How Do I Respond To Questions When I Don’t Know The Answer?
By Dr Dave Nicol
Recently, a veterinary practice receptionist in Ohio wanted to know what employees like her should do on those frequent occasions when a client will call or visit the practice with a question that the employee has no ready answer for. “I don’t know how to answer that,” she said, in apparent frustration.
It’s important to acknowledge how common this situation is, and how it can undermine our confidence in ourselves to be unable to come up with an answer in that moment. We are supposed to be the experts, after all, so it’s understandable that being unable to answer a technical question on the spot might erode our self-confidence.
Here are some strategies that can help in these situations through the lens of the receptionist role, but remember, the strategies are effective regardless of your role in practice.
Training helps with the basics
First, and most important: You should have great training under your belt. These are the common-sense facts you should already know, about the practice, and about basic procedures. Such as: What are the hours of operation? What are the pre-anesthetic and post-anesthetic steps the pet owner should be taking? What are the recommended flea-treatment protocols? And when will a particular doctor be working, etc.?
So, obtaining that kind of basic training about the practice and how it operates comes down to you and your boss. He or she should implement some minimal, introductory training when you first come on board, so you can contribute to the efforts of the team.
Take note of commonly asked questions
Second, there are “Classic” or commonly asked questions. These are usually more complicated, but crop up frequently. A good strategy is to write them down as they come in because they can form the basis for future training sessions. If you know the answer, go ahead and answer. If not, you can let the client know that you will find out and get back to them.
Write these questions down as they crop up. Never mind that you may not have ready answers; what’s more important is keeping track of the questions, so you can seek answers later and then you’ll have a ready answer the next time a similar question is posed.
Another important reason to write these questions down is for inspiration for future blog posts, newsletter items, or leaflets and handouts for use in your practice. The fact that certain questions occur repeatedly tells you that these are the burning questions that are most relevant to your audience, be they clients or colleagues.
Refer to the right person
Some questions and answers will be outside of your domain and should be referred to the relevant expert. If you are a receptionist, no one expects you to know, in great detail, what your employer spent years in vet school learning. But if it’s in your wheelhouse, you should certainly learn it, and be ready to share that information as needed.
When it comes to rendering diagnoses or giving specific clinical advice, that’s definitely not your job as a receptionist. Gently defer to the expertise of the vet on duty in that instance. As a corollary, you should never give in to the temptation to starting spouting BS.
If you don’t know something, say so plainly. Acknowledge that such a question is best answered by the expert; the veterinarian. Otherwise, you not only risk giving bad advice, or even potentially harmful device, but you will also lose that client’s confidence in you and the practice that you represent. Acknowledging that you don’t know everything is actually more reassuring than pretending you do when you don’t. The value you can add is by taking responsibility for getting an answer or having the best person contact the client when they become available.
Implement these three strategies: advance training, listening and actively seeking answers and referral so you never have to look silly in front of a client again.
Dr Dave Nicol is a vet with more than 20 years experience in general practice and has owned and led teams large and small.
He is the founder and CEO of the VetX International community.