10 ways to cope with grumpy pet owners


Use these tips to cope with cranky clients and find better ways to communicate for better pet health.


The world is full of cranky people. And all of them seem to own pets. Of course, that's a huge exaggeration. But I'm willing to bet we all have days where that feels 100 percent correct. 

Today's life is stressful. People face economic challenges while balancing work and family responsibilities in a juggling act extraordinaire. Most of our difficult clients are simply overwhelmed in general. But if we aren't able to handle them with grace, we quickly become just as overwhelmed as they are. If our percentage of cranky clients rises too high it translates into low staff morale and faster burn out. 

Empowering everyone in the practice with strategies to cope with those clients in the less-than-congenial category can not only decrease staff stressors but even lower the incidence of escalated confrontations.


Why are they cranky?

Once upon a time, when a client seemed the slightest bit aggravated, team members would run to me to report, “Mr. Loudo is yelling about his bill and wants to see you!” More often than not, I would find that Mr. Loudo was only yelling because he didn't think anyone was listening. And he only needed to see me because he wasn't getting any answers. Our team had developed what I called combat aversion. The slightest question or resistance from any client prompted them to run for help. 

There are always going to be those certain things that have to be handled higher up the chain of command. But everyone in the practice should be empowered to communicate without fear. These aren't secret tactics. This is just a matter of good service. Understanding how managers handle conflicts often gives the entire team the confidence to speak to clients with greater assurance. This translates into much smoother communication overall.

As a practice team, we routinely discuss tactics for coping with stressful clients while always seeking better ways to communicate effectively. Often, after some discussion, you will learn that your client's frustrations are centered more on communication and understanding issues than any real anger. Instead of viewing cranky clients as scary, try to encourage your team to view them as mysterious: Why are they cranky and how can we help? Keeping the following communication tools in mind can often extinguish most fires before they rage out of control:



1. Listen with your heart. Clients often yell because they think no one is listening to them. You can't listen with your mouth open. So take a moment to really listen to what they're saying. If you speak calmly, nine out of 10 times they will, too. We never suggest that a client calm down. No one wants to be told they've lost their composure. Listen quietly until your client is done speaking before attempting to reply.



2. Offer red carpet service-even when you don't want to. You may wear many hats, but one of the most important elements of every team member's job is to provide excellent service. If you're doing this first, everything else falls into place behind it. When in doubt, ask yourself, “Am I providing the best service for this client?” If you're not, figure out how to remedy that. 

Avoid cut-and-dry pronouncements like, “This is our policy.” If you're willing to argue over the ridiculous or trivial, you aren't providing anyone good service. 



3. Don't fixate on the money. Providing high-quality service has nothing to do with money. And refunding money is rarely the answer. Instead, provide the highest quality service  for the money-and in some cases you may have to raise the bar. Few people expect services to be cheap, but everyone expects value and fairness. 


4. Understand and appreciate grief. Grief can often play an important role in highly emotional displays from angry or upset clients. Understand the steps of the grieving process. Recognize what phase your client may be in and try to be empathetic to their position. Though you may be a target, often you aren't the source of their frustration. 


5. Ask questions. Remind your client, “My job is to help you.” Then ask, “How can I help you to resolve this?” Sometimes people want to vent-and not everyone is an articulate communicator. Giving the conversation direction by saying, “Tell me what you would like me to do,” often changes the tone. Keep in mind, it doesn't mean in all cases clients will get their way.



6. Know when to use alternative communication. Some clients aren't receptive to communication because they can't listen themselves. These clients may benefit from a letter or an email where you're able to explain without interruption for their digestion. This can backfire-as anything written can be used against you-so don't use this unless you're confident with your written presentation skills. 


7. Call for back up. If you feel you're getting nowhere with someone, offer to have someone call them later. A fresh person or perspective, coupled with a cool-down period, can be beneficial. 



Own your mistakes. Be capable of being wrong. If you're wrong, don't cover it up or lie. Own it. Admit it, apologize and make it right. You can't put a price on integrity. 


9. Know when to part ways. There are those rare instances where a client is so combative or noncompliant that they create more havoc and disruption than they're worth. Consider whether their behavior or the chemistry between you may not be conducive to a positive client and patient relationship. In these cases, asking them to move on to another practice is in everyone's best interest.



10. Protect your team. If for any reason a client threatens violence or risks the safety of the team, don't hesitate to call 911.

Recognize that some people are better communicators than others-and this includes your team and your clients. Although it's important to encourage people to practice better communication strategies, it's also important to recognize that some personalities aren't as well-equipped to deal with certain challenges as effectively as others. 

It's just as crucial to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of your key people and don't place them in positions that will compromise the peace of your practice. Miss Smarty Pants should probably stay in the back counting inventory, walking dogs or just about any task other than helping Mr. Loudo at the check out counter.

Remember, we work for our clients. If we can't help them we're not succeeding at the most fundamental aspects of our position. Veterinary medicine is a service industry based on the confidence our patient's owners are able to consistently place in us. Every pet and every client is an individual, but people continue to visit your practice because of your ability to expand your common ground. Sometimes that task is as simple as speaking a common language of understanding. 

Kelley Ferguson-Greene is a practice manager at Countryside Animal Hospital in Alachua, Florida. 

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