4 hurtful statements clients make


Your client says, "You care more about my money than you do about my pet." How do you respond?

You've all heard the saying, "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me." But we let words hurt way too often. Clients say insensitive, hurtful things, that we let get under our skin and ruin a perfectly good day.

The emotions they rouse spill over into our work and lead us to mistreat our co-workers. We let them adversely affect our relationships and our marriages, even our desire to be with those we love. We, in turn, make hurtful comments to those we love and care for in response to the way we were treated. We let others direct our lives down a negative path.

The good news: We can control how we respond to unkind or even threatening communication. Most insensitive comments stem from complainers' personal problems, traumas, and challenges that we know nothing about—pressures that manifest themselves in the form of negative comments.

Within each complaint, however maligned the source, there's a kernel of truth that can ultimately benefit us—if we take the time to look for it and then to properly analyze and assess it. Here are some of the most common hurtful things that clients say, the motivation behind the words, and some guidelines to effectively deal with conflict.

1. You charge too much

"I spend more on my dog's medical bills than on my own."

"I can get this down the road for half what you charge."

Complaints about money surely top the list of nasty things clients say to us. But generally, clients are just letting off innocent steam. Instead of letting these little darts get to you, try making the exchange humorous. Train your team to keep smiling when these inevitable comments pop up. Prepare some responses such as, "Well, at least you don't have to pay for their college education or buy them a car," or, "Just think how much money you saved by not having to pay for Sandy's wedding."

Don't fret over these usually innocent complaints. In fact, if you're not receiving at least weekly gripes about price, you're probably charging too little. Many of our clients are value-centered consumers. They want the best care possible for a fair price. They know and expect that the best care will be more expensive than a lower-quality clinic.

Communication tactics : Side with your critics

Clients wouldn't feel comfortable taking their pets to what they perceived was an inferior veterinary hospital. Yet they want you to know that they wished you were cheaper. The truth is, even if you lowered your fees 50 percent or more, you'd still get complaints about price. As long as the complaint isn't tied to your service, you're going to be fine.

If the complaint is linked to a comment about poor or indifferent service; inattention by staff or doctors; or poor medical, surgical or diagnostic care, you'd better pay close attention. Pure price complaints are a part of dealing with the general public whereas criticism of your service is a call to action.

2. Your service was bad

"Did you even feed my cat while he was here? I can't believe how poorly you took care of my cat!"

These comments can be tricky. In almost every service-centered complaint, however absurd or exaggerated (and I've heard some doozies), there's generally a tiny bit of truth. So first look for personal culpability—what did you do to cause or contribute to the complaint? Own it. Now learn from it so it doesn't happen again. It isn't a debate—it's an opportunity to make yourself and your team better.

Regardless of how stellar your facility, impeccable your service, and outstanding your reputation, people feel guilty about leaving their pets with someone else. Therefore, the root cause of the complaint is guilt. By understanding that, you can frame your response to better deal with the root cause and more effectively resolve the conflict. (See a sample conversation with a client above.)

Practical Applications

Prepare your team by scripting and role-playing real-life scenarios. And anytime service is brought into question, assume the client is right and investigate what you could've done better. By accepting responsibility and using an evidence-based angle in a compassionate and nonthreatening manner, you can defuse most complaints and owners walk away feeling comfortable with the service they received and the professional way you handled their complaint.

3. You don't care

"You care more about my money than you do about my pet."

This one drives a stake into the heart of every veterinarian or veterinary healthcare provider. These clients are angry, really angry, and are digging deep to get you where they feel you're most vulnerable—and they're right on target. We entered this profession not in pursuit of vast riches (which there aren't) but because we love animals.

So why would someone attack us in such a direct and injurious manner? In part, it's to absolve themselves of guilt. Often you're dealing with a client who can't or won't pay for recommended treatment. To avoid personal accountability, they redirect the responsibility to us and shift the blame to our pursuit of economic gain over emotional responsibility. Transference of guilt is one of the oldest tricks in the book.

Practical Applications

It still doesn't make you feel good. So how do you deal with it? First, realize you didn't create the situation. It wasn't your inattention that let the dog run out of the yard and get hit by a car. You didn't fail to give the recommended heartworm preventive. You're offering to help. And in order to help, there's a relationship that hinges on the transfer of economic power (money) for professional services and products. Without compensation, you won't be able to sustain your economic enterprise, your practice—or be able to protect your most important asset—your team.

In short, you limit your ability to provide optimal care for your caring, and paying, clients. This is a serious threat. Our profit margins in veterinary practice are already dangerously low. If you give away $400 in "free services," you'll have to generate an average of $1,600 to $2,000 in new sales to cover the loss. That's just to get back to zero.

Ignore personal insults about how much you care in a heated exchange, and don't refer back to them in the conversation. You'll sound confrontational and defensive. You're more likely to misspeak while tense and emotional—and a slip-up can be devastating. So stick to the original merits of your argument, and collaborate with upset clients to help them find a solution.

See the box on the left for an example of how I handled a client who accused me of not caring about her pet enough. When clients criticize how much I care, I don't try to win an argument or convince them who's right. I just try to provide care for patients and receive payment for my services so I can support our staff and facility. Does it make me a less compassionate veterinarian? I believe you should take care of those that take care of you first—your staff and paying clients. Anything less, and I'll ask you to carefully examine your priorities.

It isn't easy dealing with confrontations. Most often you'll find a compromise and everyone is happy. If not, you can't let it affect the way you practice medicine. Doing so lessens the value of veterinary medicine and lowers the value that people place on the priceless relationship we share with our pets.

By caring for those who care for us, we're better able to do what we truly desire—help patients. Don't take the path of least resistance unless it benefits your team and your purpose.

4. I won't see him/her

"I've come here for years, and Dr. Ward never charged me for that!"

"I never want to deal with that girl again. She's rude and uncaring, and my dog doesn't like her."

Again, regardless of the specific complaint, if service or policy is brought into question, assume you're wrong, and dig deeper to get the truth. These complaints often result from lack of trust or complete confidence in a select few.

Practical Applications

When I hear a complaint that a client will only see Dr. A, or doesn't want to see a specific team member, I ask myself what created the situation. Did something negative transpire between the two parties? While you respect the client's wishes, start getting the story behind the request. The next time you see the client, excuse your staff member and address the issue openly. (See the box on the right for a sample conversation.)

When threats arise

Of course, if a client becomes threatening or abusive while voicing a complaint, you must disengage from the discussion. Here are ways to disengage:

  • "You've made some good points. I need some time to think about them."

  • "I think we agree on more than we appear to. Let's take some time to ponder it on our own."

  • "Mr. Jones, thank you for your comments. I'll need some time to consider what action is appropriate."

Don't linger. These situations can escalate unexpectedly. The sooner you excuse yourself, the less likely you'll say something you'll regret or behave unprofessionally. Besides, continuing the argument only further polarizes the client and increases the chances they'll seek restitution through other means.

Listen up

Most complainers just want to be heard. Once they've vented and they see that you remain interested in solving their dilemma and that you're calm and caring, they'll often begin to negotiate. Here are a few ways to become an active listener and show you're interested in what they have to say:

  • Keep nonthreatening eye contact.

  • Listen more than you speak.

  • Nod in agreement when appropriate and acknowledge that you understand what they're saying.

Again, you're trying to analyze each complaint for the core message; what's the client really upset about? Disregard all of the personal jabs and accusations and get to the root of the problem. You'll find the majority will fall into one of the categories above.

When clients can't get to rationalization, don't try to win a debate. If they choose to leave, you're better off without them. You simply can't satisfy everyone—no one is that good.

I find complaints tremendously valuable. I dissect and learn from them. Sure, I'll be upset—but I usually give myself an hour to deal with it and then make myself move on. No more verbalizing, venting, or negatively impacting those around me by continuing to dredge up these hurtful experiences. Develop your own coping mechanism and protect those around you from toxic-energy infections. Your patients, clients, staff, and family will thank you.

Of course, the real secret to dealing with complaints is to prevent them. So equip your staff members to communicate effectively and head off complaints by training and performing role-playing exercises. But for the remainder of real life, accept that you're still going to endure at least some complainers. Have fun and smile through it, and don't let the exceptions make your rules.

Success Strategies

16 ways to resolve conflict

Use these tips to change client confrontations into useful collaborations.

1. Maintain eye contact. If you look away too often during the conversation, you're sending the wrong message. Maintaining regular eye contact—not a stare-down—conveys interest, responsiveness, and openness to the client.

2. Use your eyebrows. The more animated your eyebrows, the more outgoing, friendly, and engaging you appear. The best way to express a positive thought is to raise your eyebrows. Your entire face lifts and you portray a message of "I'm open to what you have to say."

3. Your eyes show emotion. Widen your eyes for interest or passion. This is a welcoming sign for others. When you narrow your eyes, you're saying, "I don't believe you" or "I don't agree with you."

4. Smile! Make sure your smile is genuine. Don't fake a smile if you don't feel it. If you don't feel like smiling at clients, you probably shouldn't be seeing them. A warm and inviting smile can go a long way toward defusing a tense situation.

5. Hold your head up when you're talking. It demonstrates interest and conveys that you're warm and friendly.

6. Maintain good posture. Slouching, however subtle, sends a subconscious signal that you're disengaged and disinterested.

7. Think openness. When it comes to your body, always think open, not closed. Limit crossing of your arms and legs; these postures indicate that you're close-minded and disengaged.

8. Relax your body. Don't tap your feet or fingers when someone is talking. Relaxation says that you're interested and taking the time to listen. Nervous jitters indicate, "Hurry up. I've got to go." Or, "I really don't like this conversation." Remember to relax your face as well. A tight face often causes a wrinkled or furrowed brow and narrowed eyes—indications of disinterest.

9. Use clients' and patients' names. The friendliest word in the world is a person's name. So use them—but don't overuse them. And always introduce yourself.

10. Analyze your voice. Record yourself talking to clients with a video or audio recorder. Once you get used to hearing your voice played back to you, you can begin to improve it.

I recommend studying people with friendly and warm voices. What is it about them that conveys those feelings? Don't copy them, but break it down into data that you can apply to your own speaking style.

When we're upset or anxious, our vocal quality changes. Our tone often raises and our rate of speaking increases—both indicators that we're uncomfortable with the situation. Videotape yourself and role-play unexpected and stressful conversations to better prepare for the inevitable. I'm not a fan of the "trial by fire" school of learning. Too often, we get burned before we learn how to handle the heat.

Tim Sanders and other communication experts recommend that you don't match your tones with other people when they're unfriendly, upset, or angry. Maintain a calm, friendly tone even when you're faced with severe negativity.

11. Be seated whenever possible. When you're communicating from a seated position, clients perceive that you have plenty of time to listen to their concerns. Being seated also has the added benefit of being a nonverbal cue that when you stand it's "time to go" or move on to another part of the exam.

12. Demonstrate genuine interest and concern in the client's complaint. Clients respond more favorably to doctors who they feel truly care for them and their pets and have their best interests in mind.

13. Explain "why?" to clients. Clients are more likely to comply with recommendations when they understand why something is needed. Speak in plain, simple language and reinforce the benefit to the client and patient. "Mrs. Smith, if you use these eye drops every eight hours, we should be able to clear up Scooter's eye infection and the discomfort it's causing by the end of the week."

14. Acknowledge your client's concerns, no matter how trivial. Too often, we dismiss a client's concern because we, as medical professionals, can't fathom why someone would think that way.

When it comes to dental prophys, the primary reason that clients don't pursue them for their pets is the fear of anesthetic death. "Mrs. Smith, I understand your concerns for Fluffy. And you're absolutely right to be concerned about anesthesia. Anytime a person or pet is sedated or anesthetized, there is a slight chance that something could go wrong. I'd like to tell you what we do to minimize these risks because, like you, anesthesia is something that I worry about." Then go on to describe what you use for the procedure and why, your monitoring equipment, and your trained and experienced staff members.

By openly addressing the client's concerns, you have a better chance at compliance and allaying their fears. If you dismiss or ignore these issues, the client is less likely to comply and continues to harbor misinformed and misguided fear.

15. Use visual aids. Employ anatomical models and diagrams, or draw on a piece of paper—use whatever teaching tools you have available to better communicate the procedure or disease process. Many of the diseases we're explaining are complicated and involve concepts that most people are unfamiliar with, leading to misunderstandings and complaints.

16. Use written discharge instructions. Studies show that your clients retain less than 30 percent of your spoken conversation. So provide written information to augment your conversation. Be sure that the information is current, accurate, reflects your professionalism, and offers evidence-based reasons. This will help persuade a skeptical client.

Dr. Ernest E. Ward Jr., a Veterinary Economics Editorial Advisory Board member works at getting to the core of clients' complaints at Seaside Animal Care in Calabash, N.C., which he owns. Send questions or comments to ve@advanstar.com.

Dr. Ernest e. Ward jr

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