Talk the Talk columnist Dr. Amanda L. Donnelly is a speaker, business consultant and second-generation veterinarian. She combines her practice experience and business expertise to help veterinarians communicate better with their teams and clients. She is the author of “Leading and Managing Veterinary Teams: The Definitive Guide to Veterinary Practice Management.” Learn more at amandadonnellydvm.comRead Articles Written by Amanda Donnelly
A team member new to veterinary medicine asked me how to best respond to a client’s anger about his wait time. She had apologized for the delay and explained to the client that the veterinarian was with an emergency patient and would be available shortly. Despite her efforts, the client remained irate and later lied to the doctor, saying no one had checked in with him as he waited. That scenario exemplifies how some pet owners have become more impatient, angry and demanding.
Unfortunately, team members ensnared in those situations might start to consider clients the “bad guys.” Becoming jaded about communicating with clients and quickly blaming them when faced with a difficult conversation is easy. Even worse is the possibility that defensiveness toward pet owners can become part of the practice culture. For example, new hires might hear negative views about pet owners and learn defensive approaches instead of empathetic responses to challenging interactions.
We’re in a helping profession that is fortunate to care for pets and people. So, how can we repel defensive tendencies and better serve our patients and clients? Let’s look at how teams can best connect with pet owners during stressful encounters.
Understand Defensive Behavior
People might become defensive if they feel attacked, criticized, judged, misunderstood, unappreciated or uncared for, especially when they’re working hard to accomplish something or serve others. Remember that team members might react defensively when someone criticizes a co-worker or the practice. Such feelings could lead to these behaviors toward clients:
- Abrupt or sarcastic responses.
- A lack of kindness or empathy.
- Silence and a refusal to engage with them.
- Blaming them for a problem.
- Making excuses or justifying negative behavior toward them.
- A clenched jaw, forced smile, crossed arms, squinted eyes or slight eye roll.
Recognizing your feelings helps avoid reacting unfavorably to clients. One way to do this is to practice verbalizing a feeling. For example, you might use your internal voice or say out loud to a co-worker, “I’m feeling criticized unfairly by Mrs. Jones.” Then, remember that feelings aren’t facts. Just because Mrs. Jones is critical doesn’t mean you did something wrong or are a bad team member. Instead, being in touch with your feelings can help you be compassionate toward yourself and the client.
Know the Warning Signs
Clients, of course, are concerned about their pets’ well-being and prognosis and the treatment options and cost of care. Like us, they might be upset about personal challenges, leading to heightened emotions.
Here are interactions that can trigger a team member’s defensive response:
- Angry or demanding clients.
- Pet owners complaining about a hospital policy.
- Clients not listening or insisting on talking to the doctor only.
- Pet owners believing erroneous information about veterinary care.
- Clients declining treatment recommendations or not thinking their pets need a particular service or product.
Your team’s response might worsen the situation. Here are other considerations.
Don’t Forget the Client’s Perspective
What you do every day seems ordinary, but pet owners might visit only once a year or less. Therefore, strive to assume that people have good intentions. For example, you might just be in the line of fire because a pet is sick and the owner is having a bad day. Adopting a mindset of choosing favor over fault can help you avoid a negative response.
To practice the mindset, recognize your false assumptions and negative labels about clients, such as “She doesn’t care about anyone else’s pet but her own” or “He’s such a jerk.” How might your culture change if your team members replaced those sentiments with, “Wow, she’s really demanding; I bet she’s concerned about Chloe”?
Seek to Connect With Pet Owners
Becoming task-oriented and missing opportunities to connect with clients, especially on busy days, happens. But remember that pet owners want to feel heard and sense that the team cares. They are less likely to become angry and demanding when they feel connected to the team. Simply validating how someone feels and expressing empathy are excellent ways to build trust and rapport. You might say:
- “I know it’s frustrating to manage allergies and chronic skin conditions.”
- “I understand this is a difficult time.”
- “I can see you’re worried about Sophie.”
- “I’m so sorry Hannah isn’t feeling well.”
- “I know you’re anxious to talk to Dr. Taylor. I will get some information for you while you wait for her call.”
Avoid Judgmental or Blaming Words
Sometimes, team members unwittingly come across as defensive. Here are statements that might appear dismissive or accusatory and what to say instead:
- “Mrs. Jones, I’m trying to help you.” At face value, that statement sounds good. However, it might come off as condescending when said in a defensive tone to an angry client. Instead, try, “I’m going to do what I can to help you.”
- “I’m sorry if you misunderstood me.” That response indicates the client is the problem. A better choice is, “I’m so sorry for coming across abruptly.”
- “You’re not listening to me” is accusatory. Replace it with, “I’m happy to review Dr. Smith’s instructions for Bella, and he will call you later today.”
- “I can’t help you when you’re acting like this” is judgmental and lacks compassion. A safer response is, “Mrs. Jones, I feel uncomfortable with your yelling. Therefore, I request that you lower your voice.”
In addition, strive to avoid the words “actually,” “obviously” and “apparently,” which can sound defensive. The following sentences might insinuate that the client is ignorant or hasn’t taken good care of the pet.
- “Obviously, we need to see Jake to do an otic cytology.”
- “Apparently, you aren’t familiar with the need to have an established patient-doctor relationship when prescribing medications.”
- “Actually, you have to feed [brand name] to get the best outcome.”
Your team might not fulfill every appointment request, and you can’t keep every pet owner happy. But you can use communication to enhance trust. Not becoming defensive ultimately helps more pets get the care they deserve.
CLEARING THE AIR
A Zoetis Inc. blogger, writing at bit.ly/3QVHneB, advises: “If clients repeatedly demonstrate poor behavior, invite them to meet with you one on one, or send a formal warning letter about your practice’s policy on appropriate client conduct. When warned that they could lose their veterinary care, many bullies will clean up their act.”