The Disgruntled Client
World Small Animal Veterinary Association Congress Proceedings, 2017
Elke Rudloff, DVM, DACVECC
Lakeshore Veterinary Specialists, Emergency and Critical Care, Glendale, WI, USA

Each of us on the veterinary team has been involved with a disgruntled client. It is unavoidable. It is also very stressful, for even the most experienced clinician, nurse or manager, to have to listen and mediate. No one teaches you in veterinary or technician school how to handle disgruntled clients. It is very easy to avoid confrontation or to react by responding in a like manner. Neither of these actions solves the issue, and you run the risk loss of a potentially valuable client and future clients. The following information is gleaned from my experience over 26 years in veterinary emergency and critical care, from trial and error, as well as learning from some very smart people about how to handle the disgruntled client. The information can be used in many different situations, both professional and personal.

Ultimately the goal is to make the client happy, and to stop them from speaking badly about you and your staff. Understand that anger is an emotion that occurs when a person perceives an injustice. The client may be vocal or subtle about their dissatisfaction. When the client is more subversive in their expression, it is best to "call them out," meaning we must acknowledge their signals, and determine if they are unhappy with you or something else entirely.

The following is a basic roadmap you can follow to deflate the anger of a disgruntled client.

1.  Gather all the information you can, and allow the client to express their concerns and complaints by actively listening. This means hearing what they are saying, and reflecting their voiced concerns. Write a list of their grievances as they talk. When they stop talking ask them if there are any additional concerns, and then summarize back to the client what you heard. This shows the client that you heard their concerns, makes them stop complaining, and allows you to move forward with mediation.

2.  Ask open-ended questions, allow them to complete voicing their concerns without interruption, and remain calm. Do not react defensively, since this takes you down an argumentative pathway. Not until the client knows you have heard them, will they stop complaining, and allow you to move forward with mediation.

3.  The client may tell you what you can do to resolve their grievance. If the solution is easy and apparent, you can offer the solution.

4.  If you need to gather additional information, set a date and time soon when you will call them back. If you are unable to retrieve all the information you need by the time you set, call the client yourself and reschedule the time. Each day that passes is a day they can speak badly about you and your hospital to their friends and social media.

5.  Admit when an error was made and apologize. There is nothing to argue about when you agree with the client. You can move on to remediation, if that is appropriate.

6.  Empathize or sympathize. Even if you do not agree with why they are upset, you can say "I can hear how much this has upset you."

7.  Monitor and control your tone of voice, inflection and body language. Make eye contact when they speak and when you respond. Avoid crossing your arms.

8.  Be honest, in a way that is professional (confident and competent), not emotional.

9.  Try to put you and the client on one side of the fence and the problem on the other side, emphasizing that you are on their side, trying to find a solution to their problem. "This is a costly problem to workup and treat. I will do my best to help you make a plan for Fifi that works within your budget."

10.  Consider giving something to the client just for taking the time to express their frustrations (e.g., a credit to their account for a future visit), so they can walk away with a tangible "win."

Several outcomes are possible, the client is satisfied that you heard their grievances, the client is satisfied that you heard their grievances and they received something as compensation or in appreciation, or the client remains unsatisfied in which case you may have lost a client. The first 2 outcomes are by far the most common, when the client feels they are heard. The latter possibility may be mutually acceptable if you feel the client is unreasonable in their complaints or request for compensation.

Comprehensive documentation is essential, in case your attempt at mediation fails and the client choose to seek legal counsel or file a complaint to the veterinary board.


Speaker Information
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Elke Rudloff, DVM, DACVECC
Lakeshore Veterinary Specialists
Glendale, WI, USA

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