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Resolve to solve

Client relationships can fracture if you and your staff don’t address complaints properly.

Resolve to solve
Mastering effective conflict resolution is a lifelong process, one continually fine-tuned through each experience and inevitable misstep.

I will not go so far to say that I enjoy handling client complaints, but the assignment is something I have developed a knack for over my years in management. The less time I spend in the practice, however, the more I realize this is a skill the entire support staff should possess at some level in the interest of best client service and satisfaction.

Reception-area rant? Slanderous online review? Arming your team with the knowledge, language and authority they need to quickly and effectively address client conflict in its early stages can be the first line of defense against uncomfortable situations devolving into public perception nightmares.

Mastering effective conflict resolution is a lifelong process, one continually fine-tuned through each experience and inevitable misstep. The difficulty with training is that it calls upon soft skills like emotional intelligence, critical thinking, confidence, communication, respect and empathy. Through education, guidelines and safe opportunities to train, however, your team can develop a competency that will not only serve the practice today but could forever mold their professional and personal relationships.

Prioritize Prevention

The easiest way to manage client conflict is to prevent the valid reasons a client complains in the first place. Clients who explode in anger typically encounter a history of inconveniences that build over time.

The mantra coined by Louise S. Dunn of Snowgoose Veterinary Management Consulting — “Every client, every patient, every record, every time” — comes to mind as the best practice for conflict prevention.

I estimate that each receptionist has about 10,000 client interactions a year, with each conversation giving the hospital an opportunity to meet, exceed or fall short of expectations for satisfactory client and patient care. The methods and factors behind getting things right as often as possible could be an article by itself.

In short, standardized, mutually agreed-upon policies, processes and exceptions, a good attitude, and clear, confident communication will take a practice far. I have found monthly team meetings to be a great opportunity to work through minor issues that need reiteration, clarification or new solutions to best serve our hospital.

The Red Line

Employees want and need to know the boundaries they are operating within. Here are three situations that we do not want the support staff attempting to mitigate:

  • When safety is at risk, such as during a robbery or threatened violence. Give the person what is demanded, get yourself and others out of the building, and call police.
  • When verbal abuse is being committed. Isolate the client and immediately hand the situation to management or a doctor.
  • When a medical mistake is made. Again, isolate the client and immediately notify management or a doctor.

Mediation and Resolution

The wide zone between prevention and the red line is where tried-and-true conflict management techniques can be taught and applied.

While allowing a client to cool off is sometimes warranted in an effort to ensure a productive conversation, committing to a timely response is important. Letting a client’s emotions fester while you procrastinate over making an uneasy phone call is counterproductive.

If time allows, gather as much information as possible so you are fully informed before you approach the client. This means reading the chart, talking to the people involved, knowing the facts of the matter and understanding the options for moving forward.

Hold the conversation in a quiet, private area where both parties can concentrate and where no audience can incite theatrical behavior. Most importantly, conjure up the ability to approach the client with your emotions in neutral and with an open mind. Strike a balance of compassion and confidence. Defensiveness has no place in productive conflict resolution.

When it comes to the client conversation, do this:

  1. Let the client know that you are up to speed on the situation but that you would like to hear the client’s perspective and ultimately work toward a fair and agreeable solution.
  2. Listen but make no attempt to justify or problem-solve. This is the time to let the client vent and for you to gather facts and truly understand the client’s perspective. Use active listening techniques to ensure the client feels heard and understood. Often, this step is enough to satisfy an upset pet owner.
  3. Be emotionally level: “I can understand why you are frustrated (or disappointed or nervous).” Be respectful, but do not patronize.
  4. Apologize for what needs an apology. Take responsibility when appropriate and be careful to not throw teammates under the bus. If an apology is unnecessary, you can always say, “I am sorry you are upset” or “I am sorry we made you feel this way.”

(Regarding apologies, this is where my recommendations and a lawyer’s advice will contradict. If you are tackling a potential malpractice case, look to counsel for best practices. I believe that honesty, transparency and humility are the best approach. I believe that avoidance or defensiveness to hide or protect mistakes breeds client distrust and encourages an employee environment where lying in the face of controversy is acceptable.)

  1. After completing steps 1 through 4, explain to the client the hospital’s perspective. The goal should be a mutual understanding and a win-win outcome. Humanizing the hospital’s rationale, as opposed to discussing policy or even the law, is often the most effective approach.
  2. Ask the client to propose a resolution, such as “What can I do to make this right for you?” Small concessions often provide a positive return on investment. (Again, first seek counsel when addressing a potential malpractice case, as refunds or no-charge services can be viewed as admitting fault.) In addition, take heed to prevent rewarding bad behavior. Keep the conversation focused on what can be done, not what cannot be done. Come to a mutual agreement, ideally with a win-win outcome.
  1. Let the client know what is being done to prevent similar situations — for example, through team training or computer corrections. Thank the client for the feedback and candor.

Time to Decompress

Whew, it’s over! Breathe, stretch, vent if necessary and then shake it off. Make notes in the chart to document the conversation. Be factual, and ensure that any promises made are detailed and that an action plan following up on those promises is initiated. Remember that an upset client’s most outrageous accusations often contain pearls of truth that can be used to improve client relations and patient care.

Finally, for the sake of guarding against burnout and compassion fatigue, teach employees to not take such conversations personally and to instead reward themselves for a job well done.

Even if the conflict did not resolve perfectly, take consolation in the bravery exhibited and recognize that complaints are far outnumbered by the many satisfied clients who regularly show appreciation and gratitude.

When preventive measures are taken and teams are well-equipped to navigate the perils of customer service, client conflict can become just a minor burden of doing business and one shared by a united team of veterinary professionals.

Take Charge columnist Abby Suiter is practice manager at Daniel Island Animal Hospital in Charleston, South Carolina.