Columns , Communication

The calm after the storm

Soothe angry pet owners and raise the level of service by training the team to listen carefully and respond the right way.

The calm after the storm

When faced with an angry client, veterinary team members tend to have two default responses: They either become defensive or suffer in silence. Unfortunately, neither response makes an unhappy client feel any better.

While no one likes to be confronted by a livid pet owner, team members who are trained to respond with compassion will find these encounters less stressful and will be better able to reach a positive outcome.

Here are steps all team members can use with a disgruntled client.

Stay Calm

Clients sometimes take out their anger on employees even though no one in the practice did anything wrong. In these instances, it’s human nature to feel unjustly accused or insulted. Your first tendency may be to react with argumentative or defensive comments as well as nonverbal body language such as an irritated expression.

To avoid escalating tensions, try to respond to angry clients by keeping a calm demeanor. Focus on taking deep breaths and controlling your emotions. Remember, staying calm is not the same as being silent. In fact, silence can be aggravating to clients who seek solutions to their problems or want to feel heard.

Try to Understand

Striving to understand why a pet owner is angry is the most critical step in the process of communicating with these clients. Anger is often referred to as a “secondary emotion” because it’s a protective mechanism for people who are experiencing painful primary emotions, such as fear, sadness or grief. Appreciating this concept makes it easier to respond with kindness to irate clients.

To identify possible underlying emotions triggering anger, allow clients to vent their frustrations and thoroughly explain why they’re upset. Avoid interrupting someone too quickly, as this may exacerbate the anger. Listen carefully to clearly determine causes for the client’s anger. Do they have legitimate complaints? Are they under stress? Are they afraid their pet may die? Are they grieving the loss of a pet? Do they seek attention or reassurance?

When you correctly identify underlying motivators for behavior, you’re more likely to respond appropriately. Another way to uncover the client’s feelings is to ask open-ended questions, which help to avoid assumptions and ensure you discover all the reasons the client is distressed.

Here are examples of excellent questions to ask:

  • “Can you tell me more about what happened?”
  • “Mrs. Taylor, I know this is a difficult time. Tell me what you’re thinking about your options for care.”
  • “Are you concerned that Bella is having complications?”
  • “Mr. Wright, I sense you’re frustrated. What can we do to help?”
  • “I know you’re angry that Dr. Fowler didn’t call you back. Is there anything else?”

Remember that some people use anger as a shield for fear or sadness. They act angry when in reality they’re scared or sad about their pet’s condition. Clients may be afraid they can’t afford to pay for medical services, afraid of how family members will react or afraid their pet is going to die. In these situations, it’s helpful to use phrases such as, “I know Charlie is a beloved member of your family and we will do everything we can to help him.”

Apologize When It’s Appropriate

Be sure to apologize when mistakes are made. Quick apologies usually serve to defuse anger. Offer an apology if someone on the team failed to provide excellent service or deliver on their promise. Examples of times when an apology is warranted include forgetting to send medications home with the pet, failing to prepare a prescription on time and not making return calls as promised.

Saying, “I’m sorry,” may be appropriate at other times, but the expression is used to convey sympathy. For example, you may say, “I’m sorry, but Dr. Taylor just got called away to treat an emergency” or “I’m sorry for the communication breakdown.” In these instances, the practice team didn’t do anything wrong, but you want to let the client know that you’re sorry she has been inconvenienced.

Seek to Connect

People want to be heard. Clients appreciate team members who listen and express empathy. Listening is an active process. Use body posture and facial expressions to convey interest and a genuine desire to help. For example, lean forward slightly, nod and maintain eye contact. Strive to validate clients’ emotions and convey empathy with statements such as:

  • “I know this was an unexpected illness and how much Sophie means to you.”
  • “I bet it was frustrating to go through that experience.”
  • “I understand you’re angry.”
  • “I know this is an upsetting situation.”
  • “I realize this is a difficult time for you.”


Since clients may become angry about fees, make sure everyone on the team is trained to confidently communicate the value of services and the payment options. For example, you may say: “I know you weren’t expecting these expenses. The testing Dr. Smith recommended will help determine how to best treat Bucky. We do have several payment plan options for our clients. May I discuss these with you?”

When people are unhappy about service, they want someone to resolve the problem. Clients don’t want to hear excuses or details about your policies. Even if you’re unsure how you can solve a client’s problem, express a desire to help and offer reassurance that you’ll do your best to assist. Here are helpful phrases to use:

  • “Let me see what I can do.”
  • “We appreciate your feedback.”
  • “Thanks for bringing this to my attention.”

The next step, if at all possible, is to take action to assist clients. This may mean getting additional information for pet owners and telling them what you can do to help. For example, if a client is upset that the doctor hasn’t called as promised, assure him that you’ll do everything you can to find out the reason for the delay and facilitate a return phone call. Perhaps you can convey information from the technician that will satisfy the client pending the phone call.

Be sure to set realistic expectations for clients. Don’t promise a quick return phone call unless you’re certain the veterinarian will call right away.

If a client’s anger escalates despite your best efforts to help, politely confront the unacceptable behavior. It’s appropriate to say, “Mr. Jones, I’d like to help you, but the level of your anger is making it difficult for us to work together to resolve this issue.” It can be helpful to ask the client what she wants or what will make her happy.  You can say, “Mrs. Clark, we value you as a client. What can I do to help you?”

Remember that everyone has a bad day occasionally and you may be in the line of fire that day. People love their pets, so they may be under considerable stress in a veterinary hospital. Teams trained to defuse clients’ anger help raise the level of service for the practice and can help more pets get the care they deserve.

Talk the Talk columnist Dr. Amanda L. Donnelly is a speaker, business consultant and second-generation veterinarian. She is the author of “101 Practice Management Questions Answered.” Protection Status