Surviving an irate client: teach your staff well


When a client goes ballistic, veterinarians need their own chaff to avert damage to the practice's reputation and the staff's well-being.

When a client goes ballistic, veterinarians need their own chaff to avertdamage to the practice's reputation and the staff's well-being.

Handling irate clients effectively also means a veterinarian needs totrain his or her staff to handle a difficult and sometimes volatile situation.

John Behrends, a consultant from Behrends Educational Systems in NorthMankato, Minn., says training for different scenarios is an important taskeach practice should undergo.

Powder keg

Veterinarians and clients deal with two extremely emotional topics -thehealth of a family member and money.

According to national statistics presented by Dr. Lowell Catlett, a professorof Agricultural Economics and Agricultural Business at New Mexico StateUniversity, 64 percent of U.S. households have pets. Of pet owners interviewed,83 percent said they would risk their lives or give it up for their pet.Behrends says, "When I heard this statistic, it just blew me away,because that is a mindset. If someone's dog is hit by a car, these peoplesee their child lying there."

Emotional topics can easily lead to very heated situations, especiallyif a case goes bad or the client feels wronged. "You had really betterlearn to handle an angry customer," he adds.

Train for it

Behrends suggests training for the moment when an irate client crashesthrough the doors ready to do verbal battle.

He says that veterinarians could typically designate a point-person inthe practice to research the issue, or bring in an outside consultant toact as a teacher and mentor.

Regardless, practice owners should definitely have a plan and share itwith everyone on the hospital staff on how to deal with irate clients.

It could be a matter of health.

Learning appropriate responses, verbal and non-verbal, in order to diffusea hostile situation are paramount, he says.

A group scream

Road rage phenomenon has become much more prevalent in our society, heexplains, and you certainly don't have to live in Los Angeles to experienceit.

Most road rage is time-pressure fatigue, he says. It's a classic scenario;people are overbooked with too little time. The trigger for the pent upanger may manifest itself over a seemingly minor inconvenience. And veterinarypractices are certainly not immune to this phenomenon. In other words, aclient who has just gone ballistic after waiting in the lobby for threeminutes probably has much deeper stressors going on in his or her life.

"People are in crisis and people are in stress. And they don't knowwhat to do with it," Behrends explains. "They either withdrawand get very, very quiet, or they become very demonstrative and lash out."

Going hysterical or historical?

Anger shows itself in several ways. It can erupt or it can simply brew.Behrends explains that both types of anger can be very devastating to aveterinary practice.

Hysteria is easy enough to identify, but it is not the only form of anger.

"Clients can go historical on you too," he says. Other peoplejust simply want revenge.

Going historical is when a client brings up other issues in the pastthat have not yet been resolved in the client's mind.

"They may bring stuff up that has happened six months or five yearsago."

He says it is important to recognize that the client brings it up becausehe or she still has anger about the issue. Use the cue to try to resolveit.

When anger is more volatile and erupts in the waiting room, the veterinarianor staff member needs to de-escalate the situation very quickly.


Consider these tips to cool down an irate client:

1. If you do not fear physical harm, invite the client away from thewaiting room. Try to make the area neutral; don't use your office, it couldactually escalate the situation. Remember the first order of business isget a screaming pet owner away from your other clients. Remember: An irateclient wants everyone to hear his or her complaint. If the client won'tbudge, have your staff corral the waiting clients into an examination room,if possible.

2. Simultaneously, focus on diffusing the anger.

a. Acknowledge the anger. "Mr. Williams, I understand you are angry.My intent is not to do battle with you, but understand your needs and tryto meet them."

b. Don't mirror the behavior of the irate client. If he or she is shouting,don't shout back.

c. Teach you and your staff to control their external body language.Don't put your hands across your chest or in your pocket, point your fingeror close your hand; all are external signs of anger or defensiveness. Yourbody should remain relaxed. Behrends say you can practice these looks andcontrol your external communication. It's important. Get your staff togetherand practice different scenarios. He adds that a person's external bodylanguage can be more important than the words you are trying to impart tocalm the situation. For example, if you purse your lips when you get angryor clench your jaw, and at the same time you are asking a client to simmerdown, the body language message wins because the messages are incongruent.When confronting an irate client, it is very important to keep the messagescongruent, Behrends explains.

d. Don't give advice. Don't give them orders. Avoid phrases like, "ifI were you"

e. Never touch an angry or irate client.

3. After you have acknowledged his or her anger, wait and listen. Sometimesit is effective to have another person distract the client by intervening.This independent person should then use the strategies outlined to calmthe situation.

4. Work to a resolution of the anger before the client leaves if at allpossible. Sometimes, no resolution will be acceptable to both parties, butat least the issues have been heard. Whether or not the veterinarian findsthe client demands acceptable is an entirely different question, Behrendssays. Giving in to a client's demands just to get the problem out of youroffice is not a healthy way to resolve the issue either.

Tone, goal

In calming an irate client, remember your tone and goal. Keep your tonenormal when talking to the client and your body relaxed. Always rememberthat your goal should be to listen to their needs and try to meet them whenappropriate.

For more information, contatc John Behrends at

1619 Nottingham Dr.

North Mankato, MN 56003

(507) 345-5359


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