Staff training lays foundation for success

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Jan 12, 2001
By dvm360.com staff

When veterinarians opt to leave private practice, they often cite frustrations dealing with staff training and retention.

So before arriving at a breaking point, long-time practice manager Kurt Oster recommends seeking out professional advice.

After all, training doesn't have to be difficult, says Oster, who now works with Veterinary Practice Healthcare Consultants. With a little organization, communication and leadership, every veterinary practice has the potential to run smoothly.

"All you have to do is put your hand up and ask for help," Oster says. "The one statement that frightens me when I go to practices is, 'We don't waste time training our employees because we know they'll quit in two or three months.'

"That's ridiculous. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Nailing down job duties

Beginning or reviving staff training regimens should start with outlining job descriptions.

"There's no magic bullet," Oster says. "It all goes back to the basics and an ongoing commitment to education between staff and the practice leadership. And for that to start, everyone has to know where they fit in."

For example, traditional receptionist duties consist largely of clerical work, but the role often is meatier in the veterinary profession. "These receptionists really should be called client care professionals," says Susan Hoy, a private consultant.

And their improper training could result in legal woes, Gerald Snyder, VMD, adds.

"Imagine going into a veterinary hospital and the receptionist is totally ignorant of what your pet needs," says Snyder, owner of Veterinary Practice Productivity, Inc. "A new employee should never speak to a client unless they've had three days of intensive training. A veterinarian is legally liable for any advice his employee gives."

It's also useful for receptionists to emotionally connect with a practice's clientele.

"Clients want to be coddled by caring and perceptive receptionists," Snyder says. "So it's not unusual to have them be more in tune with the receptionist than the doctor. These visits turn into social calls."

By the book

There are many ways to train staff, including classes, videotapes, books and role-playing. And no matter what method is employed, training, in small doses, needs to happen once a week, Hoy says.

But according to Snyder, most practices do little of what's required for basic instruction.

"Usually a doctor has a set of instructional videotapes sitting in his office gathering dust because the toughest word in veterinary medicine is 'implementation,'" Snyder says. "Tapes are an investment that can be used on hundreds of employees for decades at a miniscule cost.

"We're not talking about brain surgery. We're talking about client care, kennel care and customer service."

Education required

While training needs to be mandatory, Snyder says most on-the-job efforts are expensive and inefficient.

For that reason, Hoy recommends repetition. "It works," she says. "Go over things again and again until your staff gets it right. True learning often calls for teamwork, and that means sitting down with everyone, including the DVM."

The most common form of training is the phase method, Oster says. For new staffers, there should be concurrent performance appraisals following completed tasks, set in a level format.

But everyone learns differently, he adds, so educators need to assess their student's potential and adjust accordingly.

"You can use a combination of techniques - role playing, one-on-one, procedure manuals, whatever. Mixing it up keeps things interesting."

The historic review

At the close of a training level or time period, performance reviews can assess employee progress. But while they might keep staffers on their toes, they often tend to be counterproductive.

That's because reviewers usually remember only what's happened in the last two weeks or recall just the critical incidents, Oster says. "It doesn't do any good to bring an employee in and hit him over the head with something bad that happened six months ago."

And it doesn't help when reviews appear identical year after year.

"I'm a slob," Oster says. "My desk is always dirty and I'm really bad with accounts receivable. So every year, my review says my desk is disastrous and I'm bad with accounts receivable. What good does it do to tell me that after five or six years?"

Instead, he recommends quarterly goal setting, which invites staffers to work in conjunction with a supervisor to learn skills or try new procedures.

"And that's what employee compensation can be based on," Oster says. "This way, the emphasis is on learning new things and moving forward rather than beating the employee up with the past."

Keeping up with CE

No matter how comfortable an employee, training should never stop, Snyder says.

"There are always plenty of new things to learn. Every employee should be obligated to do one to two hours of training a week and attend at least one staff meeting a month," he says. "Drug distributors have no qualms about sending someone to your hospital to present the pros and cons about new products, about which all staffers should be able to answer client questions."

Hoy recommends employee travel.

"Have the staff attend seminars. Get them out of the office and into classrooms with people who are learning the same things."

And as training should be ongoing, Oster says reviewing old techniques and skill sets doesn't hurt.

"It's so important to keep up with things," he says. "There's an old saying I like to tell my clients: 'You can be on the right track and still be run over by a faster train.' "