vast, diverse and indispensable as we allow it to be, so advocate for yourself and your own learning. You can’t always please everyone but keeping a level head, taking pride in your work and remembering what is important and how someone feels will never lead you far wrong.

And finally – never, EVER say “I’m just a receptionist”!

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