Life in a veterinary clinic can be stressful, with challenging medical cases, complex surgery and a busy workload, which can lead to burnout. But there’s another stress that may not be discussed much in Vet College: dealing with difficult clients.
I feel awkward even using that term: it may suggest that there may be something “wrong” with some pet owners. I don’t mean that at all. The people I’m describing are those individuals who may present a challenge to the normal, pleasant, good-natured, relaxed human-human interactions during consultations, in the waiting room or on the telephone. So-called clients may indeed have good justification for being “difficult” (they may have serious personal issues in their own lives, or they may simply believe that their pet has not received appropriate care).
Whatever has happened, the bottom line is that the vet or nurse on the front line is faced with dealing with a pet owner who is challenging in some way, and this can be a stressful, difficult time. How can it be made easier?
It may help to remember the dictionary definition of “anger”, which is “an emotional reaction to perceived injustice”. So if someone is angry, they feel that an event has taken place which is unjust. When dealing with an angry person, it’s important to try to see the situation from their perspective, to discover the injustice that they perceive, and to try to explain the situation more clearly, or in necessary, to remedy the injustice.
Every vet practice will have its own policies on how to deal with a situation which has moved into the “difficult” spectrum, and it’s worth having a staff meeting from time to time to remind everyone of the ground rules. But there are some principles that are worth considering:
Move a difficult client into a private area. It’s stressful enough dealing with somebody who is upset and perhaps aggressive. If the engagement takes place in a public area such as the waiting room, with a bemused audience of onlookers, there’s a whole extra layer of stress. You will be able to have a calmer, more constructive discussion without other people observing you.
Listen carefully rather than being over-defensive. Stay calm, and listen as carefully as you can so that you understand the problem precisely. Once the whole story has been aired, try to find common ground. Try to use words that express your sympathy without necessarily implying that you are in the wrong. (e.g. “Thanks for explaining the situation so clearly, and I’m sorry that you’re upset”)
Ask the client what they want you to do. They may be surprised at your conciliatory attitude, and this may help to defuse the situation. That said, you may or may not be able to give them what they want. You need to aim towards a way of solving their problem in a way that placates them without compromising your staff or your practice. If you make too many concessions, you may upset your staff (who may feel that you are not supporting them) and you could create a precedent that encourages the client to “be difficult” again in the future. Running a practice can be a balance between keeping clients happy, and having boundaries that cannot be crossed to allow the proper functioning of the practice. (For example, if a client is upset because they are not allowed to be in the operating theatre with their pet, they simply need to understand that this is not permissible). There may be some clients who have unrealistic expectations, and your practice may prefer not to engage with such a customer: there may be a more suitable practice for them elsewhere. One of the hallmarks of a contented, successful practice is a well-trained client base who knows, understands and respects the way that the practice works.
Afterwards, ask if you can learn any lessons. Was the client’s anger justifiable? Did your team mess up in some way? Could you prevent such a situation in the future? Remember that most people will just go elsewhere rather than complaining. It’s worth treating complaints and difficult clients as a valuable resource, pointing out to you areas where your practice may be able to improve.
Finally, compartmentalise the situation in your mind. It’s a work situation, and make sure you leave it there. Don’t fret about it in your leisure time or at night. If you work with people, it’s inevitable that there will be disagreements and difficulties. It’s part of life, but a part that should be left at work, where it belongs.
Deal with it, move on, and enjoy your time away from work.
Here are a few situations I have been involved with throughout my career
‘Mrs T was incensed: she had been five minutes late for her appointment, but she had been left waiting for half an hour. She was furious. I took her into the consulting room, and after listening to her, I explained that the person scheduled after her had arrived early, and they had a complex case that took nearly half an hour to resolve. I told her that she too would receive plenty of time if she ever had a time-consuming difficult case. I told her that I was really sorry, and we’d do our best to make sure she was seen on time in future, but if she could try to arrive a couple of minutes before her due time, that would be helpful.’
‘Mr S had brought his dog in for a routine tumour removal, and he wanted to stay until the dog was fully anaesthetised. That’s what he’d done with his previous vet. He refused to leave his dog with our admissions nurse. I took him into a quiet room and explained the reasons why we couldn’t comply with his wishes. He was welcome to go elsewhere if he wished, but as a compromise, he could stay while I gave his dog the pre-anaesthetic sedative, leaving once the animal was calm and slightly sleepy. After reflection, he agreed that this was a fair compromise.’
‘Mrs K was very upset because her cat was soaked in urine when she collected him after castration. Again, I took her and her cat into a quiet room. I apologised, explaining that there must have been unfortunate timing – her cat was clean and dry when he had been put into his cage a few minutes earlier. When I asked her what she wanted me to do, she said “well, I suppose it’s just one of those things”, and the situation was defused. I cleaned her cat and put him into a clean, dry cage, and we parted on good terms.’
Dr Pete Wedderburn BVM&S CertVR MRCVS