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
After I called to request a same-day medication refill, I was surprised at my level of frustration when I learned that the veterinary hospital might not have the prescription ready in time. The experience gave me a first-hand look at how easily pet owners can become upset when seeking care for their beloved companions. Let’s look at the best approaches for dealing with angry or abusive clients.
Why Clients Behave Badly
Contributing factors that might lead to poor client behavior include:
- Loss of control: Clients can’t dictate your practice’s policies, how quickly they get an appointment, their pets’ prognosis or the cost of veterinary care. The powerlessness might leave them feeling helpless and irritated.
- Fear: A sick pet’s owner might be afraid of the unknowns, such as the animal’s response to treatment, the ability to care for it at home, the affordability of care and the potential loss of companionship.
- Unmet needs: People desire safety, respect, appreciation, connection, love and empathy, just to name a few. Clients might lash out if their needs aren’t satisfied by the veterinary team.
- Trigger or emotional stacking: If multiple stressors occur one after another, people might sense they can’t take it anymore, so they act in ways that seem disproportionate to the situation.
- A sense of entitlement: Some clients expect preferential treatment and don’t think your policies apply to them.
Communicating With Angry Pet Owners
Responding positively to an angry outburst can be challenging, especially in the heat of the moment. Therefore, let’s look at communication do’s and don’ts to prepare you better.
- Convey nonverbal communication that suggests irritation or disinterest. These responses include a frown, eye roll, sigh, crossed arms, clenched jaw and lack of eye contact.
- Abruptly walk away or refuse to talk. Such a reaction doesn’t resolve anything. If you can’t handle a situation, politely tell a client you will get someone else to take over.
- Argue or become defensive. Doing so tends to create conflict and escalate a client’s anger.
- Explain hospital policies. Angry pet owners focus on their needs, not your rules.
- Tell someone to “calm down.” The phrase is likely to heighten anger.
- Practice active listening to understand a client’s needs genuinely. Active listening includes eye contact, a relaxed facial expression, an occasional head nod, leaning forward slightly and an open body posture.
- Ignore inflammatory comments, if possible. Instead, move to one or more of the following skills.
- Validate a client’s position with phrases such as “I understand your anger.”
- Respond with a reflective listening statement to validate a pet owner’s feelings. For example, you might say, “I hear you’re concerned about getting medication for Sophie” or “It sounds like you’re really worried about Max.”
- Convey empathy with phrases such as “I’m sorry to hear this,” “I can see how worried you are” or “I know it is frustrating waiting for Dr. Miller to call you.”
How to Change Behavior
While you can’t control a pet owner’s conduct, you can implement systems to minimize the likelihood of escalating emotions. First, analyze your protocols, policies and workflow to identify client pain points. Which situations frequently trigger angry client responses and frustration? If you find, for example, that clients routinely get mad when they don’t receive timely communication about lab test results, strive to create a better client service experience.
Developing a values-based culture focused on kindness and respect enhances client satisfaction. Train your team to choose compassion and to express a desire to help pet owners. Clients find it easier to be nice than nasty when they see someone trying to help.
Here are critical actions for the team to follow:
- Remain calm and pause to remember that upset clients care about their pets.
- Signal a desire to help by saying, “Let me see what I can do to speed up the process” or “I’m going to see what I can do.”
- Thank clients for their understanding at the earliest sign of frustration or impatience. You might say, “Dr. Miller is running late. We appreciate your understanding and thank you for your patience.”
- Take additional steps. These measures might include promising to call back after you check on a pet, offering payment options or expressing empathy.
When All Else Fails
A pet owner’s emotions can escalate despite your efforts to calm the client. The behavior might include continued verbal assaults or other threatening actions. Consequently, have a plan for abusive clients.
Here are three action steps:
- Establish boundaries: Discuss client conduct that team members can reasonably handle and the type that requires the leadership team’s intervention. For example, a client who uses a few curse words might not need a manager’s presence, but hurling insults and profanity might necessitate a different response. Likewise, team members should seek assistance if a client exhibits violent or abusive behavior, such as throwing objects, shouting continuously or making threats.
- Use de-escalation language: The process starts with signaling to clients that their behavior is unacceptable. For example, you might say, “Mr. Jones, I’m feeling uncomfortable with your yelling and profanity” or “Ms. Smith, I’m feeling intimidated by your behavior.” Then, request cooperation. You might say, “Mr. Jones, I ask that you lower your voice and refrain from cursing” or “Ms. Smith, I need you to step back and stop throwing anything.”
- End the relationship: If a client doesn’t calm down, the next step is to fire the pet owner politely.
Saying Goodbye for Good
Ideally, empower at least two team members to terminate a client. In those instances, be succinct and clear, stating, for example, “Mr. Jones, it’s evident that despite our best efforts, our hospital is not a good fit for you. We won’t be able to continue to see Oscar and would be happy to send his medical records to whatever veterinary practice you choose.”
In addition, keep a termination letter on file for sending to clients when needed.
You won’t always be able to calm angry clients or change unacceptable behavior. But it is worthwhile to learn how to respond with understanding and kindness so you can help more pets get the care they deserve.
PLEASE BE NICE
Fewer than 1 in 5 hospitals responding to a Veterinary Hospital Managers Association survey display or share with clients a code of conduct policy governing acceptable behavior.