Rein in overactive horse owners


Apply these five strategies to make the most of your relationship with horse owners who think they know it all.

At some point, it's going to happen: You have an emergency call and minutes after meeting the client and patient, you realize he or she has diagnosed the condition and started administering treatment. While it's nice that your client takes the responsibility of owning a horse seriously, such clients require a different approach from those who leave all the doctoring up to you. Use these five strategies to improve your relationships with zealous clients.

1. Know who you're dealing with

There are two types of know-it-all clients: Those who share, and those who don't. "The clients who share what they know usually bring Internet research and reading material," says Dr. Christine Merle, a consultant with Brakke Consulting Inc. "Be careful not to discount their opinion or sources of information. Instead, look at the materials, and acknowledge their efforts."

These clients mean well, says Dr. Merle. So while you may feel that they don't trust you, they're just thinking about their animal and its care. They're looking for the best answers.

Clients who don't share what they've found may be more worrisome. The problem: If you tell them something different from what they've read or heard, they may shut down and stop listening, Dr. Merle says. Because you don't know what they know, you'll need to monitor the conversation closely and dig deeper if you think you see resistance.

"Look for nonverbal signals that show your clients don't agree with you," she says. "For example, they may frown or look the other direction when you make a recommendation. When you see such a signal ask: 'Is there something wrong? Is there something that you disagree with?'"

2. Show appreciation

"Often people just want to be heard," says Lori Kogan, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist at the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University. "So even when you think their information is wrong, try to acknowledge your client's comment. Keep in mind, you don't have to agree."

If you think a client may be holding back, ask for his or her opinion. This lets you show clients you care about their efforts. Plus, you'll find out what they know so you can head off any barriers to compliance. "The more open-ended questions you ask, the better the information you'll get," Kogan says.

3. Explore their sources

With so much information available to clients, it pays to stay informed. "If the sources seem good, look into them a little more," Dr. Merle says. Ask your fellow colleagues if they're familiar with this information, and find out if a reputable source provides or supports the site or source.

If the information isn't good, tactfully tell the client why. Then offer other sources your client could turn to. Your eager-to-learn client likely won't change, so your best approach is to influence the quality of information they read.

"Let the client know that together you'll come up with information that's accurate, reputable, and applicable to the patient," Dr. Merle says. The more trust you build with the client, the more likely he or she is to follow your recommendations.

4. Work on communication

If your client doesn't agree that the treatments and medications you prescribed will help his or her animal, he or she likely won't follow through. So it's critical to communicate effectively.

One reason a client may not absorb what you've said is that he or she has a different communication style, says Dr. Merle. For example, In How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less (Workman Publishing Co., 2000), author Nicholas Boothman covers three types of communicators: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic.

Listen to your client's word choice, and pay attention to his or her nonverbal communication—then try to match your communication style. For example, if your client uses lots of hand gestures, he or she's likely visual and will respond well to diagrams and demonstrations. Of course, you can't master this technique in 10 minutes, says Dr. Merle. But with practice, you'll get better at identifying people with different communication styles.

Another strategy: Direct your client to someone else within your organization, Dr. Merle says. "Perhaps your technician or assistant could present the information to the client in a different way. Hearing another voice may promote compliance."

If your client's compliance falls short even after you've made your recommendation clear, consider other underlying causes. Has your client had a bad experience with the procedure you're recommending? Or is your client pressed for time or money? Again, your communication skills are paramount here. "You must ask the questions that isolate the issue so you can get to yes," Dr. Merle says.

5. Know when to let go

Fortunately, most client-veterinarian relationships don't reach this point, but if you clearly aren't meeting a client's expectations and he or she isn't meeting yours, it's time to end your relationship. Dr. Merle suggests referring the client to another veterinarian in your practice, if possible, or in the community. "Yes, you may lose a client," she says, "but you're helping the client find someone who can meet his or her needs."

Sometimes the choice to dismiss a client becomes a moral and ethical issue. "If you aren't comfortable doing something, like giving into client demands for a drug or a treatment that you don't feel is appropriate, it's important to let the client know you disagree and that you won't compromise your values," says Dr. Merle.

Document all conversations with your client in the record so you can show exactly what happened. If you decide to dissolve your relationship, send the client a letter stating that you'll no longer provide medical care for his or her horse, the client should find another veterinarian, and you'll provide records upon request.

Most information-hunting clients mean well, though they may require more attention than the average client. The key, says Dr. Merle, is to try to take them in stride. "Don't get worked up about these clients," she says. "Many are good clients and horse owners—you just need to give them some direction. Look at their enthusiasm as an opportunity to work together."

The bottom line

You'll only stifle dialogue if you become defensive with the client who brings in a foot-tall stack of Internet printouts on his or her horse's condition. To foster trust, let clients know you appreciate their efforts, and steer them to reputable sources for their information fix.

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer and editor based in Vancouver, British Columbia. Please send questions or comments to

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