Handling common client complaints creatively

Our clients are always right…until they are abusive. This is my guiding principle when it comes to handling adverse client interactions. When managing the unmanageable, I have also taken to staring at a small plaque I keep on my desk that tells me, “Karma has no expiration date.” This little aphorism helps me employ empathy even as clients display their worst behavior. It helps me remember their misery does not have to be mine.

The good news is complaints do not faze me as much as they used to. Sure, I have my bad days, but the benefit of having practiced for decades means I have heard almost every complaint at least a few dozen times. They are not always communicated as complaints, exactly, but as you all probably know, clients have a way of announcing their displeasure in lots of not-so-subtle ways. Hence, how I have learned to get similarly creative in my efforts to talk them down off a ledge. Below are six of the most common examples I encounter.

1) ‘He’s a boy, doctor!’

I have not learned to get creative in a vacuum. Here is one I stole form an old timer:

When clients correct me on their pet’s XX or XY designation, I now ask them to forgive me and tell them we veterinarians are among the most “gender dyslexic” humans on the planet. I mean, can you blame us? It is not like our patients advertise their gender or care if we screw up.

Depending on the client, I will even call them out for naming their female German shepherd “Charlie” or “Killer.” I will say, “How am I supposed to remember that he’s a she? That’s your fault. You really should get her a pink collar.” (Insert a smile and a wink here if you value your client.)

2) Unexpectedly long wait times

Here is where smiling a lot, along with coffee and a tray of pastries really helps. “We know you’re waiting, so sorry … We had an all-hands-on-deck emergency. Please accept our apology. Would you care for a pastelito and some Cuban coffee?”

As in medicine, however, the best approach is to preempt and prevent the condition. So, when clients show up late or with three patients instead of one, calling the remainder of the day’s clients to let them know you are running late is always advisable. As is suggesting (gently) to those who complain the next time resources are unexpectedly diverted from scheduled appointments, it might be their pet benefiting from your triage protocols. One practice I know even has the definition of triage written boldly on their wall. Smart, right?

3) Price hikes and random sticker shock

Clients can be rude when it comes to prices. They say things like, “I don’t even pay that much for my dental care!” To which I want to say, “It shows!”… or ask them what they think they might be expected to pay if they waited until their geriatric years to see a dentist. We can’t exactly say those things, can we?

On price hikes, I used to explain how the prices on all our drugs, supplies, lab services, and payroll had skyrocketed, but that does not usually fly. Nowadays, when clients get especially rude (claiming they had financed my practice’s renovations with steep fees, for example), I tell them if what they claim were true, I would not still be paying off my student loans. That usually works. (Again, insert a big smarmy smile here.)

For the slightly less-annoying clients who nevertheless claim our prices are “insane,” I will sometimes invite them to check out nearby practices for comparison. I typically do not mind losing these clients and it is satisfying to give them a wee push out the door.

For those who simply intimate the prices are unexpected, I like to give a brief speech: “We’re committed to keeping up with the profession’s high standards, even pushing the envelope on what is possible for your pets. We’ve evolved a long way from where we once were as a profession, and we think our patients are absolutely worth it!” It is not so creative, but very much to the point. Said with another big smile (never defensively!), this kind of statement really works.

4) Bermuda Triangle lab results and callback black holes

Things fall between the cracks sometimes. It gets busy. We are not perfect. If things start to fall between the cracks in predictable patterns, we know for sure we are to blame. Since reporting lab results and calling back clients in an untimely fashion are our the two most typical client complaints, it is something we are working on. In the meantime, we employ the following tactics when clients call us out:

  • “Would you be willing to speak to another doctor right away?” At which point we scramble to get the first doc on the phone if the other is not there or in surgery, etc. (Here is where keeping good records does a lot for you.)
  • I like to ask clients to call if they have not received a callback on results by a certain date. This way, we share responsibility on the callback.
  • If a doc has Post-it’s all over their desk and they are falling behind, ask to delegate or otherwise address all callbacks by day’s end. Apologies and a promise to do better go a long way when returning calls. (As long as you follow through.)

5) Medication mistakes and sampling errors

Sometimes you have to suck it up, apologize, compliment services, and refund the cost of products and medications. When we have obviously messed up (as when meds are mislabeled or the lab cannot find a sample), or when it is unclear whose miscommunication led to a lapse in correct treatment (as when the “wrong” mass was surgically removed), the undeniably correct approach is to: apologize, compensate, and look forward to how we can do better.

Concentrating on the last one is crucial to how we discuss the issue with the client. Plus, it is always the veterinarian’s job to take responsibility—never to blame their team. The buck stops with us. Explaining the many ways in which we will use this experience as a teaching tool to prevent future mistakes may not seem creative, but it does require a certain degree of imagination and more than a little panache if you are to convince a client of your sincerity.

6) Unexpected deaths or serious complications

If there is one time when clients get a pass on their behavior, it is when their pet dies—more so when the death is unexpected and might be perceived by a layperson as the result of our inexperience, negligence, or shocking inability to foretell the future. How we handle these situations can leave a lasting impact, which is why it is never smart to get defensive or respond in kind. It is never the time to get too creative.

Regardless of how unfair the misperception may be, no matter what kind of language is used, clients deserve to vent. Staying cool in the face of abusive behavior under these conditions can be trying (to say the least), but the alternative is always worse. There is never a good time to tell an acutely grief-stricken client that language or behavior is unwarranted—physical violence excepted.

The best thing to do is to take the client into a quiet area and be as obsequiously transparent as possible. Any whiff of misdirection, opacity, or disingenuousness will only make things worse. Be your most genuine self. Tell them how sorry you feel and how sad you truly are. That will work 99 percent of the time.

You may disagree with my take on this last one. Perhaps you have acquired your own methods for handling all of the above, but the guiding principles should remain the same: Ignore obnoxious client behavior. Take one for the team whenever possible. Be generous with your time when resolving disputes. Employ empathy and always be truthful. Anything less will boomerang eventually. After all, karma never expires.

Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, owns a small animal practice in Miami, Fla. and is available at drpattykhuly.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.