Podcast #45

'Trouble Ahead' signs
In veterinary medicine you will get complaints. No matter how amazing, smart, thorough, well spoken, dedicated, or whatever other positive adjectives you can think of... at some point you will have a client that will complain. There will be complaints where you really did mess something up, and there will be even more complaints where you did everything right, but the client just wants to complain.

Every complaint a clinic receives should be addressed fully, to determine if there is any way the clinic can improve to try to prevent complaints in the future. Even some of the most ridiculous complaints can hold some small nugget of constructive gold, that can make your clinic better. And, we should all be striving to be better!

That being said, there are some complaints that just need to be heard, and then politely told to F-off, and forgotten.

Either way, when a complaint is made it should be addressed in a consistent, and professional manner.
The Six A’s for Managing Complaints:
1. ASK:
What has upset them?? - let them talk, don’t interrupt. Try to do this person if possible. While they are talking, record all their grievances.

Use the list you just generated and one-by-one ackknowledge the issues raised by the client in a calm and objective manner. Confirm with owners that you have a complete list.

Showing sympathy and concern for the client and their pet is important. They want to see you are a person. If you can, apologize. An apology (which does not necessarily mean an admission of fault - but check with your state laws on whether or not this counts as ‘admitting fault’) can go a long way. Often owners just want to know that they have been heard, and their grievances have been understood.

Each individual concern needs to be addressed, no matter how little. Remember that medicine is not an exact science, and that an undesirable outcome does not indicate a mistake. Hindsight is 20/20. Often complaints are due to a difference between clients expectations and the reality of how medicine works. Explaining and addressing each individual issue the client has, one by one, so you can break down the complaint into chunks, can help the owner feel that they are truly being heard. It is very important to remember however that you can’t just take client’s word for what was said and done. If the records indicate that sometime occurred, or was offered/discussed, you have to stand behind your staff! If you need to, talk to your staff about what happened in the case.

If the clinic was truly at fault then compensation can be offered. To offer compensation when the clinic has done nothing wrong, and when the client is complaining unjustly and just looking for a discount however, is only hindering your practice.

If your clinic has done something ‘wrong’ or where the clients’ complaint was justified, make sure you put an action plan into place to correct the problem to ensure it doesn’t occur again. This action plan should be communicated with the owner, so they know you are taking their complaint seriously and that the problem won’t occur again. Also, internal action plans can be made from complaints to help prevent future complaints, whether this is improving communication, having more concrete/set protocols for estimates, etc.
The 7th ‘A’, ACCESSIBLE:
One way to try to limit negative word-of-mouth, and to make clients feel (and know) that your clinic is always willing to improve, and cares about your clients feelings, is to have easy access for your clients to complain.

Have a brochure in the waiting room that outlines the procedure of how to lodge a complain. This might seem counter-intuitive, why make it easier for clients to complain??? When clients know they have the option of complaining, then they actually have to DO it! When there isn’t an option, they will dwell on it.

Also, as mentioned above, it decreases negative word-of-mouth- which impacts your clinic more negatively than one complaint.

Having an easy option for owners to put in a complaint at the time they are feeling upset is also helpful, because it makes the process occur sooner, and thus have a resolution faster. It removes the process of the client going home, dwelling on the issue, having it grow and grow, blogging about it on social media where they will find 1000 people to support their crazy ideas, and then finally complain or lodge an attack for something that is much bigger than the initial problem was.

The last benefit is for your staff. If there is a pamphlet that clearly outlines how complaints are lodged and managed, when a client is being aggressive, complaining, or otherwise being a jerk and complaining to your receptionists/nurses/associate staff, they can simply say “I am sorry that you are not 100% happy with our service. If you have any complaints please see this brochure which outlines how to lodge a complaint and the process afterwards.” Polite, simple, but taking that stress away from staff that are not trained, or paid, to deal with these complaints!
Everyone can learn, everyone can grow, and clinics will have lots of times where complaints are justified. Making sure you address each complaint for what it is, and having a system to deal with and address complaints in an organized, consistent manner, will take stress away from your staff, the managers that actually have to deal with the complaints, and the clients because they will be more likely to feel heard. Also, when you have these steps and strategies in place, you will be in a better position to implement changes to your clinic to improve patient care and client communication in the future, because you will be making an action plan to address each complaint!
Written by Dr. Ann Herbst BSc, DVM

Published July 22, 2020

Advocate for yourself, you are the only one that will!

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