Tools for tackling client complaints


Cutting down on complaints can start with your clinic's communication skills

Clement Coetzee/

Clement Coetzee/

When it comes to a successful relationship in any sense of the term, communication is a key component to that. For clients bringing their pets into a clinic for care, some may come in with certain expectations or hopes of how things will go once they walk in the doors as well as a certain level of understanding and support from the veterinary team. Because of this, if expectations are not met in the eyes of the client, this can lead to misunderstandings, dissatisfactions, and complaints against the clinic.

During their lecture “Clinic Communications to Curtail Clinic Complaints,” Michael Shirley, BS, Elite FFCP-V, and Stephen Shirley, BA, Elite FFCP-V, AIC, from Family Pet Health in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, explained to attendees how effective communication from the clinic to its clients can help combat complaints in the clinic while improving the experience for everyone.

The importance of clear communication

According to the lecturers, many complaints about a clinic can stem from misunderstandings or unrealistic expectations of treatment, costs, or the outcome of the visit in general. Pre-visit communication can help the client understand the appointment goals, and the responsibilities of each party, and gives the client a chance to communicate their concerns before stepping into the clinic. On the other side, pre-visit communication gives the veterinary team a chance to tailor the approach for the pets individually and build trust and rapport with the clients because they already have a handle on what is going on with their pet, a crucial part of making this experience positive for the clients.

“When a client will call, they've got an expectation, and they don't understand the swirl that's around us. They just know that this is what I expect. And if it's not met, we get client complaints. They complain when their expectations aren't met,” Stephen Shirley said.

Once the client enters the clinic, it is time for the clinic to make a good and memorable first impression. One way to do so is to have client service representatives greet those coming into the clinic warmly, help them fill out paperwork by giving clear and easy-to-follow instructions, and attend to needs, as time allows and based on the needs, to help set the stage for them to have a great experience at your clinic.

The presentation of the clinic can also help improve the experience for clients. The lecturer explained that having clear signage and organized spaces could make all the difference. Providing these small gestures for clients can help minimize frustration and confusion for owners as they need to move about the clinic to go to exam rooms, waiting rooms, and restrooms. Practices can also utilize posters, flyers, and displays in the clinic to help give information to clients as they wait for their appointments and to help move conversations during a consultation.

At the Family Pet Health, the professional team decided to share a QR code instead of posters and other types of messaging. The team at the clinic has identified key topics they noticed their clients asking them about, such as feline medicine, Fear Free practices, and osteoarthritis, and put them all together. Once clients scan the code, they are brought to the clinic’s website, which has compiled a list of resources, podcast episodes, and YouTube videos explaining the procedures they are interested in learning more on.

Proactive communication

The Shirley brothers and the team at Family Pet Health utilize pre-visit communication and post-visit communication to get a better understanding of their patients, clients, and what is needed from the clinic to help the pet. For example, they have patients complete a form before the visit where they ask questions such as what kind of food their pet eats and what their bathroom schedule looks like. This can help the team know what they are walking into when they enter the exam room, and cutting down on time spent asking gathering information in person. This method also gives the team a better insight into who they treating and helps build that connection with the family. This can also help the veterinary team manage cost expectations with clients.

“If you know a pet coming in for [a vaccination], and you're able to send that estimate beforehand, before they ever come to your clinic, and say, ’hey, you're coming in, this is the estimate. This is what we expect. We can talk about it when you get here. But you already know how important heartworm prevention is. So you're going to do this. You already know how important the vaccinations are, so you're going to do that,” said Stephen Shirley.

“This helps you prepare. Again, eliminate the possibilities or curtail the possibilities of unmet expectations, they expect one price, and you present them with something different. If you don't set that up, that's an object that has the potential to be an ugly conversation,” he continued.

Once a client has left the clinic, the team will then follow up with the details of the visit and a survey for the pet owner to fill out. This way, if for some reason they have a complaint, you are providing them with the space to do so that is not Google or Yelp reviews. For any negative feedback they get, the clinic calls the pet owner to talk about it more and to address the situation internally, if warranted. The brothers shared an example of one time they received a negative review from a repeat client. They reviewed the complaint, spoke to the team about what happened and how they could improve, and then called the client to address it.

For the complaints that do make it onto Google or Yelp reviews, Michael Shirley said that they always respond to negative reviews. They address what happened and follow the same format as they do with the internal reviews. This way, it shows anyone looking at their reviews that they had addressed the issue, showing any potential clients they take these complaints seriously and will address and change as needed.

In conclusion

Every clinic runs different and every client is different. There is no end all be all to client complaints. However, by helping to manage their expectations on timing, costs, needs for the appointment, and more, it can help you set them up for success with their visit. In return, they will come back to your clinic for care and maybe even leave a good review or tell their friends with pets to check out your clinic.


Shirley S, Shirley M. Clinic communications to curtail clinic complaints. Presented at: Fetch dvm360 conference; Nashville, TN. May 18, 2024.

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