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
Angry pet owners are nothing new for veterinary teams. Clients can become upset when handed an expensive bill, upon hearing a poor prognosis or simply because they’re having a bad day. Once the pandemic hit, clinic teams were on the receiving end of more flared tempers. Pet owners hearing “no” more than before took out their frustration on veterinarians, technicians and receptionists. Hot-button situations included:
- Clients finding out they couldn’t get a preventive-care appointment for two or three weeks.
- Pet owners learning that the practice wasn’t accepting new patients.
- Clients turned away and advised to take their sick pets to an emergency hospital because the practice was too busy.
Let’s look at what veterinary teams can do when they want to tell clients “no.”
Understand Their Emotions
One of the challenges for veterinary practices is that more client requests have turned into demands. Requests are generally polite and respectful. On the other hand, demands are strong statements that might include threatening or blaming comments, and they sometimes are designed to guilt team members into action. Examples include:
- “I’m a good client. I can’t believe you’re treating me this way.”
- “I’m going to have to switch hospitals if I can’t get an appointment.”
- “If you cared about me and my pet, you’d get me in to see Dr. Smith.”
It’s easy to understand why people are angered when denied care for a beloved pet. But why are they so demanding and short-tempered when their healthy pet can’t be seen for a few weeks? In part, the reason is the loss of control. People aren’t used to not getting what they want for a pet quickly.
Furthermore, when people become angry about something that doesn’t seem a big deal, they usually have other unmet needs, such as those involving safety, compassion, predictability, recognition and companionship.
Communicating with an angry client can be difficult, especially if the pet owner is unreasonable. Understanding why a client behaves a certain way can help team members develop more patience.
Now, let’s look at the appropriate responses if you can’t give pet owners what they want.
Convey a Desire to Help
When faced with situations that call for a “no” or “not now,” state early in the conversation that you want to help and will try to do whatever you can to assist the pet owner. This communication sets a positive tone and might calm someone on the verge of anger. You can say, “I want to help you. Let me see what I can do,” or “I’m going to do whatever I can to help you out.”
If the conversation takes place by phone and you need time to look at the appointment schedule, be sure to explain what you’re doing so that the caller understands the reason for the silence.
If you can’t give pet owners what is requested or demanded, offer reassurance and reiterate that the veterinary team cares about them and their pets. For instance, you can say:
- “Even though we can’t see Bella for three weeks, rest assured her vaccines are not overdue and she is protected.”
- “We regret that we have only a few openings each week for new patients. Our doctors and team are working as hard as they can to see all the pets in our practice that need care.”
- “We value you as a client. While Dr. Smith isn’t available for three weeks, I can get you in to see Dr. Taylor this week.”
Remember that what team members tell potential new clients matters because even if you can’t book an appointment now, you want to leave pet owners with a good impression of your practice since they might call back.
Use Positive Words
One of the communication techniques to use when you can’t fulfill a request or meet a demand is to avoid saying “No” or phrases such as “Unfortunately …,” “Our policy is …,” “We can’t …” and “You’ll have to ….”
These negative words tend to aggravate people immediately. Simply omit such statements and instead tell pet owners what you can do, express empathy and focus on patient advocacy. Here are examples:
- “Mrs. Jones, our first available preventive care appointment is [insert date]. I know that’s a few weeks from now, but it’s because we’re experiencing a high caseload. Please know that our doctors and team are dedicated to providing the best care and seeing patients as quickly as they can.”
- “I’m so sorry to hear Chloe isn’t doing well. We want her to get the best care, which is why Dr. Taylor is referring her to the emergency hospital. She feels Chloe should be seen today. All our doctors are currently in surgery and seeing other patients.”
Remember that expressing empathy is about being fully present and listening. Try not to rush when conveying empathy. To do this and to let clients know you heard them, you can use a reflective listening statement such as “I sense your frustration.” The pet owner then might convey more information, and you can respond. You might need to repeat empathetic statements several times during a conversation.
When responding to client demands, it’s OK to invite empathy from the client. Remind pet owners that the team is having a difficult time trying to help as many pets and people as possible. Here are examples of what to say:
- “Please know we’re doing the best we can to serve all our patients and clients. We ask for your patience and understanding.”
- “Mrs. Smith, I hear your frustration. I need you to hear me, too. We’re doing the best we can to help you and Ginger. I need your understanding. I’m requesting you stop yelling at me and making blaming comments.”
One of the best ways to reduce requests and demands is to set expectations so that clients don’t ask for something you can’t provide. If the first open appointment slot is several weeks away, say so. If routine laboratory results won’t be known for three or four days, make sure the pet owner is told before leaving the practice.
Here are proactive ways to keep clients informed:
- Post information on your website’s home page, such as your policies for new clients.
- Use push notifications to alert clients about the wait time for an appointment. Ask for their patience.
- Post messages and short videos on social media about your tight schedule, and request kindness.
- Text updates about a client’s pet before the owner calls.
Team members need an opportunity to practice communications they’ll use when they can’t honor a request or demand. That way, their responses become more effortless. To accomplish this goal, set up short training sessions once or twice a week. Team members can work in pairs or small groups, taking turns saying out loud how they would appropriately respond to an upset pet owner.