Podcast #53

Sad looking pug
When clients are upset, they are not acting as their best self, and often came come across as mean, aggressive and abusive.
Client communication is a massive part of the job of any veterinary professional. In order to provide care to the furry, scaly and feathery patients we love, we need to be able to communicate with their owners. We need to be able to connect to owners on an emotional level so they trust us. We need to educate owners on what medical intervention is required so they understand and see value of the tests and treatments we want to perform. And, we need to collaborate with owners on how to best use their financial resources, especially when limited, to try to get the best outcome possible for our patients.

The majority of our clients will be great. They will understand what we need to do to fix their pets, they will pay their bill without complaint, or if they cannot afford treatment they will communicate this respectively and be understanding of the limitations they have put on us. Many of our clients will be incredibly appreciative of us caring for their little (or big) creatures.

However, not all clients will be nice, happy, receptive, respectful, or understanding. Some will be mean, abusive, manipulative, and down-right jerks! It’s these difficult clients on which these blogs will focus.

One of the most important things to understand is that most of our difficult clients aren’t difficult by nature, but by circumstance! Don’t get me wrong, some are just complete jerks, but a lot of the time their bad behaviour stems from fear, stress and guilt.

It is these types of clients which this blog will focus! Our next blog will address some of our other types of difficult clients such as the Dangerous Clients, Bully Clients, Manipulative Clients, “I Know Better” Clients and General Tips on Difficult Clients along with Self Preservation When Dealing with Difficult Clients.

When people are scared, when they are stressed or nervous, or confused, or feel guilt, they are not their best selves. They direct their emotions in places where it shouldn’t be directed, and often veterinary professionals are the target of that misdirection. This blog will focus on how to communicate with this subset of difficult client. They really aren't jerks, they are just acting jerky.
You Catch More Flies With Honey:
Fly stuck in honey
When clients are upset and stressed, the best way approach the situation is to try to diffuse it.
Diffusing an escalating situation, and getting clients to take a step back and be nice, is always EASIER than confrontation. Confrontation takes confidence, a sense of self pride, and a huge amount of emotional energy, especially for the majority of veterinary professionals that are people pleasers. For this reason, trying to diffuse a situation first is always a good idea, for multiple reasons:

Firstly, it gives the clients the benefit of the doubt. My mother always said “You never know what someone else is going through,” and working in the vet field we all know what terrible situations people are going through sometimes. So, give clients the benefit of the doubt that they are just scared, they are just hurting, and are just not acting their best selves. We have all had situations in our lives where we have acted inappropriately, and regretted it, so give your clients that chance!

Secondly, it shows strength of character and empathy on your part, which makes you are more trustworthy and stable person for that client to rely on. It gives them the sense that you are in control, because you are controlling your emotions, and therefore are in control of their pet’s medical care.

Thirdly, it very often gets your desired outcome, of a client that will be nice and respectful, without having to get into a fight. It’s easier, it’s emotionally less draining, it takes less time.

So, before jumping into attacking any client back, first assume they are stressed, scared or feel guilty, and try the following approaches first. If these don't work, or the client proves to be a jerk, you can then escalate.

These strategies will work for the majority of your clients however!
Let's Get Personal
Whenever I use the phrase “you catch more flies with honey” my husband always counters with “by why do you want to catch flies?” His point is valid, and displays that being overly sweet to clients that are jerks, just gets you a jar of fly contaminated honey, and that’s a terrible business to be in, because that means your client base will be full of flies!
See the blog on Customers Vs. Clients for more details on this, however in general this approach is to an initial response, and not a solution for repeated and ongoing behaviour. Those flies you should zap with a fly killer (aka- FIRE those clients- see blog series on firing clients!).
Scared Clients:
Scrabble with words F.E.A.R.
When people are afraid, they lose the ability to think rationally. Fear doesn't justify abuse, but acknowledging their fear can re-direct their emotion away from you!
People love their pets. More than 90% of people consider their pets as family members. This means that when their pets are sick, owners are terrified. They are scared their pet will be sick or injured, they are afraid of how much it will cost, they are afraid of their pet being away from them overnight, and they are afraid their beloved pet might die. Scared people don’t always act rationally, and when they are acting mean or irrationally it can come out as abuse and anger.

Just because you can understand that a client is scared, doesn’t mean that you need to allow them to treat you like garbage. That being said, recognizing and addressing that owners are scared can help you diffuse and re-direct their emotions away from you, and back onto the situation where it belongs.

So, what can you say?

“I understand you are scared and upset.”

Often when people are scared, a huge point of that fear is that they won’t be heard and won’t be taken seriously. They want you impress how important their pet is to them, and want to make sure you understand what they feeling.

Simply by addressing and acknowledging their emotions, you take away their stress that you won’t just ignore them, or that you won't prioritize their pet!

“I can see that you are very worried about Fluffy, and how he has been acting at home. Let’s be very thorough to make sure that we get to the bottom of this!”

So many people feel that their emotions and fears are brushed off. Think about the number of human medical stories that involve the patient talking about how the doctor ignored their clinical signs for years before they were fully worked up. This is a huge fear for people. Addressing their emotions, and addressing that you understand that Fluffy is sick, and needs care, will diffuse, placate, and calm many of your scared clients!

By addressing that owners are worried, and by pointing out that you will pay attention to what they are seeing at HOME, gives their fears and involvement in their pet’s case validity. You then diffuse those fears by acknowledging that you will take them seriously.

“I’m so sorry that Fluffy is so sick, I know this situation (disease/condition/cancer/injury/etc.) sucks!”

This line is gold. It not only shows you’re empathetic, but it shows you care about the pet’s outcome. The second part however is where this line truly shines. By highlight that the situation sucks, you not only re-direct their anger and fear and emotion to the situation and away from you, but you acknowledge their feelings, and you give them permission to say “YES, it does suck!”- which they often do emphatically.

This re-direct is a great way to deal with these clients that have emotional ‘spill over' and aren’t truly jerks.
Stressed Clients:
Stress causes people to be unable to think rationally, makes them less able to take in information, and less able to process information and situations. When clients are stressed either from their animal’s condition, or life in general and their pet being sick is the the last straw, they can come across as rude, dismissive, angry, or mean. They can make snide comments, they can be impatient, and they can be critical.

What these clients need is someone to take some of their stress away. They have so much going on the thought of one more thing on their plate is just too much. They are suffering from Decision Fatigue, and they can’t process.

The best way to decrease the stress of these clients is to take CONTROL. They need someone that they can trust in, and have confidence in, so that they can give up the control of this stress in their lives. You do this by giving them a clear, specific plan, so that one less decision has to be made.

Clear, direct & specific recommendations are what these clients need! Timelines and a plan for re-assessment also help, as it gives the owner a period of time where they can ‘forget’ about the problem.

“OK, here’s the plan: We will keep Fluffy in hospital, we will try ___(depends on the condition)___, and if Fluffy is no better in 24 hours, or gets any worse, then we will pursue ___(depends on the the condition)___. Are you OK with this plan?”

This gives the owner a clear plan, and a clear idea of timeline, and plan for if the initial plan doesn't work. The owner can relax with this one aspect of their lives, knowing there is a plan, and an ongoing plan, and a timeline for re-assessment.

This not only relieves stress from the client, but this strategy also increases compliance. Compliance increases by 40% with clear recommendations!

A clear plan and recommendations displays confidence and competence, and allows the owner to trust you with the control of their pet’s care.
Guilty Clients:
Clients that are fighting with guilt are some of the most difficult clients because their stress, their fear, and their guilt, are very hard to break through. These are the clients that either accidentally poisoned their animals, ran their pets over with a car, missed a chronic illness, don't have the finances to treat their pet, or various other reasons.

Guilt transforms how you feel others are perceiving you, so often these clients come into the clinic and think that they are being judged and criticized by the veterinary team. They have their back up against a wall, and this defensiveness makes them go on the attack. This can come off as anger, attempting to re-direct the guilt on the veterinary team (especially when it comes to finances), inability to make decisions which can then be displayed as not trusting your team and being critical, amongst other bad behaviours.

The big part of dealing with guilty clients is to remove their feelings that you are judging them.

“You obviously love Fluffy very much, and want the best for Fluffy.”

Acknowledging that they do love their pet, and you can see that, takes the worry from owners that you might think they are a ‘bad pet owner’.

“One of the most wonderful things about dogs is that they don’t feel sorry for themselves, and that unfortunately means that they don’t show us they sick until they are very sick, so it is often impossible to catch diseases early.”

“Most often even chronic diseases present suddenly, because animals are so good at hiding their diseases.”

These lines are great when animals present with chronic illness, and owners feel guilt for either not seeking care sooner, or not noticing sooner.

“These things happen to the all of us. My own dog has ___(ex. Eaten socks)__ no matter how much I try to prevent it.”

“You don’t know what you don't know, and we know you never meant to hurt Fluffy by giving it Ibuprofen. All we can do is move forward from here.”

Addressing that owners didn't mean to injure their pet, or that sometimes animals just do stupid things, eat stupid things, run in the road, etc. helps take some of the guilt away. Normalizing the situation by saying that it happens to you too, and you are a veterinary professional, makes them feel less guilty, and less stupid.

“I understand that financially this is a big commitment, and the prognosis is ___. It is OK if you don’t want to pursue treatment at this point.”

“Fluffy is very sick, and the treatment needed is intensive. This treatment requires a large emotional and financial commitment, and we cannot guarantee a positive outcome. Choosing to not pursue treatment and opting for euthanasia is an OK choice to make at this point, and one that we will support 100%.” “Animals don’t have a concept of their own identity, so as long as they aren't suffering that’s the most important thing. Any decision you choose that means that Fluffy isn't in pain is an OK option to pursue, and we will will support it.”

“Whether or not you choose to pursue treatment for this condition is a personal one, and you need to consider the time, emotional and financial commitment for this disease. Euthanasia at this point is unfortunately an option we need to consider.”

These lines are great for animals that either are severely injured, or have severe disease conditions that have a poor prognosis. Letting owners know it’s OK to not pursue treatment is important, as they will often feel that the veterinary team will judge them if they don't do ‘everything’. Ensure they know you will support them with any decision, as this removes a huge amount of guilt from owners when they feel bad about not wanting to pursue treatment, especially due to finances.

For the more aggressive owners that try to re-direct their guilt at lack of finances on you, with comments such as “how can you justify charging that much?” Or “so you will make me kill my dog if I can’t pay?” and other such comments..

“I understand that you are upset, and that financially this can be difficult because Fluffy’s condition is severe and will require intensive treatment, so the costs do add up. Unfortunately there is no medicare for animals, and treatment does require payment.

Let’s work together with what you can pursue financially to get the best possible outcome for Fluffy.”

“I understand that you are upset, however owning an animal is a responsibility, including a financial responsibility. Medical care costs money, and therefore we do require payment for any treatment we perform.

Although ideally we would do all of these tests and treatments, if you let me know your financial limit then we can work together to try to focus on how we can best manage Fluffy's condition with the resources we have.”

“Medical care costs money and I can't change that.

I would like to work with you, and with your financial resources available, to try to get the best possible outcome for Fluffy. Although it’s not ideal, and carries risks, we can try ___, and see how Fluffy does.”

Being strict and confident in stating that medicine costs money and it is the owner’s responsibility, showing that you won't be bullied/guilted, and then following up with a more empathetic response on what we can do next, helps to take control of the situation. You want to be strict in that you won’t leave discussion open to nit-picking/fighting about your fees, but also show that you want to be on ‘team Fluffy’ when getting the best possible outcome.
Overall, these clients can often be diffused with acknowledging and addressing their emotions, and re-directing their emotion to the situation and away from you, the veterinary professional.

For more blogs on dealing with particular types of difficult clients, see blogs on Dangerous Clients, Bully Clients, Manipulative Clients, “I Know Better” Clients and General Tips on Difficult Clients along with Self Preservation When Dealing with Difficult Clients.
Written by Dr. Ann Herbst BSc, DVM

Published April 5th, 2021

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

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