How to make your practice cat-friendly
1/ The team makes the difference!
A) Fundamental considerations
In every business sector, at the end of the day it is the clients who decide which models, services and products are of interest to them and what they buy. This measure is particularly valid in the service sector where the differentiating factor of personal service, expressed in the form of a special and emotional component is so important. This is in addition to the obvious market offerings, which are provided by most businesses and accessible to all. This emotional component in what is offered and the provision of services plays a significant role in small animal practice, because we’re talking about family members and in many cases pets that play the role of a child in that family.
Everyone who works in small animal practice should always keep this in mind and act accordingly. In small animal practice, we don’t just have to take care of one species of animal, but a whole series of different species, each with different owners.
Data collected from around the world demonstrate that the cat population is growing almost everywhere, so it makes sense to acknowledge this and focus on strategies to increase the number of cats visiting the practice by creating special offers for cats and their owners. Cat owners have, in some respects, different personalities to dog owners; they and their pets have (partially fundamental) different needs when it comes to medical requirements and communication.
This becomes apparent if you compare the differences between dogs and cats – both act completely differently in terms of behaviour and each requires very different approaches from us as a practice team – particularly in the stressful situation of a veterinary practice.
B) The differences
If we accept that owners who only have cats or dogs demonstrate different personality traits, then the next consideration is how to respect and recognise these differences with what we offer these disparate client groups.
An important, perhaps the most important difference in what we need to offer cat owners is the composition of the practice team; those who work with both people and animals. Our approach to cat owners must first and foremost be reflected in the personality and expert knowledge of the people who work with these clients in order to generate a trusted and successful relationship with them. This means that the “cat team” within the practice must be able to show through its medical and expert skills, as well as with the type of communication used, that the cat is a special animal and that the team is prepared to address this type of pet specifically and with empathy.
C) Starting with a vision
If you want to create a cat-friendly team in your practice, to include veterinarians, veterinary nurses and receptionists, you should first of all envisage what this team should look like, i.e. develop a vision of the new situation and sketch this out in key words. Let yourself be guided, for example, by the following questions:
• How should the service for cats and their owners differ currently and in the future (e.g. in terms of communication, services and products)?
• What should the difference be between the service offered to cat and dog clients?
• How should the cat client perceive the practice, i.e. what should he or she feel?
• What reasons should the client have to bring his or her cat into your practice?
• How should the team approach cat clients?
When doing this, take into consideration that at the end of the development of a special service for cat clients, it is they who will judge whether the concept has been a success or not, i.e. it needs to exhibit significant features in order to give your cat owners sufficient reasons to choose your practice!
When this vision is completed, the next task is to develop specific goals – goals which turn the vision into a reality.
There are two ways of developing goals from your cat-friendly team’s vision depending on the practice’s structure and options:
1.) Can the level of caring for cats and their owners be raised through the efforts of the existing team? If the answer is yes, then it has to be planned as to how this is going to be achieved. In a small practice desired changes have to be carried out by the existing staff.
2.) Is it an option to create a “cat team” by hiring new people to look after cat clients? This is only possible if there is enough space and financial “muscle” to make this happen.
In terms of how the cat team’s duties are designed it doesn´t make a difference whether the cat team is formed from new or existing human resources. For the organisation and management of the individuals involved it does however definitely make a difference whether they are recruited from the existing team or are new members of staff. When setting up a new team, additional objectives generally arise in finding, recruiting and training staff, as opposed to merely redesigning the team from existing personnel.
Both options have advantages and disadvantages, such as:
• When assigning new tasks to existing team members, individuals’ strengths and weaknesses are already well known and they are integrated into the team, whereas the personalities of new employees are, as yet, unknown and you cannot always predict whether and how (quickly) they will integrate into the team.
• New employees have the opportunity to start completely ’afresh‘, and given a clear workplace description and if selected with care and trained appropriately they stand a good chance of fulfilling their duties to the utmost. In contrast, it can become difficult to shift those who have been working in the practice for longer, out of their “daily grind” and motivate and train them for new tasks, even if these employees want it themselves. Everyone knows how difficult it is to change long-standing behavioural patterns even if you want to and are convinced it makes sense.
• From a financial viewpoint, it is certainly more expensive to search for, recruit, and train new staff than it is to train existing staff.
In addition to the considerations described above, you should also carefully consider whether the capacities for new tasks exist in the current set up, as the introduction of new tasks mean that work and time have to be reallocated, whilst the tasks the staff previously carried out will still need to be done. In the ideal scenario, a differentiated offering for cat clients will result in more work – and of course greater turnover – and not less. It is nonetheless important to pay equal attention to the following steps irrespective of whether the “cat team” is to comprise of new or existing members of staff. This means that an in-house recruitment process should be carried out in accordance with the exact same criteria and with the same steps as a search on the open market.
D) Goal 1: Employee description
When fundamental issues have been clarified, you can move to the active creation of a cat-friendly team and the objective is: to define as precisely as possible the positions to be filled and the people suitable for each one. The previously developed vision is very helpful here as it can act as a guideline for putting together the so-called ‘hard‘ and ’soft‘ qualities or attributes which the employees should have. The employee’s qualities which relate to the expert knowledge which he or she will bring to the job are referred to as ‘hard’ attributes, while ‘soft’ attributes describe personal characteristics.
To enable the management team or the head of the practice to get a precise idea of the staff required to make up a cat-friendly team, it is a good idea to make two lists with all the hard and soft qualities which are necessary in the roles and to use these either when seeking new staff or when considering existing team members.
When designing the team in terms of cat-friendliness, it is of course particularly important that each individual attribute in the respective list is scrutinised in order to check to what extent they are specific to the ‘cat’. We need to consider whether the different focus in comparison, for example, to the topic of “looking after dog clients” has been clearly stated.
The list of hard qualities includes:
• knowledge of current cat medicine: diseases, diagnoses and treatments,
• knowledge of cat behaviour and cat handling,
• knowledge of cat breeds and the world of pedigree cat owners and cat breeders,
• expert knowledge of keeping cats (outdoor and indoor),
• expert knowledge of cat nutrition in the different life stages and for particular cat diseases,
• practical skills in treating cats; for example, as little constraint as possible during clinical examination, a gentle injection technique, efficient blood sampling, carrying out x-rays and all other, day-to-day, standard procedures within the practice.
These points must of course be further modified and their focus changed, depending on whether you are looking for a veterinarian, veterinary nurse or receptionist.
The list of soft qualities includes:
• ability to communicate well with people,
• a love of cats and respect for their particular characteristics and needs,
• understanding and an ability to empathise with cat owners,
• aptitude in advising and selling,
• ability to work within a team and get on with colleagues.
Once you have listed the skills and desired characteristics, you need to draw up a specific and comprehensive job and workplace description.
E) Goal 2: the job and workplace description
The aim of the job description is to paint as precise a picture as possible of the role to be filled. This description acts, amongst other things, as a basis for the job advertisement which will be used to recruit new staff. To establish a special cat team, the job descriptions for veterinarians, and/or other team members are distinct and should be drawn up with a different focus.
• In the job description for vets, the focus is very clearly on the clinical aspect of cat medicine and surgery as well as on consulting and prescribing, along with recommending veterinary services and associated products for cats.
• For veterinary nurses/other team members, the focus of duties is different, in accordance with the job, focusing more on the topics of handling and care of cats, selected clinical tasks as well as giving advice on and selling services and products.
• How should both areas of activity of the vet and the veterinary nurse/assistant be connected, i.e. in what specific areas and duties should both jobs complement one another in a synergistic manner?
In addition to the specifics of the most important work areas, details about working times, information on the position in the team (management and reporting structure) as well as social benefits, all of which are part of the job, should go in a job description.
The workplace description contains precise details of all the responsibilities and duties of that member of staff, i.e. specific task lists including the frequency with which the tasks are to be carried out and the way in which they should be conducted.
In addition to the recruitment of new staff, drawing up this list serves to establish the need for staff in particular areas of duty and to check on whether one’s own planning is complete and realistic.
For setting up a cat-friendly team, both the job and workplace descriptions must highlight the precise details for this special feline duty, in addition to the usual requirements. The information detailed in the staff, job and workplace descriptions, can be used to draw up an appropriate job advert to recruit new or existing staff.
F) Goal 3: selecting and testing new staff
In this part of the process of creating the cat-friendly team, prospective new staff members, who seem suitable on the basis of their written application should be invited to an interview.
The following points are important in the interview process:
• If possible, the interview should be carried out by 2-3 people who already work in the practice and know what kind of employee the practice is looking for. If several people take part in the interview, more information will be gathered about the candidate and that makes the decision easier. It is important that all interviewers have sufficient job experience, good listening skills and are aware of the particular details of the person who is being recruited for the cat team.
• First of all, the applicant should - stimulated by a few introductory questions - be invited to tell the interviewers about him or herself as openly as possible so that he/she can relax and those present can gain a first impression of his/her personality, for example:
- Data on his/her professional career history (check whether the information agrees with the written application).
- What he/she does and doesn’t enjoy about the job.
- What strengths and weakness he/she has.
- What the biggest challenge of the job is for him/her.
- Why he/she applied and/or why he/she believes he/she is particularly suitable for this particular job.
• The interviewers should then ask targeted questions from a standardised, prepared questionnaire so that all applicants have to answer the same questions, making comparisons possible. The answers should be noted in writing. In this section of the interview, questions which primarily relate to the specific job should be asked. This means that in addition to general questions on job behaviour (dealing with managers, stress and criticism, ability to work within a team etc.), you should put a clear emphasis on the special aspects of working in the ‘cat team’ so, for example:
- What is the appeal for him/her about working in a team with people dedicated to feline medicine?
- What are the differences for him/her between dog and cat owners?
- How would he/she respond to the particular needs of cat owners in his/her job?
• At the end of the interview, the applicants are given all details of the job such as salary, holiday, additional statuary aspects as well as practice-specific information on daily life in the workplace (workplace description) and other additional benefits (further training offers, bonus system, etc.), so that the candidate can have a comprehensive picture of the job.
When you have selected one or several people after discussion with the interview team, it is sensible to invite two or three of the best candidates to a “second interview”, i.e. 1-2 days of work experience so that you can see whether he/she lives up to what he/she promised. During this period, the applicant can be put into different situations which form part of the daily life of the practice and be observed in order to finally offer the most suitable person the job. The training can then begin! It also allows them to see whether they feel the job is for them and that they will fit in with the rest of the team. The rest of the team should also be asked for their opinion on their prospective new colleague.
G) Goal 4: continuous and further training for the cat team
Work on creating a cat team does not end with the selection and initial training of suitable people. So that the selected new members of staff can do a good job for as long as possible and continue to develop further, it is absolutely essential that:
• They regularly take part in internal training and team discussions in which personnel and medically relevant topics are discussed
• They are continually trained ‘on the job’ internally, so that no mistakes or negligent behaviour creep into their daily working life
• They regularly take part in external further training on cat related matters so they can continually introduce the latest developments into the practice.
Putting together a successful team of professionals with expert knowledge in cat medicine and handling, training and continually developing them is a major challenge and a totally new goal for most practices. However, in view of the developments in the small animal market with advancing specialisation and a growing cat population, it is essential for the long-term planning of a practice to appreciate these trends and establish a special offering for cat owners.
One of the most important issues in delivering this concept is an exceptional team which ‘lives’ the offering, making all the difference to cat owners.
Come back soon for Part 2 of this article...