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Keep your cool when clients complain


Use these tips to stay cool as a cucumber when clients get hot under the collar.

You roll your eyes, drum your fingers, and wish wholeheartedly that Ms. Crankypants had stayed in bed today instead of showing up to complain to you. But you're missing the point—that red-faced client is really doing you a favor.

When clients complain, they're giving your team the opportunity to improve and asking you to fix the problem so they can continue to visit your practice. And if you can learn to handle complaints calmly and effectively, you'll be a bigger asset to your practice, enjoy your job more, and bond better with clients.

Debbie Allaben Gair

Complaints, please

Keep in mind, for each client who actually complains, many others silently left for the same reason. So it's in your best interest to make it easy for your clients to complain. Yes, hard as it may be to believe, I'm telling you to give them an invitation to grouch, if they need it. Here are a few possible approaches:

  • Ask, "Is there anything we could do better?" or, "How can we solve this problem for you?"

  • Develop a simple questionnaire that asks about staff attitudes, on-hold and in-office wait times, the smell and general cleanliness of the physical practice, and clients' ability to understand the instructions they receive from the doctor. It's nice to hear good things about your practice, and you'll hear from clients who think you're the best thing since sliced bread. But the most valuable questionnaires will be those that point out areas of potential improvement. So read and consider pet owners' responses, then take action when needed.

  • Call two or three clients at random each day and ask how you could improve their visits to your practice. Ask open-ended questions, and wait quietly if they need time to think about their responses. Listen to your clients with a supportive attitude. The key to these calls is to learn what people are thinking that they may not otherwise tell you.

  • Keep a complaint log in a small, spiral notebook at the reception desk. Document clients' complaints—and even any hints that they've had trouble at your practice. Check this log regularly and address every complaint you can. When the complaint is resolved, the staff member who handled it should date and initial the log entry and indicate the solution provided. Watch for trends in the log, and make changes to your practice policy as needed.

  • Find opportunities during checkout to discuss clients' visits. For example, offer to take pets to the car, then ask clients questions about their service experience on the way. Or follow-up by phone and ask, "How could we have improved your visit today?"

This effort to get feedback shows clients you really care about the service you provide and that you're continually seeking to improve. You'll open the lines of communication for clients so that when there is a problem, they're more likely to report it.

  • Pay attention to clients' quiet comments and notice their attitudes as they enter and exit the practice. For example, if someone says under his or her breath, "How much longer will we have to wait?" take note. Remember, clients tend to be understanding and empathetic when they have an explanation for extra wait time or other unexpected issues. So take charge of the situation, and keep the lines of communication open.

  • Control your emotions and handle the moment with finesse. The key: Don't take the criticism as a personal attack. If you fight back, you spark negative emotions that singe you both. If you stay compassionate, see the client's side, and thank him or her for helping your team improve, you keep everyone cool.

Head off repeat offenders

Here's a look at three common complaints. Use the accompanying strategies to take control of the situation and put your client at ease.

Breaking down the experience

1. "I'm a busy person!" Acknowledge an extended wait time as soon as you know that a client may wait longer than 15 minutes. When you approach the client, use strong eye contact and speak with confidence. Your job is to give the client the information and solutions he or she needs to make a decision about what to do next. You should explain the hold up and give your best estimate for when he or she will actually see the doctor.

If the wait is too long, offer solutions. For example, maybe the client could see another doctor, reschedule the appointment, or drop the pet off and come back later.

Of course, it's better if you can anticipate problems and head off real trouble. For example, if you see that the afternoon appointments will be backed up, call the next two clients. Prepare them for the wait, or offer to reschedule their appointment before they leave home. Clients appreciate this demonstration of respect for their time, just as you appreciate it when they respect yours.

2. "It's HOW MUCH?!" When a client comments or complains that the visit is too expensive, respond with a calm, confident, and supportive voice: "Did we provide any services that you didn't expect or authorize?" With this approach, you ask the client to participate in the solution, now and in the future.

The next step: Listen to the client's point of view. Empathize and offer solutions. Could you postpone services to a future appointment or let the client pick up medications later? If your practice offers payment arrangements, now's the time to offer them.

3. "But Fluffy is filthy!" You know from experience that picking up a stinky pet is likely to light a client's fuse—so anticipate and avoid the complaint if you can. For example, if a pet soils itself right before discharge, tell the client what happened and offer a complimentary bath. And it won't hurt to throw in a complimentary ice cream cone or coffee for the client at the shop down the street.

Super service starts with you

Yes, there are days when clients may seem like the bane of your existence. But without loyal pet owners, there would be no practice. Addressing their criticisms arms you to keep your current clients around and attract new pets and pet owners to serve. Plus, the better you get at handling complaints, the less stress you'll feel when it's time to talk to Ms. Crankypants.

So remember, stay calm. See the client's side. Strive for resolution. And celebrate when you send that next client home with a smile.

Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member Debbie Allaben Gair, CVPM, is a veterinary consultant, speaker, and coach based in Sparta, Mich. Send comments to: firstline@advanstar.com

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