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Bad Employees, Rude Clients and Restorative Sleep

Opening Shots columnist Dr. Ernie Ward answers your questions.

Bad Employees, Rude Clients and Restorative Sleep
Sometimes, the best solution is to jettison problem employees.

Q: I’m a manager who feels stuck with a poor staff. We need to fire a couple of employees because of chronic complaints from customers and co-workers. I’ve been running help-wanted ads, but no one responds. Our morale is down, and I’m now worried I might lose some good employees. I’m stressed and don’t know what to do.

A: I feel your pain. Unfortunately, feeling stuck is a component of practice management at times. In my experience, fear and helplessness can be harnessed to propel positive change and progress. Inspiration and innovation emerge when your back is against the wall. The fact that you recognize the problem and desire to do things differently tells me you’re going to get through this.

Start by addressing the complaints directly and attempting to retrain the staff members who are involved. If it doesn’t work, jettison the dead weight.

You’re right to worry that problem employees might drive away good staff, putting you in an awful situation. However, I’d rather be shorthanded than heavy-handed any day. Sure, you might have to modify your schedule, but now could be an excellent opportunity to extend appointment times, improve services and increase fees.

I went through a rough patch in 1998 in my main clinic when I had to fire half my team over two months. It sucked. But out of that came so many advancements that the following year we won the National Practice of Excellence Award. In the aftermath, team morale and my attitude soared to new heights. Once we cleared the clinic of gossip, anger and infighting, I was left with a smaller but more enthusiastic group of amazing colleagues.

Do the hard things to save the good. Create a plan for adapting to fewer staff, accept that challenges will occur, and trust that things will improve, especially when you’re surrounded by like-minded teammates. All this might not be easy, but it will be better.

Q: I don’t know how much more vet rage I can take. Clients become totally unhinged over practically nothing. I’ve been accused of ripping people off, not caring about animals, being lazy, rude … you name it. Maybe people were more respectful of veterinarians when you started or maybe the whole world has gotten meaner. Any advice, Dr. Ward?

A: Vet rage is real and so is air rage, store rage and rage in general. Sadly, rage has been all the, well, rage for ages. Practicing veterinary professionals across all generations can share similar heartbreaking tales. I fully agree that clients behaving badly appears to be worsening, and while we can blame societal change, we also need to analyze how sometimes our actions might contribute to the tantrums. In other words, focus on what we can change to reduce the rage.

Poor customer service has long been correlated with customer outbursts. Air rage was the subject of a 2006 Journal of Air Transportation study, which  concluded — you guessed it — that declining customer service was the primary culprit. (Learn more at go.nasa.gov/3BpXMQG.) The author wrote, “The airlines’ refusal to recognize the issue of customer service has perpetuated an environment that has become dangerous and detrimental to the traveling public as well as to airline employees.” There’s a lesson in there for us.

More recently, the pandemic has stressed our ability to deliver services beyond our capabilities, resulting in long waits, appointment delays, clients separated from their pets, removed and rushed client communications, and more. Some of the causes are beyond our control, so let’s concentrate on what we can manage — efficiency, empathy and education for starters.

If you’re consistently encountering vet rage, are there common complaints? Are long waits the trigger? Is client sticker shock occuring because  we aren’t providing accurate estimates due to a time crunch or inadequate staffing? Even when we’re rushed, do we display compassion and empathy? Are we adjusting schedules based on our ability to accommodate patients?

I wish I had a simple answer to all your problems, but there has never been one. I’ve always tried to deconstruct problems into elements I can work on, such as providing better estimates, scheduling longer appointments, using more effective communication, showing conscious compassion and empathy, and improving staff training. If we refuse to accept some responsibility for the surge in vet rage, we’ll never make things better, and, as you rightfully worry, the world will get meaner. We’re too nice to allow that!

Q: What’s your top tip for self-care?

A: Adequate restorative sleep if I had to pick only one. Without a doubt, the ability to wake up feeling energized and enthusiastic is arguably the key determinant of personal well-being and success. The good news is that if you’re not sleeping well, you probably can change something during waking hours if you know where to look.

To objectively examine my sleep quality, I’ve done everything from conducting morning pulse and SpO2 checks, strapping on a circa 2005 Zeo headband, using a procession of under-mattress motion detectors (currently the Withings Aura), and wearing a variety of watches and my favorite sleep tracker since 2013, the Oura Ring. If I see a downward trend in deep or REM sleep, I reverse engineer what happened — ate too late, extra dessert, family stress, inadequate exercise. Whatever the case, I analyze and adjust. I’m a data nerd looking at my daily biometrics to live healthier.

So, get more better sleep. Sounds funny, but it might extend your life. If nothing else, you’ll feel like a million bucks, even if you don’t make a million.

Q: My practice owner added an extra hour to each workday to accommodate more clients after curbside service ended. She said we’re getting too many complaints about long waits and a lack of appointment slots. As a result, we’re more stressed than during the depths of COVID, and we’re still getting tons of complaints. Now my boss is considering adding more weekend hours. When will it end?

A: In 2000, the United States experienced a significant labor shortage. Unemployment was less than 4%, and veterinarians were having a hard time competing for employees. To keep up, many management gurus encouraged extending practice hours until 7 or 8 p.m. Not me. I went in the opposite direction. I reduced hours, extended appointment times and totally committed to creating exceptional client experiences. I knew we could charge more if we provided world-class service with fewer, more highly trained staff, thus offsetting a decrease in the number of appointments we scheduled due to limited employees. It worked.

The difference at my practice was the emphasis we placed on quality of life. I was willing to bear the brunt of the initial client complaints informing me what a bad veterinarian I was for charging more and closing earlier.

After the opening salvo of grievances, we were left with clients grateful for the extra attention they received, thankful for our thoroughness and appreciative of the value we offered. My staff members had more energy and were more joyful. Our revenue grew from the start.

Extending your clinic hours might work for clients, but I always ask, “Does it work for your team?” I’ve known high-volume, extended-hours clinics overflowing with positivity and expensive, limited-hours clinics lacking enthusiasm. Throwing more time or money at a problem won’t solve it. Get to work solving the problems, not extending them.

Opening Shots columnist Dr. Ernie Ward (drernieward.com) is an award-winning veterinarian, impact entrepreneur, book author and media personality. When he’s not with family or pet patients, Dr. Ward can be found contemplating solutions during endurance athletics and meditation and on his weekly podcast, “Veterinary Viewfinder.” If you have a question about practice life, personal well-being, leadership or veterinary careers, email [email protected].