Defusing the Angry Client

angry client

It’s the end of another long day at the end of another long week. You’re finishing up some paperwork in your office after your last appointment when the receptionist comes back to tell you that Mrs. Jenkins would like to speak with you and to prepare yourself, as she seems pretty upset. You spayed Mrs. Jenkins’ dog earlier in the week. The surgery went well and the pup went home the next day as if nothing had happened. What could possibly be the trouble?

You venture out into the reception area where your last appointment, Mr. Smith, is still checking out. Mrs. Jenkins is there and looks like she’s about to blow a fuse. You feel your blood pressure immediately rise but are able to calmly ask her what is going on. Mrs. Jenkins launches into how her dog chewed out her surgery sutures today and had to be taken to the emergency veterinarian in town for a redo. When you ask why the dog wasn’t wearing the E-collar that you gave her, Mrs. Jenkins screams that she wasn’t shown how to use it and no one stressed the importance of using it to her and she wants a refund on the spay. You, exhausted from a day of hand-holding already, can’t contain yourself anymore and yell back at her.

Everyone in the reception area, including Mr. Smith, is taken aback. You tell Mrs. Jenkins that she should have common sense enough to figure it out for herself and it’s not up to you and your team to explain every detail. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day! Before you know it, your receptionist has stepped in and sent you back to your office, and who knows what she did with Mrs. Jenkins. You find out the next week that both Mrs. Jenkins AND Mr. Smith have requested that their records be transferred to another clinic.

Reasons Why Veterinary Clients May Become Unhappy

Clients can become upset with you or your practice for any number of reasons, and many times it actually has nothing to do with the medicine. Here are just a few reasons why clients may become unhappy with you:

  • the price of your services
  • long wait times
  • unfriendly doctor or staff
  • miscommunication
  • outcome of a procedure

As you can see, some of these reasons are beyond your control and some you can easily deal with.  But first you need to deal with that unhappy client.

How to Handle an Angry Client

I think we can all agree that the veterinarian in the above scenario didn’t handle the situation very well, but who can blame him or her? It’s human instinct to become defensive when being attacked, and this vet was tired and stressed to boot. However, as professionals, veterinarians need to be able to push through all of those emotions and respond to unhappy clients in a more productive way.

Listen, listen, listen.  Many times a client complaint can be resolved by just hearing them out. They may not expect any real action on your part; they just want to be heard. If possible take the unhappy client to an isolated room, free from interruptions and to avoid upsetting other clients. Really pay attention to what the client is saying, and hold your comments or your side of the story until they are finished. “No one will listen to you until you listen to them,” warns Carin Smith, DVM of Smith Veterinary Consulting. In some cases you may not want to present your side either because it won’t matter or because, when dealing with a complaint against your staff, you won’t know what the other side of the story is.

For those unhappy clients that aren’t outspoken enough to bring their complaints directly to you, you can offer a suggestion box at your clinic where clients can submit complaints in writing.  If you’re thinking, “why would I want to ask for more complaints?” Because it may help you keep those clients’ business rather than them quietly taking it down the road.

Stay calm and confident.  Let’s look at these words:  emotional contagion. This basically means that moods and emotions are contagious.  If someone is joyful and happy it’s hard not to crack a smile. If someone is shouting and angry, you’re going to want to shout as well, but don’t!  This will only feed the unhappy client’s anger. Keeping your cool and maintaining eye contact will not only prevent the situation from escalating, it may also help to calm the client down so that you can more reasonably speak with them.

Take notes.  Jot down some details about the client’s complaint.  This will allow you to take a breath and break the possibly heated stare that you’re locked in with the angry client.  These notes can also serve as documentation should the complaint need further action. Using your notes, repeat the complaint back to the client so that there are no misunderstandings.

Inform the client of the next steps.  If the complaint can’t be addressed right now due to further investigation, let the client know what will happen next.  Maybe you need to speak with a member of your staff first or review the patient chart. Let them know what you will be doing and when they can expect to hear from you again.

Stay honest.  Honesty is always the best policy.  If you or someone on your team made a mistake, own up to it.  Some clients just need that affirmation. Also, let them know what precautions you are taking so that that mistake doesn’t happen again.  If there was no mistake on your part, they should know that too.

Can You Prevent Unhappy Clients?

No matter what you do, you’re bound to end up with an unhappy client here and there.  However, there are definitely some steps that you can take to decrease the occurrence.

Always be upfront with billing charges.  Some clinics provide printed estimates of all procedures so that clients get an itemized list with the total estimated cost right there in writing.  If, during the course of the treatment or procedure, you know that your charges are going to exceed that estimate, the client should be made aware.

If it’s a busy day and the veterinarians are constantly running yet still falling behind on appointments, have your front office staff or technicians inform clients of this when they check in.  Most people are more willing to wait if they know in advance. You can also ask clients to make a follow-up appointment or drop-off for lengthy diagnostics rather than making them wait even longer.

Before any patient undergoes a procedure or diagnostic, the client needs to be informed of all the possible risks, even if that risk is just extra drool for 45 minutes following the procedure.  The more you let them know in advance, the less questions and complaints you’ll have to follow-up with later.

Make sure your team is on the same page.  You can’t have the receptionist giving the client a different to-go-home protocol than the technician just gave.  It may help to have monthly refresher meetings and take-home pamphlets so that there are no misunderstandings that have an angry client storming in later on.

We can all agree that the welfare of the patient is the top priority for veterinarians, staff, and clients alike.  Calmly communicating this to your unhappy client can go a long way in resolving the conflict at hand. It’s also important to know that some clients can’t be made happy, no matter how much bending over backwards that you do for them.  Never take an unhappy client’s complaints personally and just do your best to make both sides equally happy.


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