Provide a better client experience by setting (and communicating!) expectations

by By Stacee Santi, DVM

10 min read

Defining expectations

Expectations create a mental narrative that structures how we think and feel about certain scenarios

Many businesses — maybe even yours — fail to set expectations up front for the customer, from restaurant wait times to loved ones having surgery in a human hospital. If we just knew what to expect, then we wouldn’t be left to our own devices.

You see, we all have our own idea of “how this should go.”

If no one tells us, we create our own expectations based on what we know.

For example, if the client has ever seen a vaccination given, they’ve seen that it only takes a few seconds. So, unless they know otherwise, taking their pet in for a shot is going to be really quick, right?

How do they know about the check-in process, the exam, the wait time, the checkout process, etc.? So when this visit takes 30 minutes on a good day, and is stretched to 45 or 60 minutes thanks to COVID, the client is annoyed. But, if the client knew what to expect going in, then the practice could be set up for success.

Setting expectations is the key to a successful client relationship. Just think about how you like to be treated when you are a customer or client at a business. If you know what to expect going in, you can’t complain when that exact scenario plays out.

Problems start to show up when: 

  • You don’t know the plan because no one told you, so you make up what you think should happen in your head.
  • You knew the plan, but it changed and no one told you or explained it to you.

How to set clear client expectations and improve the client experience

Determine what the expectations should be

cat vet appointment

Know your time averages

If you haven’t measured how much time each type of exam takes (from check-in to check-out), start collecting data so you can set realistic expectations with your clients. Focus on these types of appointments:

  • Wellness exams
  • Exam for a problem
  • Vaccinations
  • Puppy/kitten exam
  • Surgery admission
  • Drop-off exam admission
  • Surgery pickup

In my opinion, surgery pickup is the biggest opportunity for communicating realistic expectations. Pet owners usually don’t realize we are going to go over medications, go-home instructions, and payment. They are thinking that picking up their pet will take 10 minutes, but, in reality, it takes 30 minutes. They are often squeezing this in on the way to pick up kids or run other errands, which means they are in a hurry.

Agree on the protocols

Leadership should summarize the protocols for each type of appointment (surgery, wellness, sick, urgent, etc.) so team members know the drill. Once that is established, we need to get the word out to the clients so when they book this type of appointment, the proper expectations are delivered to them in multiple ways.

Send clear, consistent messaging to clients

dog on owners lap using vet app


The pre-appointment touchpoints are all an opportunity to reinforce the game plan.

  • Time of booking — If this is a phone call booking, have the receptionist go over the 30-second game plan on what to expect the day of the appointment. This should be a script that can be read or memorized so every team member gives the same message. If this is an app request or real-time appointment e-booking, be sure to embed the expectation message at the end of the booking.
  • Phone call appointment confirmation — You are most likely leaving a voicemail message, so read the “What to expect” message. If you get a live person, review the protocol.
  • Email appointment confirmation — Embed the “What to expect” messaging.
  • App notification — This should be a shortened version of the “What to expect” messaging.
  • SMS message — This should also be a shortened version of the “What to expect” messaging.


The safest approach is to pretend that the pet owner received none of your messages up to this point, because the reality is that people are busy, and they probably weren’t paying attention to all of your other efforts.

Review the “What to expect” messaging when the client arrives. This is the best time to discover if the expectations are mismatched. When you explain that this is going to take around 45 minutes start-to-finish, and you find out that they have to be somewhere in 15 minutes, you can convert the appointment to a drop-off. It is much better to learn that information now, rather than in 15 minutes when they start becoming agitated.

If you are super busy and don’t have time to personally have a conversation with each client about what to expect, create a handout that goes over the process.

Just imagine how much happier we would all be if each time we walked into the grocery store, the greeter told us the checkout lines were averaging 10 minutes that day. We would know what to expect, and we’d be able to better manage our time. That is really all clients want these days….to know the drill.

Bonus idea

The beauty of using technology to deliver your email and app confirmations (SMS has issues with character limits) is that you can embed links to check-in forms specific to that type of appointment. For example, for every wellness exam appointment, you can attach a link to a specific set of questions (in a Jotform or Google Form) to expedite the admission process. Here’s an example form.

Stacee Santi, DVM

Stacee Santi, DVM

Dr. Stacee Santi founded Vet2Pet, the only customizable, all-in-one client engagement system for veterinary practices, which was acquired by Vetsource in 2022. Since earning her DVM from Colorado State University in 1996, Dr. Santi has accumulated more than 20 years of clinical experience in small animal and emergency practice, has spent significant time serving on various industry advisory boards, and served as 2020 president of the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association. Considered a key opinion leader on mobile applications and veterinary reward programs, and selected as 2021 Continuing Educator of the Year—Practice Management by Viticus Group, Dr. Santi is passionate about helping veterinary practices better connect with their clients so pets get the best care and veterinary professionals enjoy more fulfilling, balanced careers.

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