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Keep out! How veterinary clients block you


Learn how to reach out when clients put up "stay away" or "back off" signs-and get to the root of the pet's problem.

Ever had a client who wouldn't answer questions? With some pet owners, it's all the receptionist can do to confirm the client's and pet's names when they check in. When you ask what's wrong with the pet, the answer is a vague "he's sick." And that's all the information you're going to get. The receptionist hands off the case to the technician and wishes her good luck.

For the exam room technician, getting a history is more like a tug of war—and the technician is doing all of the tugging! The client may answer very specific questions, but he doesn't elaborate or provide any background. You walk out of the room wondering if he's one of those folks who wants to save all the details for the doctor.

However, the doctor's experience isn't any different. The client continues to respond with vague answers, shrugs, and "I don't know."

It's frustrating when a client doesn't respond, and it gives the veterinary team little help in solving the pet's problem. On a busy day, most doctors and team members will move on to the next, more talkative client fairly quickly. After all, it's tough to help a client who won't help you.

Don't get tangled up in the wires

We often perceive withdrawn clients as not caring enough to help us with their pets. In other words, they appear apathetic. However, this closemouthed client may actually care too much. A quiet owner can appear to be a brick wall because he's too terrified to answer your questions. Yes—terrified. High anxiety is common in clients who are convinced you're going to give them bad news or find something seriously wrong with their pet. In many cases, these folks withhold information because they don't want to say anything that will lead to a scary diagnosis.

Occasionally, someone has given the brick-wall client a dollar amount to spend on the pet's visit. And if the animal's care exceeds that price, she's been told to euthanize her beloved pet. Wouldn't you be terrified, too?

Though the apathetic client also doesn't respond, in his case it's because he's not attached to the pet. Most apathetic clients are bringing the pet in for someone else—usually an ailing parent or other family member.

Tear down the fence

Besides being uncommunicative, brick-wall and apathetic clients share one other thing in common—they're both in your clinic with a pet that needs help. So, how do we tell the difference between these two personality types? The quickest way is to say, "Tell me about your pet ... " The brick-wall, with her high attachment to the animal, will share stories about the pet's antics. The apathetic client will say, "This isn't my pet."

When you've identified the brick-wall client, recognize that this anxious person wants reassurance you can work through the pet's problems together. A brick-wall needs team members to offer a calming influence. This creates a safe zone for the client. Highly concerned clients are receptive to statements, such as, "I can see how worried you are about your pet, and we're going to do everything we can to help." These anxious clients are also very tuned into body language, so it's important to appear friendly and relaxed, or they may hide behind their fence.

Determining the source of the brick-wall's fear is also key. Perhaps it's a money problem that can be resolved with a payment plan through your hospital or through a third party. When they're not scared, brick-walls are engaging clients and a lot of fun to work with.

You can also work with an apathetic client, but you'll need to adjust your approach. Since this isn't his pet, the apathetic client isn't directly affected by the pet's illness. However, apathetic clients are caring people, too—it's his relationship with the pet's owner that motivated him to take the pet to the clinic. Explain how the diagnostic or treatment plan will help the pet to feel better and make the pet's owner happier, too.

When a client brings his pet to the clinic, he's asking for your help. If you're struggling to communicate with a client, take time to determine his fears and motivations. Then you can provide him with the information he needs, and you will enjoy a much more satisfying experience.

Dr. Jon Klingborg is author of Exam Room Communication for Veterinarians: The Science and Art of Conversing With Clients (AAHA Press).

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