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Service Without A Smile – Communicating Effectively While Wearing A Mask

We have been incredibly lucky here in Perth with zero community spread since the onset of the pandemic, so most of us were hit with a dose of reality when this past fortnight saw West Australians required to wear masks for the first time.

Vets and nurses are used to wearing masks, however most pet owners are not. From the veterinary perspective, I found myself on both sides of the equation during this period, after I had to rush my cat into emergency surgery for a furball obstruction. I experienced first-hand how it felt to be a worried pet owner talking to a vet in a hot car park, both of us wearing masks, and all the while not knowing if my pet was going to be ok. Adding to the stress levels of most clients in this situation is also the worry about money, and what decisions they may need to make for their pet.

Vets and nurses I have spoken with tell me that the biggest challenge for them is communicating clearly with clients, both in-person and over the phone. Masks are hot and uncomfortable, voices are muffled, and unless you’re making good eye contact it’s difficult to convey the subtle messages that we all take for granted. 

Thanks to social distancing, we are no longer allowed to comfort clients with a gentle touch or a pat on the arm, so facial and voice communications are critical. 

Communication with patients is also affected by mask-wearing. Masks can look scary to frightened and unwell pets! 

The second biggest challenge faced by veterinary staff working in lock-down conditions is dealing with clients who are offended or irritated by requests to wear a mask or to wait outside for assistance. Despite the best of intentions and detailed communications, there will always be some clients who are disgruntled, particularly during times of high tension. 

So – what actions can we take to improve the experience, both for our clients and for our team members?

  1. Eye Contact. Most of us have confidence in maintaining eye contact with each other, however younger, more inexperienced or introverted people may not. If a client looks away, try directing their attention to a brochure or written notes to help them feel more comfortable.

  2. Smile. Although the client cannot see your mouth smiling, a genuine smile will make it all the way to your eyes.

  3. Voice. Speak clearly and concisely, and give your client the opportunity to respond or ask questions at frequent intervals.

  4. Telephone Courtesy. Masks can muffle our voices and some clients are hard of hearing. Check that the client can hear you clearly before proceeding with the call.

  5. Training. Students and younger, less confident team members may benefit from a few tips to help them feel more comfortable communicating with clients during times of mandated mask-wearing. An informal discussion at your next team meeting will allow you to find out what challenges your team are facing, and to facilitate an easier exchange of ideas and advice.

Thankfully in Perth, our restrictions will be easing this weekend. However as I write this blog today, Victoria is entering a 5 day lockdown period. 

I am sending my best wishes to all Victorians at this time, and I hoping that your circumstances return to normal as quickly as possible.

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