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Upon further review

You have several options when online critics go public about your practice. You can ignore them, fight back or learn from the experience.

Upon further review
While some clients will never be satisfied, most reasonable clients will be happy that you have a friendly staff providing good service and that the practice enforces transparent, reasonable policies.

Many people today use social media accounts to keep in touch with friends, read the news, scroll through pages of cute animal pictures, and more. We also use online resources to make everyday decisions such as selecting a doctor, restaurant or movie.

Service providers, whether a hair dresser or plumber, are chosen in many cases based on online ratings and reviews. In fact, one survey found that 72% of customers rely heavily on online reviews when choosing a service. Eighty-seven percent of consumers say a business needs at least a three-star rating to receive consideration.

From a business owner’s point of view, though, reviews can be frustrating. Veterinarians who think they provided a reasonable level of service can be shocked to see the client post a negative review.

Bad News Travels Fast

Take these two examples:

1. Mrs. Smith calls Corner Veterinary Hospital to ask for a refill of Fluffy’s metronidazole. The receptionist informs Mrs. Smith that Fluffy hasn’t been seen by a veterinarian in two years and that if Fluffy isn’t feeling well, she should be examined. Mrs. Smith becomes angry and refuses the appointment. Later that day, Mrs. Smith posts a Yelp review asserting that Corner Veterinary Hospital refused to give Fluffy her medications and is run by money-grubbing veterinarians who just wanted an excuse to get more money from her.

2. Susie works for Dr. Johnson at Corner Veterinary Hospital but is terminated for excessive absenteeism. A few days later, Suzie posts a Facebook review that Corner Veterinary Hospital is filthy, Dr. Johnson doesn’t know what he’s doing, and he orders unnecessary treatments to make more money.

Dr. Johnson and Corner Veterinary Hospital are naturally indignant. What are their options for combatting such misrepresentations?

In general, online reviews can be ignored or responded to. Alternatively, the client can be sued for defamation. When deciding how to respond, it’s important to consider that the practice’s current clients have formed opinions based on their personal experiences and are less likely to be significantly swayed by a single negative review. Any recourse therefore should be taken with the potential client’s viewpoint in mind.

React or Let It Go

The first option is to not respond to a negative review. In general, if a practice has numerous positive reviews and only a few negative ones, potential clients will be less likely to be swayed by the bad. In that case, they understand that some people will never be satisfied. They typically recognize highly unreasonable people.

Removing negative reviews, especially more extreme ones, can be tempting. If the review appears on a practice’s Facebook page, for example, the offending party can be blocked from the page. Also, the Facebook review feature can be turned off, although doing this would remove positive reviews, too. If the review appears on a website outside the control of the practice and is grossly inaccurate, asking to have the post removed is often unsuccessful.

Some veterinary practice employees will ask acquaintances to post positive reviews, skewing the ratings. However, sites such as Yelp have mechanisms to identify and filter out reviews from friends and family. On general principle, this tactic should be avoided altogether. A better method is to encourage clients to leave online reviews. Although asking them to write positive reviews is not ethical, you can request reviews from clients who had a quality experience.

In certain circumstances, veterinarians who feel wronged will want to defend their names and reputations. After all, sitting back and watching yourself be misrepresented online is difficult. Many people, therefore, feel the urge to respond to reviews and clarify the facts. Veterinarians, however, need to be aware that responding to such posts in detail might violate privacy laws.

So, what can you do? Some practices try to proactively protect themselves by having new clients sign a statement saying they waive the right to patient privacy if the client posts a negative review.

Unfortunately, such a waiver would not go far in court. Since the waiver is signed before any incident would occur, the client would not have had all the facts needed to waive rights to privacy.

In addition to legal concerns, any reply to such a review could be perceived by potential clients as inflammatory and defensive. What’s important to remember is that a Google-search audience is comprised of potential clients trying to decide which veterinarian would be best for their cat or dog. A negative review might be considered more interesting, and is more likely to be read by a potential client, when it has a reply from the practice.

Watch How You Say It

The tone of a reply is the potential client’s first insight into the clinic’s personality. If the practice seems defensive and unwilling to take responsibility, the pet owner might perceive the clinic as being hard to work with and one that’s not looking out for the client’s best interest. Any attempt to set the story straight can sound like arguing and create an unpleasant impression.

This doesn’t mean the review must be ignored entirely. Perhaps the practice doesn’t get many reviews and this long, negative one is glaring. If the practice feels the need to respond, a generic but specific reply like this one can be posted:

“Hi, Mrs. Smith. We’re sorry to hear about your experience at Corner Veterinary Hospital. Please call Barb, our office manager, at (xxx) xxx-xxxx so we can address your concerns.”

This style of reply doesn’t break patient confidentiality, can make the client feel heard and, perhaps more importantly, provides an empathetic tone for potential clients to see. A good reply includes some expression of empathy, the specific name and phone number of the contact person, and an invitation to a private conversation.

The possible outcomes of this are threefold:

  • The best-case situation would be that Mrs. Smith calls Barb, hears an explanation and is satisfied with the conversation. In that case, she might delete the review or edit it into a positive.
  • The next-best situation is Mrs. Smith calls and is reasonably satisfied but doesn’t alter the review.
  • The worst situation is Mrs. Smith calls, remains unhappy with the outcome and makes further negative posts.

To stave off the worst situation, make sure the contact person is reasonably available and has the knowledge and authority to address the concerns. If Barb is available only every other Tuesday from 10 a.m. to noon, Mrs. Smith likely will become more annoyed. If Barb doesn’t understand the policy well enough to defend it or doesn’t have the authority to make reasonable accommodations, Mrs. Smith will be just as frustrated in the end or more so.

Ultimately, you can do your best to resolve these situations, but keep in mind that some clients will never accept that things cannot be done their way. Since, by law, Fluffy’s metronidazole cannot be refilled without an exam in the past year and Barb cannot change that regardless of how much she wants to help Mrs. Smith, this particular situation might never be satisfactorily resolved for all parties.

Truth as a Defense

Let’s say you receive a negative review from a client you’ve banned from the practice. Can the client be sued for libel? For a statement to be considered libel, it must be presented as fact or be reasonably construed as fact by the average person. As long as the general gist of the story is true, even if some of the pieces are false, it might not be enough to constitute libel. Most reviews have some basis of truth to them, even if not every single detail is true, and these circumstances can make winning a court case against a client very difficult. Plus, since almost all reviews are expressions of opinion, the practice will rarely have a solid case to make in court.

Moreover, pursuing a libel case can be expensive. Besides, at the first hint of legal recourse, the client could post the information to social media, creating a publicity nightmare. Any attempt at suing for libel is, in most cases, not worthwhile.

Another scenario involves unhappy employees or ex-employees. What recourse does the practice have against someone who has a bone to pick? Some websites, such as Yelp and Google, will block reviews from disgruntled employees if asked to do so.

New hires could be asked to sign non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements. Non-disclosure agreements prohibit employees from sharing information not publicly available, while non-disparagement agreements prohibit employees from making disparaging statements about their employer. Since most employers don’t, and shouldn’t, publicly disparage their employees, requesting the same courtesy of their employees is reasonable.

Such documents need to be carefully worded.

When to Take Responsibility

Unfortunately, the hospital staff sometimes performs poorly. For example, let’s say that Mr. Jones dropped Buddy off at Corner Veterinary Hospital for castration. During Buddy’s stay, a veterinary assistant walked Buddy outside. Buddy slipped his collar and disappeared into the woods. Mr. Jones was contacted, and the assistants make every effort to find Buddy but failed. Mr. Jones became irate and posted an angry Google review saying that Corner Veterinary Hospital is clearly not responsible and shouldn’t be trusted with anyone’s pet.

In this case, Corner Veterinary Hospital stands to lose a lot as the offense was clearly egregious. The review can be ignored, and hopefully enough positive reviews have been posted to outweigh it. A polite response asking the client to call the office is a valid option, but the practice might want to make the response more apologetic. The response can include an acknowledgment of what went wrong and a description of has been done to prevent a recurrence. For example:

“We’re very sorry that you’ve had this experience at Corner Veterinary Hospital. All our staff is very upset about this situation and continues to search for Buddy. Since we never want an incident like this to happen again, we are having all of our hospitalized patients walked with two leashes, including a slip lead that is more secure. We are working on fencing in a section of our property for even more security. If you would like to discuss this further with us, please call Barb, our office manager, at (xxx) xxx-xxxx.

Showing concern, an acknowledgement of what went wrong and a plan to prevent future issues might be the best way to preserve the practice’s reputation.

Do What’s Best

Ideally, practices should focus on performing in such a way as to prevent negative reviews from ever being posted. While some clients will never be satisfied, most reasonable clients will be happy that you have a friendly staff providing good service and that the practice enforces transparent, reasonable policies.

Negative reviews can reveal opportunities for your practice to improve client service. Was Mrs. Smith unhappy, for example, because the receptionist offered an appointment three days out when Mrs. Smith was sick of cleaning up her cat’s diarrhea? Or was the receptionist unempathetic and hard to work with? While neither of these might be the case, every negative review is a chance to evaluate and potentially improve the practice’s policies.

H.R. Huddle columnist Dr. Charlotte Lacroix is founder and CEO of Veterinary Business Advisors Inc. She serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.