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5 tips for managing owner expectations

Written by Katie Lawrence; Connect on LinkedIn

One morning, in the early years of my practice, a letter of complaint landed on my mat.  The complaint was based on the fact that I didn’t “fix” the horse’s kissing spine. This letter had me in tears.  I had only seen the horse three times and it was going really well (or so I thought). After a period of feeling very sorry for myself and even contemplating giving up, I decided to reflect on the case and where it went wrong.  I picked apart my treatment plan and tried to find the errors; I didn’t find any. I analysed my outcomes to see where they were falling short of what I was expecting; they didn’t. So what went wrong? The only thing left to analyse was my communication.  Looking back at the letter it dawned on me….. the owner was expecting me to “fix” her horse’s kissing spine, in three sessions! I am a veterinary physiotherapist not a surgeon/magician!! It became clear that the error I made here was poor management of the owner’s expectations.

Why managing expectations is so crucial to your success as a therapist

Clients who have a negative experience are twice as likely to spread the word about your service than those who have a positive experience (Forbes, 2015).  But what constitutes a negative or a positive experience can be down to the owners perception of how well the case went to plan. Going back to my experience above, the owner was dissatisfied with my treatment because what she was expecting was ridiculously unrealistic (not still annoyed about this almost 20 years on;).  By not managing the owners expectations in this case, I set myself up for failure. There was no way my treatment was ever going to live up to her expectations. If you can set expectations that are realistic you can effectively manage the clients experience and you have the best chance of making it a positive one.


5 tips for managing owner expectations

    1. Give hope but not false hope – We all want to give our clients hope.  It’s human nature to want to reassure and provide comfort. You have probably had a case like this before that had an amazing outcome and its natural to want to talk about this case.  But you must be very clear that every case is different and that there are many factors which can affect the speed and success of healing. If the owner has fixed in their mind that the dog you discussed was bouncing around in 10 weeks, anything short of that will be a disappointment – even if it is actually a vast improvement and a success in your eyes.
    2. Clearly set out goals and details of how you will measure success – your goals must be SMART.  Be honest and realistic – even if it is not what the owner wants to hear. Measurable markers of improvement are also essential.  This way, small improvements can be demonstrated to the owner so that they can appreciate the progress that is being made. For example; post stifle surgery, an owner may not notice a subtle increase in strength on the operated limb.  They may feel disheartened and deflated and this could reflect badly on you. However, if you can show them that the muscle mass measurements are increasing on each visit, they are much more likely to appreciate the progression and feel motivated to continue.
    3. Make owners feel part of the process – they want to be involved.  Let them talk and listen to their feedback. If they are finding part of the plan difficult to achieve, ask them to suggest a different approach that may work better for them and their circumstances. Acknowledge their hard work and dedication; we can’t do it without them.
    4. Ensure you are clear that the plan may change – the plan is just that, a plan!  It is ideally how would like the rehabilitation process to go BUT at any point it could change.  Owners must appreciate that we will reevaluate as the plan progresses and make necessary adjustments. If this is clear at the beginning, owners are much more likely to accept a deviation from the plan.  Otherwise, they may perceive an adjustment as a sign that the plan or your treatment is failing.
    5. Be clear about the commitment we expect from them – the success of the treatment plan largely relies on the owner carrying out instruction from us between visits; they need to be fully aware of the commitment expected.  Involve the owner in the decisions about what exercises will be carried out at home so that they are fully aware of what they bring to the table and how progress will be affected if they don’t keep up their side of the bargain. As well as time commitment it is important to discuss financial commitment. We can shy away from talking about money but this can only cause problems.  Work with the owner to agree a budget for treatment and be clear from the start about how much each visit and treatment will cost.

Your challenge

This week your challenge is to reflect on a complaint or a case where the customer was dissatisfied.  Pull that uncomfortable case out from under the carpet and consider your communication with the owner.  Was there anything you could have done differently with regards to setting owner expectations? If so, what changes can you make in your system to avoid this situation arising again in the future?


At Animal Rehabilitation and Health Academy we run CPD courses in Canine and Equine Exercise Rehabilitation and a variety of bitesized CPD courses in topics related to Veterinary Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation. 

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