How to Manage Difficult Clients?
World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2004
Philippe Moreau, DVM, MS, DECVIM-CA, DECVN
Limoges, France


Veterinarians are sometimes disrupted by explosive clients that destroy their day and even nights. When unpleasant clients come to the practice it is the overall atmosphere that is affected. Employees are stressed, other clients are annoyed if not possibly influenced, and the veterinarians take these incidents often personally and are sometimes deeply perturbed. It is not unusual that veterinarians will think over and over about the one incident of the week and loose his energy and sleep over it. Here are some ideas and suggestions on how to defuse some clients' anger and possibly satisfy the different types of difficult clients. It is most often a matter of proper communication.


There are different types of difficult clients. I have selected the four most common sort of situations or disruptive client types:

 The authoritarian or "directive client"

 The explosive or "angry client"

 The hesitant or "undecided client"

 The time consumer or "compulsive talker"

1. The directive client

This is not necessarily an angry or dissatisfied client, but if not handled appropriately it could easily become one. Directive clients can be demanding and usually use a tone of voice and a verbal attitude that could be misinterpreted as aggressive or angry. These types of persons have a tendency to behave with authority and can, if not prepared, place veterinarian and employees in a difficult position. This is the same sort of situation when you look at the different ways people can communicate with you. There are several major sorts of sentences. The most crucial to differentiate between are remarks vs objections. It is important that when facing a client you distinguish between a remark and an objection. A remark does not necessarily require an answer. It is better to handle such a statement as a simple opinion and remain neutral and respond with simple facts that are objective. Some questions are assimilated to remarks and require one or several answers. This should be a straight forward process, one that does not require any detour or complicated justifications that may confuse the client and his or her interpretation of his or her question.

On the contrary (and sometimes tricky to differentiate) an objection is fundamentally different than a remark. It is an obvious sign that the client does not agree with some situation and this requires an immediate response in a manner that the objection should be countered. It requires arguments and objective information, unemotional, with a precise purpose: decrease or annul (better) the level of objection. The tone of voice, the attitude, the body language may help you to differentiate between the two forms of communication (remarks vs objection) but sometimes it can be difficult to interpret. For example there are two ways to say "it is expensive". One person would identify this as a remark (no need necessarily to object and counter with specific justification...). The second person would perceive this statement as an objection that needs prompt response including a justification to diminish or alleviate the negative feeling associated with such sentence. In such case that second person, after checking the details and objective data (important to agree with the objection first and rely on facts and not on immediate or impulse answer that may be interpreted as defensive) may enter into an argument that would explain that the procedures were complicated, required a lot of time and equipment, and so forth. The difficulty is to remain neutral and avoid the possible confusion between remarks and objection. For example, if a client asks for a detailed and itemized invoice referring to his or her last financial statement is this because he or she does not agree with the total sum of the bill, or is it simply because he or she wishes to understand better the nature of the expenses? In other words is it a remark type of question or an objection question? The difference may sound tedious but is important because if one confuses a question for an objection (an aggressive response to a situation) the nature, format and content of the answer may be and certainly sound different.

Imagine a situation where a client asks for a detailed invoice and the employee's answer implies that the client is not in agreement with the invoice and may refuse to pay? The risk is that client may turn from a question to an objection and change his or her attitude.

As a rule if you hesitate between a remark question and an objection question respond as if it was a remark, not an objection. Simply give the facts and answer in a precise way, with no additional arguments related to the interpretation of the question. Type of answer in such case could be: "Of course, let me check your record and I will immediately give you the details..." Instead of "Why? Is there something wrong with the invoice?..." If you were wrong and interpreted the objection as a remark, there is a good chance that the person will get back to you wit a second statement, identifying that he or she was objecting and that he or she is not satisfied with your initial answer... It then becomes obvious to address the problem differently and offer an answer adapted to counter the objection.

As a rule directive persons are authoritarian in their behavior and their way to handle people and this can be very disruptive. How should you handle such an individual? Remain extremely calm and don't let these attitudes bother you. An authoritarian person responds better to someone as direct or direct as he or she. So remain precise, factual, and be yourself direct and somewhat authoritarian and this will usually correspond best to this sort of attitude. No need for excuses, emotion and justifications of any sort...

2. The explosive or angry client

This is the most difficult and stressful situation and one that requires immediate action. The rule is to remain calm, polite and to try to move the angry clients into a private place as quickly as possible where they can blow off steam without upsetting others and thus avoid any potential contagious behavior.

You examine a puppy, first visit, with a new client and you hear some shouting from the reception area "This is a rip-off and I'm not going to pay this bill"... Quite disruptive! This is an example of a conversation that would fit an appropriate response to such an outburst: "I am sorry that you are upset about your bill, Mrs. Jones and I understand. I would react also if I was in your case." Then the person should add politely: "why don't you come with me?" and motion the client to follow to a consulting room to discuss the problem privately... Always try to remove the angry person from the traffic and the other set of clients that most of the time feel very unease in such a confrontation.

How should you handle the case afterwards? There are some general guidelines that are very simple and yet efficient and can be adapted to all situations where a client is manifesting his of her dissatisfaction out loud. This procedure requires 4 steps:

 First step: help the person to blow off steam: imagine an angry person and identify him or her as a steam boiler. If you open it before emptying and blowing off the steam, it will explode... The initial step is simple and corresponds to saying that you understand, that it is normal, asking for details, and helping the person to tell you all until the "boiler is empty" and the steam gone... During that phase it is advised to listen to remain calm and to give the person total attention and agreement...

 Second step: tell the client that he is right and that together with him you will find a solution to solve the problem. That you would react similarly in such a situation and that such a situation should not occur and rarely occur in the practice. "Let me handle this case personally, together WE will find a solution..."The words "WE" and "TOGETHER" are important and demonstrate that you do not accuse him or her to be wrong, at the same time you do not agree that you or your staff was wrong either... At this stage no one is "guilty", we are looking for the facts that explain what happened...

 Third step: tell the client that YOU will personally take care of the situation and try to find the best solution in order to satisfy him of her.

 The last step: actions and response: you have to act promptly (not necessarily in presence of the person) and make sure that you come up with some specific answers and possible solutions to his or her problem. The importance there is to take the initiative and make sure that you respond yourself in a timely fashion. Failure to do so would give a second reason for the client to be unhappy. This is where he or she will judge your overall management of the crisis.

3. The hesitant or undecided client

Some people cannot make any decision and need support and sometimes more than support. This is not necessarily critical but often disruptive and it is better to identify those clients that need some help making their decision. If not, they hesitate and end up not making any decision which sometimes is worse. This can be obviously detrimental for the health of the animal and in such case it is your responsibility to point that out to avoid any potential criticisms such as "you did not tell me that it was so vital and so on..."

When facing a person that hesitates, it is the rule to give him or her two options and to tell him or her that there is a need for a choice on the spot. If the hesitation remains, one can always offer a third option which corresponds to "doing nothing", "wait and see", or go home and ask for a second opinion and come back or call back later (the next day). I found that some of these people will appreciate the option to go home away from the possible stress and pressure of the clinic to make their decision over a night of sleep... It is sometimes helpful to call them yourself the next day to show them that you care, even if the decision is to remain passive.

4. The time consumer or compulsive talker

Some clients abuse your time and they don't necessarily appreciate it. Appointments are running behind. You have trouble wrapping up the discussion in the examination room. The client lingers long after the appointment is over to talk with staff members or other clients. The same client calls frequently and wants to chat even after your team members have answered all the questions...

The recommended attitude is to establish a policy or strategy and ensure that your team is aware of it and sticks to it. Once you have identified such person you may make a note on the client's record so the staff will adopt the corresponding procedure. This mark on the record should be subject to change with time as people may have some phases in their life, so don't assume that the "compulsive talker" will remain one all the time.

Once you have finished your full consultation and you feel that the client is going over some redundant issues, you can tell him or her that you need to go because (and it's one advantage of the clinic premises) there are some patients that need your immediate attention in the back-office. If necessary, you can leave the area briefly and come back a few minutes later using a "wrapping-up phrase" such as "let me take you back to the front desk and let Susan check with you now, I am sorry but I am getting behind..."

When there is no other choice

Occasionally, all efforts don't seem to produce results. If a pet owner doesn't respect your limits and the veterinarians and staff members agree that she or he isn't worth any more energy and time, it is probably time to "fire" the client. If a client is being repeatedly rude and unsatisfied, one way to politely handle such person would be to copy the medical record of the animal(s) and send it to the client with a polite but straight letter suggesting to seek care elsewhere, not recommending any specific places but telling that there are several places close to the client's home. The terms could be expressed as such "we are concerned that our practice is not able to meet your needs. We are sorry as we have tried hard over the years but we feel that it is better for you to seek veterinary care elsewhere. To facilitate such transfer we are happy to communicate the medical record of Fifi to make sure that appropriate medical care continues without any interruption".


Handling people, clients requires talent, patience and some communication techniques that will help in most of the circumstances, even the most difficult one. It is important to first identify the type of clients and also the type of situation that require special attention. Then set goals for modifying their behavior. Decide which client's attitudes are unacceptable and make sure that team members know how to respond consistently.

I would encourage you to use interpersonal communication in the clinic following some well established and efficient communication and conflict resolution techniques Some veterinary consultants are now excellent expert to help you with such training. The last resort is to be prepared to ask a difficult client to seek veterinary care elsewhere.

Speaker Information
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Philippe Moreau, DVM, MS, DECVIM-CA, DECVN
Limoges, France

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