How to handle hot-headed clients


Hear why it's better for veterinarians to roll over and play dead sometimes.

As I was finishing up a routine spay last week, I wondered how much of a challenge it would be to attempt one while blindfolded. Just as I was about to give it some serious thought, one of the office staffers interrupted my daydreaming.


"Doctor, Mrs. Tantrum is on the telephone, and she won't stop yelling at me. She says that her dog got fleas at our hospital, and she wants to bring it over right now for us to get rid of them. Also, she's not going to pay us a penny because she says it's all our fault."

Ah! Finally, a challenge had presented itself. I headed for the phone while conjuring up a mental image of some red-faced client foaming at the mouth in anticipation of our conversation. In situations like this, it can be hard to resist the Cro-Magnon urge to pick up the phone and give clients the business with both barrels. However, in this type of confrontation, the best defense is not necessarily a good offense. I decided to defuse her with understanding.

"Hello, Mrs. Tantrum. This is Dr. Obenski. What can I do for you?" I tried to sound as cheery as possible.

"Doctor, I had our poodle in to see you when we first got her, and you said she was perfectly healthy at the time. I specifically asked you if she had fleas, and you said that she did not."

I knew my next line would be critical.


"And now, Bugsy has fleas. She got them at your hospital. She was spayed there six weeks ago. When we came to pick her up, there was a dog there with a rash. Fleas from that dog must have jumped onto our precious Bugsy."

I chose my next comment with great care.


"We can't let this go on any longer. We want to bring the dog over for you to fix this problem."

An hour later, Bugsy was in my office. Luckily, there was not a flea to be found. Mrs. Tantrum had to admit that she had never actually seen a flea, vindicating my clinic and me, much to her chagrin. She was probably still apologizing half-way home.

It seems to me that people are more aggressive than they used to be. Maybe they're reading more books like "Winning Through Intimidation." Unfortunately, in their zeal to assert themselves, people often lose sight of the most important rule of communication. That is, engage brain before moving mouth.

In my office, we counteract the aggressive client by using a technique that we call "victory through surrender." The basic idea is to simply roll over and play dead. We remain polite, never argue and are always glad to give a hothead all the rope he needs to hang himself. I usually wind up with an apologetic client who may even think he has won an argument. However, we retain the goodwill that secures future business, and that is the true victory.

Soon after Mrs. Tantrum left, Mr. and Mrs. Conniption provided another great opportunity for victory through surrender. I was alone in my office one morning when Mrs. Conniption burst through the door and pointed at me.

"That's him!" she said to a man who was storming across the waiting room toward me. There was steam coming from his ears and one of my receipts clutched tightly in his hand. I suspected a confrontation. Although I have never actually had to subdue a client physically, there may have been times when a twitch or perhaps a burdizzo might have come in handy.

"My wife picked up our cat yesterday after you supposedly spayed her. We never gave any instructions that she be declawed. I think declawing is cruel!"

Mr. Conniption must get a kickback from the Excedrin company. He doesn't get headaches. He's a carrier. Now, let's see if you've been paying attention. Can you guess what I said next?


"And now, her claws are gone. You must have de-clawed her while she was here."

I diagnosed the problem instantly as a case of pet-owner stupidity and told him that we trimmed the nails during surgery. I explained that if he looked carefully he would find them. Did he apologize? No. But, by resisting the urge to point out that he resembled the southern end of the northbound equine, I retained the goodwill and the client.

Victory through surrender usually works. So, you may want to try it the next time you find yourself being charged by a rhino in your office. However, it wouldn't hurt to have a Taser handy either.

Dr. Obenski owns Allentown Clinic for Cats in Allentown, Pa.

For a complete list of articles by Dr. Obenski, visit

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