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"He never eats scraps" (And other lies clients tell)
Why do clients pretend they gave medication, swear their pup stays on a leash, or claim their cat never goes outside?
Every day clients lie. In fact, 99 percent of team members say clients have lied to them, according to a 2007 VetMedTeam.com survey. Sometimes it's a nuisance, often it's humorous, and occasionally it's nearly fatal.
Illustration by Jennifer Taylor
So what do clients lie about? Their ability to pay for services and what they feed their pets top the list, according to the survey. Other lies include what they were told by another veterinary practice, previous care they provided for their pet, and their pet's current health and vaccination status.
White lie or big fib, it's no fun to be on the receiving end of these untruths—especially when they challenge your ability to offer the care pets need. Here's a look at why clients lie and what you can do when they let loose with the whoppers.
Lies about care
It might not make you feel better, but clients really aren't trying to hurt your feelings when they pull a Pinocchio. Here's why most clients prevaricate about their pets' care and how you should respond:
- They forgot. Sometimes people just honestly forget things. And while forgetfulness hardly qualifies as a lie, the effects are the same.
Generally, it helps if there's a spouse or child along to remind them: "No mommy, he pooped on the bed three times yesterday." To trigger lagging memories, enlist several team members to repeat the question throughout the visit. The first time, the question gets the client thinking, and the second or third inquiry will likely elicit a more truthful answer.
- They feel embarrassed. Some clients aren't good observers, and to avoid the embarrassment of explaining they don't know how often their cat vomits, they'll make something up. Or they feel responsible for their pet's condition, and they're too ashamed to admit they didn't act to prevent it. These simple lies—often irrelevant to us—take the form of excuses: "I've been so busy with my daughter's wedding I forgot to bring Chester in for his vaccinations."
Just let these clients off the hook. You can nod and say, "Yes, I have kids, too." That may be it all it takes for the client to feel absolved. Then you can move on to how you can help Chester.
- They feel guilty. Guilt is an extension of embarrassment, which usually occurs when owners bear some blame for their pet's condition and they're trying to protect themselves emotionally. Literally, these clients can't handle the truth, so they may claim they were more compliant with prescribed medications. Or they forget or exaggerate symptoms to make themselves look better. We often see lies of guilt between husbands and wives. They blame each other for excessively feeding their dog treats and deny any personal responsibility for their pet's obesity. Meanwhile, the arthritic 42-pound Beagle sits between them, evidence of their dishonesty.
This type of lie becomes important when it blurs the duration of symptoms, severity of the disease, or medications administered. The most common manifestation of this lie is the phrase, "He wasn't like this yesterday."
There are times when we, purposefully or not, inspire clients to lie. We don't want to make the client feel guilty because she failed to offer the right care—even if it was a better option to treat that pyometra last week or the ear infection last month. Even when we're justified, criticizing clients doesn't help—it only puts them on the defensive. And once you've bent their trust with feelings of guilt, you lose the chance to treat the patient. So instead, appreciate the fact that the client and patient are in your exam room now and focus on treating the pet.
- They want to please us. Since we praise people when they care for their pets successfully, they often seek approval by exaggerating their compliance. "I gave the ear medicine every two hours around the clock just like you said." One look at the dry, crusty ear makes you suspect otherwise. Be gentle with these clients and praise them for what they did do correctly while encouraging improved compliance. "You did well, Mrs. Dippety, and let's see if a liquid drop will work better than an ointment."
- They feel pressured. We can encourage lies when we pressure clients. We insist the pet has a particular diet, shampoo, or medication when the client doesn't want it. If the client bows to pressure and takes the recommended item, you can be certain she won't use it or will lie about it at the next visit—if there is a next visit. After all, pressure from the team is a common reason clients switch practices. If you want to lose clients, just make them feel guilty.
So when you make recommendations, simply offer what you believe is the best option for the pet, whether it's an Elizabethan collar, a prescription diet, or an ear flush. Repeat your recommendation until you're sure the client understands. Then if the client refuses, accept her response gracefully and move on.
We can also encourage clients to lie by speaking over their heads. When you ask, "Has Heidi micturated without problems?" your client will shake his head and mumble, "Don't think she ever has since we had her." So speak simply, using words an 8 year old can understand. This way, you earn answers fashioned to make the client look good. And don't forget to explain the educational handouts you give—they their lose value if clients don't understand them.
Lies about money
Ever heard clients say, "Go ahead with treatment—money's no object"? The phrase they're omitting: "Because I'm not gonna pay it." I call this accounts deceivable. This is the most frustrating lie because it's a verbal theft of your time and services. These lies cost the practice money and destroy your bond of trust with the client. And the bad feelings these situations stir up spread through the clinic and disrupt your day.
We can help prevent accounts deceivable by informing and updating clients about the cost of care purposefully and emphatically. From the first phone call and the written estimate to updates on the pet's condition, talk about fees. Medical care costs money, and clients should know how much. If you deliberately communicate costs to clients, you'll experience fewer arguments about payment and less accounts deceivable. The liars you haven't silenced? Professional service thieves.
Yes, there are people who live by not paying their bills. Misunderstanding the costs associated with your care is just one of many excuses—among bounced checks and forgotten credit cards—these thieves use to avoid paying. To the professional service thief, veterinary practices are easy pickings. These thieves prey on our overriding concern for pets and generally lax collection policies.
To thwart these thieves, tighten your estimate policy. Estimates or treatment plans will minimize clients' opportunity to misunderstand their bill—particularly if they sign these documents. And give constant updates on their pet's condition and any added tests and procedures.
It's also a good idea to secure deposits. Plan to secure deposits of at least 50 percent of the estimate for new clients and costly cases. This way, you'll have fair warning whether the client will try to shirk the bill later.
If you get burned anyway, forget about it and move on. You improved a pet's life and were treated badly for it, but don't let it sour your day. Just flag these owners in the computer so you don't serve them again, eat some chocolate, and continue with your good work.
Now go one step further
So you've implemented the basic strategies to encourage clients to tell the truth, and still you suspect a client is dishonest. What can you do?
- Have someone else ask. Sometimes another team member can uncover a more truthful story. What's that team member's secret? How she presents the information. So if you're not comfortable talking to clients, listen closely to how your experienced mentors relate.
- Measure it. If a client says she hasn't seen any fleas on her pooch, use the flea comb and see who's right. If you are, refrain from accusations or you'll prompt guilt. Instead, focus on the problem you're trying to resolve.
- Communicate. Communication is often at the root of most conflicts with clients. If you suspect any dishonesty, talk to the client. Clear up any misunderstandings before they escalate. A little sugar always inspires cooperation, so sprinkle it on clients whenever you can.
And don't worry. Most of your clients are honest people, and most of the misunderstandings you share are exactly that. For the few purposeful lies you encounter, most aren't too serious and don't affect the patient's care. For those that are serious, you must ferret out the truth, which will challenge your communication skills. But don't let the few problem clients contaminate your feelings for the wonderful clients and their pets you enjoy serving. A great lie isn't worth ruining your day.
Craig Woloshyn, DVM, owns Animal Medical Clinic in Spring Hill, Fla., and is a consultant with Sun Dog Veterinary Consulting. Please send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org