Stop judging clients


Eradicate assumptions to improve client and patient care.

He approaches the front desk with a groan. Slowly bending down to pick up his toy poodle, the elderly client asks how much today's visit will cost. The receptionist explains she won't know for sure until the doctor sees Fifi, but the wellness examination will be $45. He harumphs under his breath and murmurs something about the price of keeping a pet these days.

Pamela Stevenson, CVPM

A technician escorts the man and his dog to the exam room. During the physical, the veterinarian discovers that Fifi is suffering from advanced periodontal disease. After the doctor explains this could eventually affect Fifi's heart and kidneys, the man hugs the dog to his chest, kisses her on the forehead, and adamantly refuses the recommended dental cleaning.

Your first reaction is probably to label the client as cheap, stubborn, or both. You might be right. But what if you're not? In this case, the reason the man declined the dental was because, in his day, anesthesia was more dangerous than any disease. He was afraid Fifi wouldn't wake up from getting her teeth cleaned. If you judged—or misjudged—this client, you would've missed the chance to alleviate his fears and improve his dog's health.

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Judging clients is a chronic condition in veterinary hospitals. Judgments are everywhere and, no matter how hard you try, they'll never be eradicated. But their detrimental effects can—and should—be significantly reduced.

Swapping opinion-based verdicts with factual determinations will change your practice's culture. You'll exchange stress and negative energy for a positive feeling that will run throughout the practice. In turn, you'll boost your team's morale and efficiency. Perhaps most importantly, eliminating judgments will foster team members' desire to ask clients questions and listen to their feedback.


Are judgments really that bad?

To make all this happen, the first order of business is distinguishing between fact and opinion. "Toby is morbidly obese," is a judgment that can be validated by a physical examination and body condition scoring. "Ms. Large is an irresponsible pet owner," is an opinion. The fact that Toby is obese doesn't prove Ms. Large's worth—or lack thereof—as a pet owner. You might think it does, but without knowing the circumstances behind Toby's weight gain, you really have no idea how Ms. Large treats her pet.

Regardless, what does it matter if you peg Ms. Large as irresponsible? You're not going to say so to her face. Valid question. But the answer is clear: Constantly trying to size up clients drains your energy and gets in the way of communication, patient care, and your practice's financial success. When you judge, you feel small, mean, or superior—all of which suck the life out of a situation and cloud your thoughts.

Every team member's mind is filled with perpetual chatter about clients: "She dresses so shabby it's no wonder her cat has fleas," "I love Mr. Morris and his dog," "Great, Bozwell needs a recheck. I didn't want to see his owner for another year." Even when you're not conscious of these inner criticisms, they're present and they affect you—and your clients. For example, when you guess that a client can't afford the best care, you'll follow up your top recommendation with an offer of baseline care much more quickly than you would with a client who's in your top 20 percent. Doing this deprives the client of time to think, the pet of highest-quality care, and the practice of revenue associated with the best medicine.

But wait. Some clients really are stingy and difficult. They never comply with recommended treatments, they're disrespectful, and they're downright unpleasant. No matter how strongly you believe a client to be difficult, it just doesn't make it true. And your negative appraisal may be turning a good client into a bad one.

So-called difficult clients might be picking up on your feelings about them, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Up to 93 percent of communication is through body language. If you've deemed certain clients as lesser, your actions could betray your negative thoughts even when you say nothing. This hampers your client relationship and, as a result, interferes with the level of patient care you provide.


Everybody does it

Before you'll be able to stop judging clients, you need to understand why you do it in the first place. It's human nature to base predictions about people's actions and reactions on the behaviors they exhibit. Why? To protect your ego. Most people are virtually unaware of their judgmental thoughts. Your mind generates them in an effort to continually compare yourself to others. You're generally happier when you determine you're better, smarter, and more together than everybody else. On the flip side, when you view someone positively, your ego might take a hit: "Look at Kara. She's so much better with patients than I am."

This phenomenon of judging others occurs because you're really judging yourself. Life coach and author Debbie Ford says that all people possess all traits—the good and the bad. People react strongly to traits they dislike in others because they're afraid to admit they could exhibit these traits themselves. In her book Why Good People Do Bad Things (HarperOne, 2008), Ford offers this insight:

Consider the proliferation of reality television shows that allow us to voyeuristically observe the competitive, petty, and often mean-spirited behavior of the colorful cast of characters. We would not be so intrigued, so engrossed, and so compelled if we did not possess the same urges and instincts. When we are projecting onto others and judging their behaviors, our own suddenly don't seem that bad.

Look inside yourself for the truth in what Ford says. Think of a client who triggers you or who you try to avoid. Spend some time listing everything you don't like about the pet owner. Then check the qualities that you also possess but usually try to conceal. It's OK to share these traits. When you accept and embrace the behaviors and attributes you'd like to change in yourself, they hold less power over you. And you'll be more understanding—and less judgmental—of the clients who exhibit them.


3 steps to freedom

To begin sequestering your client critiques, you must acknowledge that any attribute or behavior you project onto a person or situation is a judgment. Every time you conjure up thoughts like, "What did she do to her hair?" or "Wow, that client is great," you're making a ruling about someone. When you pay attention, you'll be amazed at the number of times you judge clients, not to mention co-workers. Add gossip—just another form of judging—to the list and the number of nitpicky personal assessments likely skyrockets.

The five-day challenge. Cut down that list by having some fun with this exercise: Start with the goal of going five consecutive days without making a judgment. Every time you catch yourself or a team member judging, start the five days over. Even with diligent effort, odds are you won't be able to get past Day One for quite a while. After all, these thought patterns have been present for most of your life, so it will take time to retrain your mind.

Check your list twice. Supplement the above activity with this team-meeting skill builder: Break into groups of two or three. Give each group a different client's name and ask the people in the group to list their impressions of the client. Compare all the groups' lists to find similarities. Discuss why multiple groups labeled their clients as rude, for example. When you identify common ground, you'll also probably identify areas where your team needs to treat clients with more sensitivity. Next, return to your groups to write down facts about the client. Then hold a team-wide discussion about how the facts compare to the impressions. Make sure the lists of truths aren't just judgments in disguise. The next time these clients visit, work with the facts so you'll be able to offer better client and patient care.

Rules to live by. You and your fellow workers need to support each other on the path to being judgment-free. The best way is to agree on a set of guidelines. For an example, visit and search for "5 Tolerance Commandments."

For those of you already on your way to making fewer judgments, congratulations. If this is new, it's essential that you start the journey—as an individual and a team. Ending judgmental thinking is one of the best things you'll ever do for yourself—and pets. Namasté!

Pamela Stevenson, CVPM, owns Veterinary Results Management in Durham, N.C. She promises not to judge you for the questions and comments you send to

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