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Obedience Training

If clients aren’t following your rules, don’t get angry. Reassess your policies and then think about how to clearly communicate what remains.

Obedience Training
Even the best rules have reason to be broken at times.

Does any of this sound familiar? “This client has no respect for us! She shows up in reception 20 minutes late for her appointment with no mask and her dog off the leash. She leans on the counter, breathing on me while I’m busy finishing my notes from the phone call I just finished. She followed the technician into the treatment area, where she’s not allowed, then was indignant about being asked to separate from her pet. She was in the doctor’s space and ‘helped’ hold her pet during the exam. She questioned the need for every single service we offered. When I told her the invoice amount, she loudly sputtered at the price for the whole waiting room to hear and then had the audacity to tell me to bill her. She failed to make a follow-up appointment, which her pet needs if she expects it to get any better. I’m done with her.”

It sure can be exasperating when a client disregards a hospital’s rules of conduct. But think about the scene above from the client’s perspective. Were the hospital’s expectations misaligned with what the client thought was best for her and her pet? Were policies in place and enforced during previous visits? Were the policies explicitly explained in advance? When she got something wrong, did a team member address the issue so that the client will know better the next time, or was she given a pass and left none the wiser?

We might think standard clinic rules are common sense, but we forget that the majority of clients visit only a couple of times a year and likely don’t ponder what we expect of them. After all, they are the paying customers, and it’s our job to serve their needs, not the other way around.

So, how do we create, communicate and uphold hospital policies that clients will follow? First, consider eliminating or redrafting rules that have no clear benefit. Then, look hard at rules frequently broken or begrudgingly followed. Were any policies a knee-jerk response to a one-time incident? Do any confuse or burden the client? If you’re not sure, ask teammates who frequently interact with clients. Which instructions do employees dread doling out for fear of backlash? Finally, read recent client complaints and look for common threads. Erecting roadblocks in the interest of reducing team stress could have the opposite effect by decreasing client satisfaction.

Do you require all patients to be current on rabies vaccinations? Is 24 hours’ notice needed to refill a chronic medication? When is a physical exam necessary? Is a doctor’s approval mandatory before written notes are released? Must bloodwork be done before anesthesia? Specific standards of care have the patient’s best interests in mind but might not be applied consistently from one practice to the next.

To effectively relay hospital policies to a client, first ensure that the reasoning for them follows the practice’s mission and core values. Next, share the thought process with the team so that everyone is in alignment. Finally, coach team members on educating clients when questions arise about the rationale or necessity for rules. For example, simply saying “It’s the law” or “It’s hospital policy” raises client suspicion and can frustrate pet owners.

Write Everything Down

Consider reiterating verbal instructions through written reminders to clients. Send templated emails or texts before a scheduled appointment. Can your blog be searched on demand, or can you link to a post when a specific issue arises? Put essential new-client information in welcome packets and on your website. Consider all written communication as reference material but not required reading. Write the information with the client’s perspective at the top of mind and formatted so that it’s easily skimmed and digested.

Permit Exceptions

Even the best rules have reason to be broken at times. Allow team members the latitude to handle unique situations as they deem appropriate without leadership’s involvement. If a manager or doctor needs to approve all protocol deviations, you have training and control issues. Build confidence in your team by praising creative problem solving, providing supportive feedback and confirming when appropriate risks were taken. The ability to serve a client’s needs on the spot can enhance the relationship and build gratitude, loyalty and trust.

Model Desired Conduct

Social proof is the idea that when we feel unsure, our actions are heavily influenced by what we observe others doing around us. This phenomenon can influence potential clients’ opinion of your business when they read testimonials, reviews and social chatter. With respect to behavior and conduct, clients can observe the etiquette of pet owners in your reception area. Watching what others do might answer a new client’s questions, such as “Do we let our pets socialize or keep them isolated?” or “Do we chat while waiting or sink into our phones?” or “Should I be agitated by the wait time or accept it as the norm?”

Furthermore, social proof can persuade clients to accept your recommendations and policies more readily. Using phraseology like “The majority of our clients …” helps normalize a situation. For example, “The majority of our clients pay at the conclusion of each visit. If you need a payment plan to help afford the care we provided today, I can discuss the options.”

Interestingly, publicizing negative behavior might cause others to mimic it. “If everyone else is doing it, then it’s not so bad if I do, too,” they think. Using mass email and social media posts to announce the poor trending behavior of clients might inadvertently give other pet owners a license to act the same. Instead, share social proof that the majority of clients appreciate the pet care and treat your team with respect. Let the bullies feel like an anomaly.

Communicate Clearly and Consistently

It doesn’t matter how many clients you told to bring their pet’s fecal sample to today’s appointment. The person who didn’t deliver one might never have gotten the instructions. The solution is to create a script covering common scenarios so that you give consistent messaging. For example, the instructions can cover wellness visits, anesthetic procedures, technician appointments and ever-changing COVID protocols.

During a visit, set expectations in advance, especially for new clients and when protocols change. In the opening example, improved communication could have prevented or alleviated much of the tension. Being direct in moments of disruption and uncertainty can be accomplished professionally and politely. For example:

  • Tell the client to have a seat and that you will be with her in a moment.
  • Courteously hand her a mask and a leash.
  • Without judgment, inform her that she is late for the appointment, provide options for remedying the situation, and explain the expected wait time.
  • When the time arrives to move the pet into treatment, try, “If it’s OK with you, I will take Fluffy into the treatment room, where I have better light and an extra set of hands to trim her nails and collect a blood sample. You can relax here, and we’ll be back with a doctor in about five minutes.”

Taking a direct approach through the remainder of the appointment will make today’s visit less agitating for all parties. The client will be informed of what to expect the next time and might become the model client who provides social proof to other pet owners.

Take Charge columnist Abby Suiter is co-owner of Waltz Animal Clinic in Madison, Indiana, and a former Charleston, South Carolina, practice manager. She has spent nearly her entire life in the industry, earning her keep in her parents’ clinic before advancing into the world of veterinary management. She holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in business and is a certified veterinary practice manager.


Psychologist Dr. Robert Cialdini wrote about social proof in his bestselling book “Influence.” An article posted on his website gives a few everyday examples. “At some point, most of us will have succumbed to its powerful draw,” it reads. “Perhaps we’ve chosen the busy restaurant over the quieter one, been carried along by the momentum of the Mexican wave at a sports stadium or simply joined the burgeoning line at the airport without really knowing for sure if we are in the right line.”