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From enraged to engaged

If your first thought is to fire cranky clients, don’t. Anyone can have a bad day or even a bad year. Dig deeper into their discontent and earn their admiration.

From enraged to engaged
If your hospital is seeing an unbearable uptick in cranky clients, you might want to contain them proactively.

A cranky old cat hides inside all of us. Most of the time she’s napping, but when we haven’t gotten enough sleep or we’re overwhelmed by work, she wakes up. And the world knows it. What sets her off might appear trivial or insignificant, but she’ll still hiss with irrational and unexpected malice.

Months into the global pandemic, the cranky old cat inside many of our veterinary clients is waking up and we’re feeling the sharp slash of her claws.

To be sure, veterinary practices have always had difficult clients, but in my 20-plus years in the profession, I cannot recall so many all at once. I’m not surprised. Every human being feels the weight of unprecedented anxiety, worry and stress these days.

How’s a beleaguered and exhausted veterinary professional to cope? I’ll offer three approaches — connect, contain and recruit — to help you get back to purring clients and protect your team’s well-being.

“That” Client

“Josh, Mr. Smith is switching hospitals, but he wants to talk to the owner first.”

When your client care representative breaks the silence of your desk work with that statement, your heart rate picks up. Mine certainly did.

I entered the exam room to find Mr. Smith, a man 20 years my senior and 4 inches taller, blustering with discontent so thick I felt like I could drown in the air.

“This should be fun,” I thought to myself.

With heat in his voice, Mr. Smith drove so fast through the list of offenses our practice had committed that I almost got whiplash. His diatribe came to a screeching halt on “… and Dr. Jones only cares about the money.”

Dr. Jones was our most vocal and least patient doctor. A troubling combination, for sure, but money was the least of her cares. This was a veterinarian as dedicated to her clients and patients as I’d ever met.

Mr. Smith had it all wrong, I knew. And now he was taking his business elsewhere. I could almost read the inevitable one-star review he’d post.

I had a choice. I could:

  • Defend Dr. Jones’ honor and show Mr. Smith how wrong he was.
  • Send him and his cranky attitude to our competitor.
  • Dig deeper.

I chose the last option.

A Breakthrough

The wild gaps between what Mr. Smith believed about our hospital and what I knew to be true were tantalizing. I was left with an uncomfortable sense of dissonance. The curious part of my brain took over. I simply had to understand how Mr. Smith had landed where he did. Little did I know, that curiosity would be my savior.

I took a deep breath and repeated what Mr. Smith had told me: “To be sure I’m hearing you right, Mr. Smith, it sounds like you’re upset that ….”

Something interesting happened when I completed the summary. Mr. Smith sat down.

I then said, “Mr. Smith, can you help me understand what happened to make you feel this way?”

He explained all the ways we had failed. Or, at least, his perceptions of how we had failed.

As he detailed the final tipping-point offense, his deeper need surfaced. I learned that Mr. Smith was single, having lost his wife years before. Their little white poodle was all he had left, and it linked him to his lost partner. In this spoiled pooch he saw the woman he thought he’d spend a lifetime with. This dog meant everything to him.

We had no idea.

At this moment, the big, hard, old-school man in front of me softened, and I understood. He expected so much of us because he needed — deeply needed — to take good care of his dog. His irrational expectations had turned him into “that client” in everybody’s eyes. As we became more impatient, he became more frustrated. The link between us finally broke and he was going to find a new veterinarian. Until now.

Every human being has a deep psychological need to be seen and to matter. In seeing and hearing Mr. Smith, I connected with him in a way we had failed to do. This opened a door. I asked Mr. Smith if seeing one of our other veterinarians would suit him. He happily agreed.

As he walked out that day, he turned to me, smiling, and said, “I’ll never go to another hospital for the rest of my life.”

My CSR heard it and when Mr. Smith was gone, chided me, “Couldn’t you have just let that cranky man go?”

Then, I told her the story.

1. Connect

Cranky clients are difficult. Our day is often filled with too much to do and a sense of just barely getting by. So when a client lashes out, our practicing an empathetic approach is about the last thing we think to do. It’s also the greatest gift we can give ourselves and the people we serve. When we use it well, we can turn hissing clients into purring fans.

Here’s a simple empathy practice to use with your next cranky client.

  • First, breathe. Seriously, take a breath. A deep one. Your client has just snapped at you. Your brain is firing up the old fight-or-flight circuits. Taking a deep breath at this moment will engage the part of your brain that allows you to respond instead of react. So, as awkward as it might feel for those two or three seconds, take a deep breath.
  • Second, respond. And use this script: “Mrs. Anderson, I can see you’re (upset/angry/frustrated/annoyed/etc.). Help me understand.”
  • Now, zip it and just listen.

When you do all this, you’re giving the cranky client the gift of being heard and seen.

One of two things will happen if you respond properly in Step 2. The word you choose to describe how the client is feeling will be right or wrong.

The good news is, you win either way. If you’re right, the client will let you know and explain why. If you’re wrong, you will know right away. The client will tell you and explain why.

Both of you will benefit because:

  • You get an opportunity to listen with curiosity and understand the client’s perspective.
  • The client gets a chance to shift from her brain’s amygdala hijack mode to the more rational prefrontal cortex.

Of course, all this requires your commitment of time and effort. I never said it would be easy, just simple. And it works.

More often than not, taking this approach with a cranky client will calm the pet owner and open communication. By the end of the chat, she likely will apologize for how she treated you and your team.

In rare cases, though, the approach doesn’t work. Sometimes the cranky client is too far gone, too irrational or unwilling to back down. In that case, you’ve got to contain the client.

2. Contain

Connecting with empathy should be your default approach. Even when every client seems awful, do not fall into the trap of your brain’s negativity bias. The vast majority of people are not bad. Rather, they behave badly. Connecting with them will shift their behavior.

That said, do not tolerate outright meanness or abuse.

One of the worst mantras to come out of the movement for professionalism and business success is the belief that “the client is always right.” It dehumanizes you and your team members. You do not deserve to be beaten down, unfairly admonished or punished by anyone’s bad moment.

So, if the cranky client is turning the dial way past 10 and crossing the line, do not be scared to reel her back in.

Let’s return to the three-step connect approach. This time, we’ll add to the script:

  • Take a breath.
  • Say, “Mrs. Anderson, I want to help you, but I will not tolerate being treated this way. When you say/do _________, it makes me feel like you don’t care about me/my team. Now, I can see you’re (upset/angry/frustrated/annoyed). Help me understand.”
  • Zip it and listen.

Often, as with connect, this tactic helps the client see the impact of her behavior and engage the rational part of her brain. In rare cases, the approach won’t work and the cranky client will not check her behavior or, worse, will heighten it.

Again, you deserve the same respect and kindness that you want to give your clients. For clients who absolutely won’t meet you there, remove yourself or them from the equation. If you’re a team member without the right to fire a client, simply walk away and get someone who has that power. If you’re a leader with that power, use it.

When connect isn’t right and contain fails, do not be scared to fire the client.

If your hospital is seeing an unbearable uptick in cranky clients, you might want to contain them proactively. A hospital in my area did this in a letter to all clients. The missive explained the situation and why the practice had chosen curbside service, and it detailed the challenges the team regularly faced. “We know these are difficult times and you are struggling,” the letter emphasized.

The practice also took a firm stance. “Our team deserves respect and kindness in return for the good, hard work they put in for you and your pets,” the letter read. “If you cannot offer that to them, service will be withheld from you and we will gladly send your pet’s records to another vet of your choice.” Period.

Everything changed. Internally, the team members saw a leader who had their back. Her letter invigorated them. Externally, clients began behaving better. Several sent apologies. The few clients who couldn’t meet the request were sent elsewhere.

3. Recruit

We are living in difficult times. While it’s true you likely are seeing more cranky clients than ever before, do not succumb to the mind trap that says everyone is ungrateful and unkind. Even in the desert, things grow. For every vocal client loudly expressing his displeasure, you have multiple happy, grateful clients silently going about their business.

To boost yourself and your team, recruit your happy clients.

Recently, I created a “gratitude request card” and shared it with several veterinary hospitals. The card asked clients to thank an employee, team or the whole hospital by completing the statement, “We are so grateful for all you do and we just want to tell you _________.”

One hospital posted the card on social media. By the end of the day, several dozen heartwarming messages of gratitude and appreciation were received from clients. All this in the middle of a chaotic and stressful pandemic.

The hospital manager printed and posted the responses on a clinic wall. They drowned out the vitriol of cranky clients. Staff morale soared.

You have many adoring clients who see how hard you work and feel how much you care. Ask them to share their appreciation.

Here are three ideas:

  • Print gratitude request cards and attach them to invoices, or include a digital version with digital invoices.
  • At the end of follow-up calls, ask the client, “Who, if anyone, on our team would you like to thank today?” Ask for one or two sentences of explanation, and then share the comments with the team member.
  • Ask your favorite clients to make a short video explaining why they appreciate your team and hospital. Have them email or text the videos to you for sharing with the team.

The strange reality we’re in is not going away soon. Neither are those cranky old cats that seem to have awakened inside so many clients. By using connect, contain and recruit, you’ll help many of them get back to their purring ways, send the worst of them elsewhere, and shine a light on how your compassion and dedication are having a wonderful impact on a world that needs it most.

Josh Vaisman is a positive psychology practitioner and lead positive leadership and culture consultant at Flourish Veterinary Consulting. He is a former hospital administrator and practice owner.