If you are like many veterinarians, it is not your patients or the medical workups that cause the majority of your work-related stress. Instead, it is probably client interactions. In this article, we will give you 8 tips for veterinary teams when you need to interact with difficult clients.
According to a 2020 study, the relationship between client satisfaction and veterinary mental health is complex but client satisfaction appears to influence the mental health of veterinary professionals. When clients are dissatisfied and express their dissatisfaction in a difficult or hostile manner, this places additional stress on the veterinary team.
Some client conflict is preventable. Many conflicts are caused by miscommunication, which means that clear communication can decrease the likelihood of difficult clients in your practice. Setting unreasonably high expectations is a recipe for disaster. (Avoid the temptation to promise an early pickup time for every single surgery patient in a day!) Failing to inform clients of medication side effects or alternative treatment options can also increase the likelihood of creating a conflict.
Even with the best client communication, however, some clients are bound to become frustrated or angry. When a client becomes difficult, consider these tips:
1. Take difficult conversations to a private area
A crowded lobby is the worst possible place to have difficult client interaction. Not only does an in-lobby conflict create an opportunity for other clients to hear complaints about your practice, some difficult clients like to “perform” for an audience. Additionally, you may be so distracted by the presence of other clients (and concerns about how they will respond to the incident) that you handle the situation less effectively than you otherwise would.
Remove your client from your lobby or other public area. Instead, take them to a quiet exam room or office space. Moving to a quieter location can help deescalate an angry client, while also minimizing unpleasantries for the rest of your clients.
2. Take a deep breath
It is completely natural to become flustered and defensive when a client is yelling. You might notice that your heart rate is accelerating, or your face is becoming flushed. Unfortunately, becoming anxious rarely serves to assist your communication. Instead, take a deep breath and try to relax.
Calming yourself down may be easier said than done, but it offers numerous benefits. First of all, clients who see that you are flustered and anxious may be more likely to escalate their behavior. Additionally, remaining calm and rational increases your ability to address the conflict in a constructive manner.
3. Pay attention to nonverbal cues
When engaged in a challenging conversation, pay attention to the nonverbal signals that you are sending and receiving. In many cases, these nonverbal signals play an even larger role in your communication than spoken conversation.
Keep your body language friendly and open. Avoid crossing your arms and sit comfortably. Maintain eye contact and nod your head to show the client that you are engaged and listening, without becoming closed or defensive.
If your client shows nonverbal cues that indicate they are escalating instead of deescalating, these can be valuable signals and help determine your next steps. You may be able to deescalate the situation by sending your own calm nonverbal cues, or the client’s nonverbal cues may indicate that you need to take a break from the conversation (for your own safety).
4. Use active or reflective listening skills
Resist the temptation to become defensive. Instead, use active or reflective listening skills to help clients feel heard and understood. Echoing a client’s words and asking thoughtful questions shows the client that you are listening and taking their concerns seriously. In many cases, clients become less angry once they realize that you are listening and responding to their feedback.
5. Be empathetic
It is only natural to take a client’s complaints personally. However, most angry clients are not lashing out because of anything you have said or done. Instead, their reaction is based on their anxiety about their pet’s health, their ability to afford care, or other factors.
When you take complaints personally and become defensive, you are setting up a combative dynamic between you and the client. Instead, focus on empathy. Try to understand the source of the client’s frustration. This will put you in a better position to address the misunderstanding in a productive way.
6. Work towards a mutually agreeable solution
When clients complain about a misunderstanding or some other aspect of your practice, you may be tempted to make excuses or dismiss their concerns. What the client typically wants, however, is some degree of reassurance that the problem will not happen again.
Think about the client’s complaint and determine whether your clinic is perhaps at fault, even if the issue is a seemingly-small one. Explain to the client what steps your practice is taking to reduce the likelihood of similar disagreements in the future.
7. Train your staff
While many veterinarians and practice managers are skilled in handling difficult clients, this should be an area of emphasis for your entire team. Any team member may be exposed to a difficult client; therefore, all team members need the skills and resources needed to handle these interactions.
Develop hospital policies and protocols regarding difficult clients. Teach your staff how to minimize the risk of angry clients and how to deescalate hostile clients. Talk your team members about how they should respond to a hostile client cannot be deescalated, including when to involve a supervisor and when to contact the authorities. These policies should be discussed with new employees and periodically reviewed at team meetings.
8. Know when to fire a difficult client
If you cannot reach a mutual agreement with a client, it may be impossible to continue working together. You cannot care for a pet if the owner is unwilling or unable to collaborate with you or follow your recommendations.
If the client is threatening, abusive, or has otherwise behaved in an unacceptable way, it is perfectly acceptable to fire the client with minimal warning. Send the client a written letter (via certified mail) informing that they are no longer welcome in your practice, along with a copy of their all of their pets’ medical records. If the client’s behavior is threatening to you or your staff, contact the local authorities.
Sometimes, however, a clients’ actions are not severe enough to warrant immediate firing. In this case, it may be reasonable to offer a warning before terminating your relationship. In many cases, a written warning effectively demonstrates to a client that their behavior will not be tolerated; they may become a more cooperative client after receiving a warning. If they continue to be unable to control their behavior, you have already provided them with advance warning that they will need to seek another veterinarian.
Relationship between client satisfaction and veterinary mental health is not easy and will always be a challenge for the veterinary teams. Difficult client interactions are a frustrating, but unavoidable, aspect of veterinary practice. All members of the veterinary team should have the tools to deal with challenging clients in a way that deescalates conflict and strives for a mutually agreeable solution. If these tactics do not work, however, it may be in the pet’s best interests to fire a difficult client. You cannot effectively treat a pet if you do not have a collaborative relationship with their owner, and there are probably several cooperative clients who would be glad to take that difficult client’s place on your appointment schedule.