In the veterinary world, we know it’s not uncommon for emotions to run high. It’s understandable that pet owners become emotional and concerned for their furry friends when something isn’t right. They might be worried about their pet’s health, or upset about an unexpected financial expense. Client disposition can range from anxious, worried, or sad, to frustrated, impatient, and angry. And, the covid-19 pandemic has only added to the tension. If you feel as though client relations at your practice have become more contentious lately, you’re not alone. Vet clinics all over the country are busier than ever, dealing with staffing issues, and navigating an ever-changing set of health and safety protocols. All of these factors have placed increased stress on veterinary professionals and pet parents alike.
There are many types of difficult client behavior, and many reasons why a client may become agitated. Some examples of difficult client scenarios include:
- Demanding behavior, insisting upon last minute appointments for non-emergency care
- Anger about the cost of a procedure or medicine; reluctance to pay
- Skepticism or argument about a diagnosis or plan of treatment
- Complaints about wait time, staff interactions, or other aspect of their visit
- Refusal to honor clinic policies, expectation that rules will be bent/broken just for them
Emotional responses are normal in a veterinary setting, but problems can arise when clients become combative, angry, or argumentative. Knowing how to respond can help de-escalate the situation and protect your staff. Consider the following tips for dealing with difficult clients in your veterinary practice.
First and foremost, stay calm when confronted with a difficult client. It may be easier said than done, but keeping your cool can help prevent a tense situation from escalating further. Escalating the situation only creates a toxic environment for your staff, gives a bad impression to other clients, and can increase the stress felt by the animals under your care. When confronted with an angry or highly emotional client, take deep breaths and maintain a professional demeanor. Don’t raise your voice.
It’s important to remember that you set the tone for the rest of your team, so avoid disparaging difficult clients or venting your frustrations in any public-facing setting. Set an example for how you would like your staff to respond when faced with a challenging client.
Don’t take it personally
It can be hard to hear criticism of your practice, your staff, or the care you provide, but try not to take someone’s emotional response personally. More often than not, their feelings are not about you or your competence as a caregiver. Do your best to detach your ego from the situation and focus instead on finding an appropriate solution.
It’s natural to want to deflect complaints or quash the client’s anger as fast as possible, but more often than not, it will help to allow your client time and space to make their feelings known. Oftentimes when people are upset, they simply want to be heard. Practice active listening: don’t interrupt or argue, ask questions, make eye contact, and demonstrate that you understand their concerns. While you may not like the way they express themselves, difficult clients can sometimes call your attention to a problem in your practice that can be fixed.
Remember that your clients are in a vulnerable position, and it can be scary to entrust someone with their beloved pet. People love their pets, but the prospect of an expensive treatment or an unexpected charge can be a huge source of stress.
During times when clients cannot be with their pets while they receive treatment, reassure them, provide updates on how their pet is doing, and give as much information as possible to put them at ease. Show the client that you empathize with their situation and how they must be feeling. Many clients will respond positively to a show of compassion, and apologize for losing their patience.
Identify the problem and try to resolve it
Though it can be difficult to hear, some complaints are legitimate no matter how competent or well-intentioned our teams are. Especially when clinics get busy, scheduling mistakes or billing errors do happen. Communication can suffer, leading to a misunderstanding. In most cases, the best first step is to apologize. Next, work toward a possible rectification. In many cases, your willingness to try and fix the problem will help to calm the client.
You might be able to offer an alternative treatment option or a payment plan. You could point them in the direction of another practitioner who could offer a second opinion. When it comes to financial concerns in particular, you might take some extra time to explain why the procedure or medicine is necessary to prevent more costly, painful conditions in the future. Remember that what may seem like second nature to a seasoned professional like yourself might not be so clear to your clients.
You can demonstrate your commitment to improving the client experience by following up after a confrontation has ended. You might do this with a phone call the next day to apologize for whatever error caused their frustration, and tell them about measures your office will be taking to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Or, you may take the opportunity to check in on their pet’s condition since their previous visit. Very often, having had the time to cool down, clients will be in a clearer state of mind and will apologize for their behavior. Depending on the extent of the conflict, this might be an opportunity to repair the relationship and set the expectations for future appointments. Reiterate your clinic’s policies and reinforce what the client can expect in the future to help prevent additional misunderstandings. Confirm their preferred method of contact to reaffirm your commitment to eliminating miscommunication.
The best way to manage a difficult client is to prevent adverse client experiences from happening in the first place. Of course, this won’t always be possible; even when your team does everything right, there will be clients who aren’t satisfied. But, there are steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of a complaint. Train all staff on customer service when answering phone calls or meeting with clients in person. Implement a reliable, organized scheduling system, including a practice of confirming appointments. Keep your office exam rooms and waiting areas clean.
As financial disputes are some of the most common, be transparent about costs, especially when unforeseen expenses are possible. For example, if you cannot be sure whether a dog will need tooth extractions until you begin their dental cleaning, explain this to your client before the animal comes in for the procedure. Have the client sign a consent form indicating their understanding of the situation and their preference about whether to perform the potential extractions or not.
Set clear boundaries at your practice in order to manage expectations. Be sure clinic policies about scheduling and cancellation, emergencies, billing and payment, health and safety, and communication are explicitly stated and/or on display in your office.
In many cases, a difficult patient interaction can serve as a teaching moment for your entire team. Why was the client upset? What were their expectations and in what way did we fail to meet them? How did our staff respond to this confrontation? Could we have responded any better? How could a similar situation be prevented in the future?
Know when to terminate the client relationship
There is a difference between a difficult client and an abusive one. While some emotional responses are to be expected, your staff should not have to tolerate abusive behavior or profanity-laced tirades. Some behaviors are not acceptable, and your staff should not have to fear for their safety or psychological well being. Some situations you may not be able to rectify include:
- Clients refusing to honor clinic policies
- Threatening or aggressive behavior/language
- Any kind of physical violence
Ultimately, as a leader in your veterinary practice, you have the right and the responsibility to protect yourself and your staff. If a client threatens the health or safety of your team, it may be time to terminate the client relationship. With our veterinary teams already under strain, it’s important for them to know that their employers won’t allow them to be bullied or abused. Empower your team to know how to respond if and when a client becomes threatening, whether that means turning the conversation over to the clinic owner, calling the police, or whatever the appropriate response may be.
At the end of the day, you won’t be able to make every client happy 100% of the time. But by living up to your values, taking ownership of mistakes, and following the above advice, veterinary practice owners can mitigate problems and refocus everyone’s energy on providing the best possible care for animals.