You know what surprised me most when I first became a practicing veterinarian? The number of challenging client interactions I experienced.
I had this idea in my mind that I would be helping people’s pets and they would appreciate my efforts. Unfortunately, as I soon learned, that isn’t always the case!
Veterinary clinics are emotional places. Even seemingly mild medical issues, like a torn toenail or a cat’s diarrhea, can trigger significant emotional responses in clients. Add in the additional stress caused by unanticipated expenses and this can create a recipe for challenging, confrontational interactions.
Ultimately, your ability to handle these difficult interactions is just as valuable as your medical knowledge. Here are some tips that will help!
1. Don’t take a client’s lack of trust personally.
Some clients are natural skeptics. No matter what you say, or what recommendation you make, they will want to do their own research and find a way to prove you wrong.
Early in my career, I often took that skepticism personally. I assumed that clients were only hesitant to trust me because I was a new grad, or because I looked young. However, it’s now 14 years later and I still encounter just as much skepticism as I did as a new grad. Maybe I’ve just been really fortunate and haven’t visibly aged at all! Doubt it. More likely, this skepticism has far more to do with the clients than it does with me.
If a client is reluctant to take your recommendations, don’t argue. That only triggers the client to adopt a more defensive attitude. State your recommendations clearly, provide a brief rationale behind them, and answer client questions if they arise. If the client declines your recommendations, document it and move on. Doing so is a reflection on them, not you.
In some cases, it might be helpful to provide resources clients can use to do their own research. Websites such as the American Heartworm Society, the Companion Animal Parasite Council, the World Small Animal Veterinary Association, and others provide accurate information for client research.
2. Handle financial constraints with empathy, but don’t let clients take advantage of you.
Many clients have genuine financial limitations that interfere with their ability to authorize all of the veterinary team’s recommendations. These clients may have to make difficult choices between caring for their pet and caring for themselves or human family members.
If a client declines a treatment plan due to financial concerns, respond with empathy. Maybe you’ve been in a similar situation yourself; if so, tell the client that you relate to their struggle because you’ve been there! By demonstrating empathy, you can shift the dynamic from a perceived client vs. veterinarian conflict (you want the client to treat and they dig in their heels to resist) to a collaborative approach, where you and the client work together for the good of the pet. Collaboration allows you to begin examining Plan B, or even Plan C or D, in order to ensure that the pet gets the best possible treatment within the client’s constraints.
At some point in your career, you will likely find yourself tempted to offer free or discounted services. Think long and hard before you do this. Many clients will need help over the course of your career and there’s no way that you can possibly say yes to everyone. Work with the client to brainstorm options, such as financing, asking friends or family for help, reaching out to a nonprofit organization, or creating an online fundraiser. These options can help the client raise necessary funds, while also helping you resist the temptation to treat patients out of your own pocket.
Also, this should go without saying, but providing free services without the consent of your employer is typically regarded as theft and would be grounds for termination. Don’t do it.
3. Stay calm to de-escalate conflicts.
At some point, you are likely to find yourself in an exam room with an angry, yelling client. While some situations may be so dangerous that you need to ask the client to leave (or leave the room yourself), many conflicts can be de-escalated with careful attention to nonverbal communication.
When a client begins yelling, your instinct will be to raise your volume to match theirs. Resist that temptation! Stay calm and maintain a normal volume. In many cases, clients just need an opportunity to vent. All you need to do is listen. Once clients have had the opportunity to express their concerns, they often calm down.
If you feel safe and comfortable doing so, try to position your body so that the exam table is not between you and the client. If you come around from behind the barrier of the table and listen to the client with relaxed, open body language, this will often help de-escalate conflict.
4. Try to understand the client’s point of view.
Try to show empathy, even for angry clients. Look for some small aspect of their complaint that you can express agreement with. If they just yelled at you for five minutes about every aspect of their previous visit, from the moment they walked in the door until the moment that they left, try to find one little thing in that rant that you can agree with. Respond with empathy: “I can understand how frustrating it would be to feel like the receptionist wasn’t paying attention to you. I am going to do XYZ to try to ensure this doesn’t happen to another client.”
Empathy and a willingness to listen can help shift the focus of the conversation from hostility and conflict to collaboration and problem-solving. Listen to the client, demonstrate an interest in correcting those items that are reasonable to correct, and then shift the focus on their pet’s care going forward.
5. Set boundaries now; it will only become more challenging over time!
As a veterinarian, it’s important to set healthy boundaries. While you may have a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for your new career at this time, working 80-hour weeks, accepting evening and weekend calls on your personal phone from clients, being called by your staff every time their own pet has emergencies, and providing free veterinary advice to friends and family are all things that may gradually wear you down over time. It’s important to set healthy boundaries, so that you can sustain this career (and your mental health) over the long haul.
Only you can determine which client boundaries are the most important for you, but here are some examples:
- Don’t give out your personal cell phone number to clients.
- Set the expectation that phone calls may not be returned for 24-48 hours.
- Have techs handle phone calls when appropriate.
- When a client comes in with a lengthy list of concerns at a single visit, set the expectation that you will address a certain number of concerns today and schedule a follow-up visit to address the remaining concerns.
- Don’t be afraid to say no if a client is asking you to perform a service you’re not comfortable with (for example, convenience euthanasia).
Setting clear boundaries helps clients know what to expect. Setting these boundaries from the beginning minimizes the chances that clients will be shocked by future changes.