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Customers Behaving Badly – When and How to Fire a Veterinary Client

Customers Behaving Badly – When and How to Fire a Veterinary Client
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Contrary to the old adage, the customer isn’t always right.

We strive to provide superior customer service and the best possible care for our patients. Building strong client relationships is key to the success of our practices. Still, tensions arise from time to time. We know some clients are more challenging than others, but some client behaviors cross the line from being merely irksome to being downright inappropriate or even dangerous.  

While frustrations between pet owners and veterinarians are sometimes unavoidable, there is a limit to what you and your staff should tolerate. Bad client interactions can erode your team’s morale and create a chaotic environment not conducive to providing safe medical care. It is rare, but sometimes it is necessary to terminate a client relationship. 

When to Fire a Veterinary Client

How do you know when it’s time to fire a client? We’ve all dealt with challenging clients who occasionally arrive late to their pets’ appointments, ask dozens of questions, or pore over the bill at every visit. We’ve almost certainly experienced clients who are rude to the vet tech, or short with the receptionist when they can’t get an appointment as soon as they’d like. In veterinary offices, pet parents’ emotions can run high, and everyone is entitled to a bad day now and then. But there’s a big difference between a client who momentarily loses their patience and one who is persistently difficult. Some client behaviors are so out of line that they should not be tolerated at all for the safety of your staff or your patients. So under what circumstances should you part ways with one of your clients?

Abuse, Harassment, or Violent Behavior

First and foremost, any type of abusive or violent behavior should result in the immediate termination of the client-vet relationship. We as practice owners have an obligation to create a safe environment for our staff and the animals under our care. It is best to part ways with clients who are verbally abusive to staff, including discriminatory language, hate speech, sexual harassment, vulgar language, or threats of any kind of violence. Of course, any acts of physical assault or terroristic threats should be reported to the appropriate authorities in addition to terminating the client relationship. 

Refusal to Honor Clinic Policies

There are other valid reasons to fire a veterinary client that might not seem as extreme. If a client repeatedly refuses to honor clinic policies or expects that rules will be broken just for them, it puts a strain on your entire team and can adversely affect your other patients. Examples might include consistently failing to pay a bill on time, no-call no-shows for appointments, or refusing to respect health and safety protocols. 

Some of these behaviors can be avoided by establishing clear boundaries. Post clinic policies about late/missed appointments, emergencies, billing and payment, health and safety, and communication in your waiting or reception area. Have your new clients complete a consent form stating their understanding of clinic policies and keep it on file. However, if a client repeatedly ignores your stated policies, it may be a sign that the vet-client relationship is simply not a good fit. 

Animal Welfare

Medical inaction can amount to animal cruelty if certain conditions are left untreated. If a client refuses to follow medical advice to the point that it threatens the animal’s health and welfare, you have the right to terminate the client relationship. Furthermore, if you have evidence of animal neglect or abuse, you should contact the appropriate authorities who can help ensure the animal is placed in a safe environment and gets necessary medical treatment. 

Refusal to Pay

It’s one thing to ask questions about unexpected charges or inquire about different payment options. But if a client refuses to pay for services rendered, the vet-client relationship cannot continue. 

How to Fire a Client: Steps to Take

Making the Decision

Sometimes the decision to fire a client is easy; for example, if the client is violent or abusive, that’s grounds for immediate termination for the safety of your team and your other patients. But some situations can be more complicated. In some cases, the decision to fire a client can be extremely difficult even if it is ultimately the right thing to do. When making a determination about a difficult client, take stock: have multiple employees encountered the same problem with this person? Is it a consistent or repeated problem? How much of your staff’s time and energy are spent dealing with this client’s issues? Have you tried other methods of resolving the issue? If efforts to communicate with the client and solve the problem are unsuccessful, firing the client may be the only course of action left. 

Document Everything

If you’re planning to fire one of your veterinary clients, obtain and document all necessary information. To make a final decision, you may need to speak with each member of your staff about their experience with the client in question. Review the patient’s veterinary records and note any patterns or repeat issues. Have they repeatedly missed appointments without calling? Have they missed payments or refused medical care? Do the notes reflect combative or argumentative behavior on multiple occasions? Depending on the situation, you may want to obtain witness statements from staff who were present during a client incident. Make note of any previous attempts to rectify the problem via other means. 

Communicating the Decision: Keep it Professional

The most difficult part of firing a client is telling them you will no longer be able to serve as their vet. Whether you choose to do so in person, over the phone, or in writing only will depend on your assessment of the situation.

Ending a client relationship can be awkward to say the least. To keep matters as civil as possible, it’s important to focus on facts rather than emotions, and behaviors rather than people. While emotions run high and you likely have some strong feelings about the situation, it’s important to stay calm when dealing with a problematic client. Keep communication short and to the point to avoid escalating the situation further. This is not the time for condescension. You do not need to make a lengthy explanation or defend your staff or the quality of your services, nor express your opinions on the client’s character. Ultimately, their behavior is not a reflection of you and shouldn’t be taken personally.  Keeping your communication short and sweet will also avoid leaving room for the client to push back or argue with your stance. This is a notification, not a discussion. 

Put it in Writing

When firing a veterinary client, it’s best to put it in writing, even if you have already told the client verbally. Your client termination letter should be concise and clear. State in plain language that you are terminating the vet-client relationship. Be sure to include the date that the termination will take effect. End the letter on a positive, professional note: thank the client for the opportunity to care for their pet, and wish them well in the future. Here’s an example you can use to get started: veterinary termination letter template.

Final Steps

The final step of firing a client is to provide them with everything they will need to continue their pet’s care elsewhere. Send the client their pet’s patient records, any medications, aftercare instructions, and anything else necessary for the health of their pet before parting ways. You may also send the patient records to another vet’s office if they plan to see someone else going forward. 

After firing a veterinary client, communicate with your staff and make sure everyone knows that that individual will no longer be allowed to make appointments at your clinic. 

Establish a protocol with your team. You might consider having a list of “zero tolerance” behaviors (like violence or sexual harassment) and a plan for dealing with them. Empower your staff to dismiss a client when client behavior threatens their safety or the safety of others. Instruct them to inform you or another manager about non-emergency client issues so you can handle them instead. For client issues not included in the “zero tolerance” list, establish a procedure. For example, a staff member flags a problem and presents it to you, you review patient records, get input from other team members, and make a decision. 

Most of our veterinary clients are reasonable people who only want the best for their pets. Even when complaints or misunderstandings arise, they can often be sorted out. For those truly problematic situations, however, protect yourself, your staff, and your patients by having a game plan on how to deal with unacceptable behavior. It can be difficult to make the decision to fire a client, but trust your instincts when it comes to your practice. As a veterinary practice owner, you have a duty to protect your team and focus your energy on providing the best possible care to animals in need. 

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