Getting to the Root of Client Complaints

Veterinarian's Money Digest®October 2017
Volume 1
Issue 4

Earning stellar practice feedback requires a team effort. Here's why practices receive negative online reviews — and how to prevent them.

A client needed an estimate for orthopedic surgery for his Labrador retriever. He called a practice and talked with a newly recruited receptionist. She misunderstood the request and quoted only the surgery fee. Thrilled by the price he was given, the client immediately made an appointment. As the surgery date approached, a nurse called him to explain the anticipated charges, which included anesthesia, medications, radiographs and other incidentals.

The irate client immediately turned to Yelp and posted a scathing review, accusing the practice of using bait and switch. Of course, the mistake was an innocent one resulting from the receptionist's inexperience, but the damage was done. Countless other clients will read the harsh review, which will only compound the mistake.

Jason Khoo, founder of Search Business Group, a California agency that helps veterinarians "get more clients through the door," recently put together a brilliant report that outlines the top 10 reasons veterinary hospitals get bad reviews.1 The report analyzed 1,000 Yelp reviews across 34 cities in Orange County to find the most common reasons for client grievances.

Why It Occurs: Not surprisingly, the No. 1 complaint by far (41 percent) involves financial concerns. Like it or not, veterinary medicine is a business, with practices staffed by people who enjoy a paycheck as much as anyone in any other industry. Most clients understand this fact. But, like the pet owner mentioned above, many clients lose their sense of fairness when they are surprised by an invoice that is higher than they expected.

How to Prevent It: Provide a detailed estimate that is carefully explained to the client before any service is rendered.

More than one-third (35 percent) of negative reviews are related to a bad experience with a veterinarian. Common complaints include a lack of communication skills, being (or seeming) uncaring and uninterested with patients, rushing appointments and making incorrect diagnoses. The report also includes an important quote: “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”

How to Prevent It: Khoo noted, “Clients want to make sure their animals are being well cared for by a veterinarian who understands not only the animal but also the family. Therefore, for the reputation of the business, it’s important to give the animal the best care and to foster the best relationship with the client.” Make clients feel welcome, which means the entire client-facing staff must have good verbal and nonverbal communication skills.

Veterinary medicine is a service industry, so customer service should be paramount. Yet almost one-third of bad reviews (30 percent) are related to poor quality of service, which includes boarding, grooming, physical exams, surgery and other treatments. Complaints after boarding include a pet’s poor appearance, weight loss, the odor of urine or a frightened look. Khoo points out, however, that “one-star reviews for grooming are not because of bad haircuts.” They are usually because the groomer didn’t listen to the client’s wishes or an injury occurred during grooming.

How to Prevent It: Whatever service is provided, send patients home looking just as good as — or better than — when they arrived. Be honest about issues that occurred during a pet’s stay. If the pet urinated on itself, make sure the pet is bathed, dried and brushed. Always write down special requests when admitting patients. If, during pet drop-off, the owner requests that a microchip be placed or a mass removed, make sure it gets done.

Over a quarter of bad reviews (27 percent) relate to a staff member being rude or having a poor attitude, either in person or over the phone. Some employees were seen taking personal calls instead of taking care of clients, for example. Remember, it takes only one bad apple to ruin someone’s experience.

How to Prevent It: Identify team members who have a poor attitude, and either retrain those individuals or invite them to explore other career opportunities. Make sure all employees understand the mission and core values of the practice. Choose team members who are excited and happy to come to work, which will translate into happier client experiences.

Medicine is not an exact science. Occasionally we make mistakes. Nineteen percent of bad reviews are related to an erroneous diagnosis. Clients feel angry because they may have spent a lot of money to reach the wrong diagnosis.

How to Prevent It: Swallow your ego, empathize, be honest and listen to concerns or frustrations. Encourage clients to get a second opinion when in doubt.

“Miscommunication can often lead to clients misunderstanding treatments and payments,” Khoo explained. Seventeen percent of bad reviews follow an experience with poor communication.

How to Prevent It: Make sure you or a team member provides a detailed estimate before care is provided. Explain what you are doing to a patient as you perform a physical exam. Use everyday words to make sure clients clearly understand what you are saying. Explain both your recommendations and the financial consequences.

The “ability to communicate on the phone is a lost art,” Khoo observed. So, it may be no surprise that 10 percent of bad reviews are written following a negative experience on the phone. People hate being placed on hold. A 5-minute hold time is unacceptable.

How to Prevent It: Respect basic phone etiquette: Be polite, cheerful, focused and respectful. Always ask for permission before putting someone on hold. If you anticipate a long wait, ask for a phone number to call back.

“People hate waiting, especially if they set an appointment,” said Khoo — but interestingly, he explained, “usually wait time isn’t the main factor that leads to a one-star review. Typically, a prolonged wait time starts the avalanche of other complaints.” For example, a long wait time may lead to a rushed appointment, which only compounds the client’s anger. Ten percent of negative reviews are triggered by such an experience.

How to Prevent It: Do everything in your power to stay on schedule. One veterinary study showed that 70 percent of pet owners become irritated after less than 15 minutes of waiting.1

Death is an inevitable reality in veterinary medicine and can be due to a pet’s old age, end-stage disease or monetary limitations. In any case, said Khoo,7 percent of “the reviewers are writing based off their emotions.” Pet owners are upset about their pet dying, but they’re sometimes even more upset about how the veterinary staff handles the situation.

How to Prevent It: Show empathy, and remember the power of the human-animal bond. Grieving is a process, and part of our job is to help clients survive it. We can ask how a client will cope with the loss or honor the pet’s passing. We can provide suggestions, if needed, so that the grieving process is as healthy as possible.

The final complaint in the report relates to facilities (6 percent of one-star reviews). Cleanliness and organization are very important for preventing infection. Unlike human health care facilities, however, veterinary practices are not held to cleanliness standards. Few practices employ a janitor and instead rely on technicians and receptionists to clean and organize the hospital. Poor reviews are posted after visits to a practice that smells like urine or feces, or that looks disorganized or cluttered.

How to Prevent It: Cleanliness and organization need to be top of mind for all practice employees. Paperwork should be tidy and “accidents” cleaned up promptly. A daily checklist is a good way to make sure everything gets cleaned regularly.

*Kelly Serfas, CVT, a technician in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, contributed to this article.

Dr. Zeltzman is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and serial entrepreneur. His traveling surgery practice takes him all over Eastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey. You can visit his websites at and​​​​​​​


  • Khoo, J. We looked at over 1000 veterinarians reviews. Here’s what we found. Search Business Group website: Published June 10, 2017. Accessed September 8, 2017.
Related Videos
© 2024 MJH Life Sciences

All rights reserved.