Sometimes you know that a client is upset before a complaint is made. Other times, a complaint catches you completely off guard. Sometimes the issue is described factually, and other times sheer emotion spills out. Some complaints are about big issues, others are smaller in scope. In some cases, the client complains to you directly. Other times, you read about their unhappiness on social media.
Regardless of the specifics, the question remains the same: how should you respond?
Step 1: Consider your overall goals
Typically, your goals would include satisfying the complaint and restoring your relationship with your client. Another goal may be to avoid a potential lawsuit if a client claims that you did not meet the standard of care. Keep those goals in mind as you respond.
Step 2: Listen carefully
If you are speaking to a client directly, give them uninterrupted time to share specifics about their complaint. Sometimes the act of respectfully listening to and documenting what is being said can significantly help calm a disgruntled client. This can be difficult to do when a client is angry, even if justifiably so, but the reality is that clients are allowed to be angry.
Listen for any hidden messages in what your client is saying. For example, a client may be focusing on an incident that was relatively minor. What you might be able to discern, however, is that they feel as though they do not get enough time and attention and that the specific incident is just a symptom of their dissatisfaction.
If a client places a complaint on your social media page, graciously acknowledge that you saw the comment and provide a telephone number and name for them to contact to discuss the complaint. The idea is to get the complaint off social media before many other people see it and take it into a private realm. Plus, you usually can quiet the waters more easily during a one-on-one conversation.
Step 3: Respond calmly with empathy
As tempting as it may be—after all, you have put plenty of time, energy, and love into your practice—avoid responding defensively or emotionally. Instead, paraphrase what you heard the client say, highlighting and prioritizing any key points; make sure that they agree with the content of the paraphrasing; then work with them to solve the problem.
Can a satisfactory resolution always be accomplished? Of course not, but that is the goal, and many times it can be achieved. This paraphrasing can help them see that you really were listening and confirm that you now have a mutual understanding of the issue.
Underlying problems can range from a client misunderstanding a diagnosis to a client hoping against hope for the best outcome. Sometimes your practice did all the right things, and other times you could have provided better service. No one is 100% on all the time.
Step 4: Explain thoughtfully—but do not apologize
It is important to help your client feel they were heard, but admitting to a mistake or otherwise apologizing can provide fodder for a potential malpractice suit. So, as tricky as it may seem, skip the apology and focus on providing a solution. As you discuss solutions, avoid medical jargon and answer their questions without rushing.
Practice philosophies, policies, and procedures
Explain to your staff that client complaints, even ones that may not be justified, are opportunities to communicate with the client and potentially improve the quality of the service your practice offers. Provide your staff with procedures for handling complaints and then role-play and discuss the established guidelines until they become second nature.
When creating policies for responding to social media posts, it is important to have a timeline for your response. If a client posts on your Facebook page, for example, a lack of an initial response—if only for a few hours—provides the unhappy client more time to brood and gives others who see your Facebook page time to wonder about the quality of service you provide. Acting quickly can help keep things as calm as possible.
To proactively reduce the number of complaints, obtain informed consent from each client. Give them an estimate of your fees and what those fees will cover, answer their questions before moving forward, and give them helpful written material for services that they may want to consider.
Suing a client for bad reviews
Much of what has been discussed can help protect your practice against a malpractice lawsuit. Sometimes, though, your practice may be considering a lawsuit against a complaining client. When, if ever, does that make sense?
No one likes to read a bad review about their practice—and it can be tempting to want to sue a client over an especially unpleasant or unfair one. Is that possible? The answer is yes, it is often possible to sue another person, although some cases are more likely to have merit than others. But how difficult would it be and is it advisable?
Online reviews are largely covered by the First Amendment, which gives individuals the right to free speech. And about 2/3 of the states in the US protect consumers with anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation) laws. These laws make it more difficult for businesses, including veterinary practices, to successfully sue someone for negative comments made about them.
There are, however, limits to what someone can say about your practice, regardless of how angry they might be. For example, if a client includes factually incorrect information in an online review or accuses you of doing things you have not done, this may be grounds for a defamation lawsuit. In other words, although stating factually correct information is covered under the First Amendment, falsehoods are not.
For example, if someone posts online that your practice charges too much, that would almost certainly be protected under the right of free speech because, in that person’s opinion, you do. However, if they falsely claim that you added a $200 surcharge to the bill because your practice does not like working with small dogs, that has the potential for a defamation lawsuit.
Defamation comes in 2 main forms: slander (spoken word) and libel (written word). Although states may have differing standards for what constitutes defamation, its main elements include false statements made that were claimed to be factual; these statements were relayed to a third party, which can include a social media platform; and you suffered harm because of the statements.
Note that the Communications Decency Act of 1996 would prevent your practice from suing the platform (such as Yelp or Google Reviews) for content that a client has written and posted.
If what someone has posted is causing you to consider taking legal action, first determine if the post would be covered by free speech. If it likely would not, then the next step would be to consider if a lawsuit would be worth the time and money needed to pursue the case. If the comments can be proven to be false and the statements made have caused significant harm to your practice, the answer may be yes. In many cases, however, the answer will be no.
If you decide not to sue, you can ask a platform, such as Yelp, to remove a review because it is factually untrue. They are not required to do so, but you can make the request. Some sites, such as Google Reviews, are fine with your business soliciting reviews as long as you don’t specifically ask for positive ones. However, you can ask satisfied customers to give honest feedback on these review sites. By taking that action, the positive reviews could end up overwhelming any negative ones.