Clients are not your friends


Friends and family bring a lot of great things to our personal lives, but they also bring stress.

Friends and family bring a lot of great things into our personal lives, but they also bring stress. For example, my wife is days away from giving birth to our second child. While she has been amazing through the past nine months, the reality is that spending time with a pregnant woman can be a bit like spending time in a field full of landmines. I recently explained this to the manager at the grocery store when I found the entire ice cream section off-limits after a freezer malfunction. He was about 18 and had no idea why I was so upset. He'll learn someday.

I care deeply about the anxieties and problems of my family and friends. The exhaustion and discomfort my wife experiences daily are things that I internalize and carry around with me. Her happiness and her perception of me affect how I see myself as a person and a spouse. When my friends struggle or ask for advice, I take their concerns on my shoulders and roll them around in my mind as I cook dinner, brush my teeth and read princess stories to my daughter. I take these stresses on because I love these people and because they are important in my life. But when a client causes that stress, that's another story.

A client with two faces

Recently, a client started visiting the clinic on a regular basis. She had brought home a new puppy, and I helped her work through her puppy wellness visits, a few behavioral bumps, a spay and some inappropriate urination problems. She has a great dog, treats the clinic's staff well and follows recommendations religiously. She lives near one of our technicians and always talks to her and high-fives her children when they're out in the neighborhood. I like this lady and I'm happy when she walks in the door.

This client was in the clinic recently, and we were addressing her pup's new affinity for urinating on expensive furniture. We laughed, she let her dog lick her mouth to the point that I got a little queasy and we generally had a good time. She elected to start a common antibiotic while awaiting diagnostic results.

Things changed a bit the next day. My receptionist came to me five minutes before closing. She said the client was on the phone, she wasn't happy and she wanted to come in. I asked the receptionist to tell her that I'd wait for her if she came right away. I was wrapping up the last of my paperwork when I heard her walk in and say: "Yeah, the pills Roark gave me yesterday f***ed up my dog!"

"Surely she's joking," I thought. "She can't be swearing at the front desk about anything an antibiotic did to her dog." I expected her to high-five me for waiting for her rather than blow up in the waiting room.

The exam went fine, other than the fact that she refused to look at me and swore that nothing could've caused her dog's behavioral change besides the single dose of antibiotic from the previous night. I did everything I could to pacify and educate this concerned and angry client before she walked out of the clinic without paying for the exam or any of the supportive care we provided. Three days later she called to mention that the dog was doing much better and that she remembered the patient might have fallen out of a van and landed on her neck shortly after receiving the antibiotic.

The aftermath

As I stood in the waiting room and watched the client drive away, I asked myself how deeply this person's anger would affect me. It's possible for me to let something like this wreck an entire weekend—especially when I'm so adept at devising creative ways to blame myself for medical phenomena over which I have no control. As I pondered my role in this patient's condition, two hard-learned lessons floated back to me:

1. You're never as good—or bad—as clients think you are. I once talked to a college professor about the reviews he got from students. He said that the key to taking feedback is to remember that no matter what you do, 10 percent of people will think you walk on water and 10 percent will think you're the worst person they've ever met. Neither group is right, so remove both from consideration and use the rest of the feedback to improve what you're doing. He was right. Don't let the clients who love you or those who despise you control your self-image or self-confidence.

2. Clients are clients, not friends or family. As a general rule, I like my clients. There are some clients I adore. I go the extra mile for them, check on them from time to time and visit their homes if they want me to perform euthanasia in that setting. But they're not my friends or my family.

Lesson learned

The difference between clients and friends is that friends don't pay me for my time during the majority of our interactions. I say the majority because I do have friends who bring their pets to me. Secondly, clients have a nasty habit of substituting entitlement for friendship and becoming very upset when they feel let down. And finally, while I accept the stress of family and friends, I choose not to take the emotions and frustrations of clients home with me.

Obviously, I hold onto the positive energies that clients bring for as long as I can, and some experiences I simply can't hang up with my white coat before clocking out. For the most part, I give my clients my best when I'm at work, I make sure they know who to go to if problems arise before I return to the clinic, and then I go home, making sure to pick up ice cream on the way.

Dr. Roark is an associate veterinarian in Leesburg, Va.

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