Train your difficult clients


How do you handle bad behavior from good pet owners? Use this advice to deal with your most difficult clients and keep messy exchanges to a minimum.

It's happened to all of us. We check the schedule and notice that Gabby Blahblah is dropping off her limping Labrador, Bowser, for radiographs. Gabby can talk for hours about the simplest nail trim, and all of Bowser's ailments present with a detailed narrative she'll repeat to anyone within earshot. Without the right approach, not only will your schedule spiral out of control, but Gabby may get the impression you don't care about Bowser or her concerns.

Successful practices do more than sell products or services. They offer high-quality, caring customer service that exceeds clients' expectations. But some clients make offering high-quality service difficult. If we don't handle these clients with care, they won't return. And worse yet, they'll warn off potential clients.

The good, the bad, and the truly poopy

So what turns a good client into a difficult client? The issue generally comes back to clients' expectations about your services—how long the appointment should take, the outcome they want, or the price they believe they should pay. Most of their expectations are probably reasonable, but sometimes they're not.

For example, clients who walk in and expect the doctor to drop everything and see them immediately don't have reasonable expectations. The hard part is that you need to handle these clients just as carefully as you do clients with reasonable expectations that your team hasn't met.

Support your special clients

Here's a look at a few classic types of dissatisfied clients and how to handle their complaints:

  • Stuart Steamer: "I'm going to tell everyone I know not to come here. You're just trying to get my money!" It's critical to keep your cool with these clients. You might say, "Mr. Steamer, you know we're trying to give Fido the best possible care. To do that, we need to run some lab tests that will give us an overall picture of Fido's health. The equipment and supplies necessary to run these tests aren't cheap, but the results will help us help Fido."

  • Ms. Can't Hardly Wait: "My appointment was at 10 a.m., and it is now 10:10! I need to leave soon!" A good response: "We usually run pretty close to schedule. Let me check with the technician to see if there's a problem." If there's a delay, give Ms. Can't Wait some options. For example, "It looks like an emergency has put us a little behind. I can reschedule your appointment for another time, or if you can wait a little longer, I can credit your account $5 for the inconvenience." If you don't have an agreement with your supervisor or hospital owner to offer a credit, talk about the benefits of this gesture. You may even want to offer the credit before clients complain to build goodwill.

  • Mr. Bigstuff: He calls in for a last-minute wellness visit and you're booked solid. "I'm a personal friend of Dr. Smith's, and I know he would see me!" Your response: "I understand you would like to be seen today, but Dr. Smith has no open appointments. You can drop off Max and Dr. Smith will try to see him between appointments, or we can schedule you for an appointment tomorrow at 10. What works better for you?"

  • Mrs. Gabby Blahblah: "Blah, blah, blah, blah, yada, yada, yada. And then ..." You might say, "I see you have several concerns about Bowser's health. I want to be sure you see Dr. Smith on time, so let's get the basic information first. Then Dr. Smith can ask you additional questions about Bowser's condition." Keep the client moving in the direction of the exam room so the technician can start the appointment on time.

  • Ms. My Way: "I want to be sure Roscoe gets his walk exactly at 10 a.m. and he gets his special treat at 11:30 a.m." What to say: "We will check with the doctor to be sure that won't be a problem or interfere with Roscoe's treatment plan."

  • Mrs. Hemenhaw: "Well, I just don't know. Do a lot of people neuter their cats? Is it expensive? Maybe I should. But I don't want Shadow to feel any pain. Does the medicine really work? How do you know?" The best way to handle these clients is to answer their questions completely and go over each item in a treatment plan. These phrases might help: "We use this because ...," "Studies have shown ...," and "This is the best treatment for your pet because ..."

  • Nellie Nothing's Right: "Last time Iwas here Iwanted Dr. Jones to see Prince, but Dr. Smith saw him. Iknow Dr. Smith didn't check Prince's ears the way Dr. Jones does. And Dr. Jones doesn't listen to Prince's heart carefully during exams."Because you know Nellie's difficult to satisfy, anticipate her objections and verify her requests when she visits with Prince. For example, you may smile and say, "Nellie, you seem to prefer seeing Dr. Jones. Would you like me to note on your file that you always want us to schedule Prince with Dr. Jones?I know how carefully you take care of your pets, and we want to be sure you both get the care you need."

Scoop out the bad feelings

It's important to deal with problem clients professionally. Don't get caught up in the emotions of the situation or become defensive if accusations fly. Be calm, be patient, and be clear. Keep your cool. It's your role to analyze the situation and offer a solution.

Also remember to protect yourself and your hospital by documenting everything. For example, if you discover a cracked tooth during a dental cleaning, call the client to report the finding and ask for permission to remove the tooth. Then document the call and the client's response. This gives you more leverage if the client balks at the bill later.

Use these six steps to filter through clients' frustrations and get to the real problem:

1. Give clients your complete attention and listen. Invite them into an exam room or a private area so they know you're willing to deal with their complaint. This also keeps the discussion private. Let them vent without interrupting and maintain eye contact. Remember, the client wants to be listened to, acknowledged, and understood.

2. Show the client you care by maintaining a sincere, concerned expression. Your voice, as well as your expression, communicates your attitude. We communicate most of our thoughts, feelings, and ideas without words. If you're dealing with a disgruntled client and you cross your arms or assume a challenging posture, clients perceive that you aren't open to what they have to say. Likewise, you can get an idea of how clients feel by noticing whether their body language is open. Are their arms relaxed at their sides? Are their legs uncrossed?

3. Empathize. Try to understand their feelings. Show them you're really listening by maintaining eye contact, nodding, and saying, "I see," or "I understand how you must feel." As clients talk, their anger will dissipate and you'll get more information about the problem.

4. Ask questions. Learn as much about the situation as you can before you offer a solution.

5. Summarize the problem. Describe the client's concern in your own words. Restating the problem lets the client know you've listened and ensures you understood the situation correctly. This is sometimes called mirroring, and it's useful in any difficult conversation.

6. Use the word, "Let's." This approach helps clients feel you're working together to address their concerns.

Remember, your goal is to find out what the client wants. Then you'll offer a solution. Just be sure you keep any promises you make and follow up.

Sometimes you mishandle a situation and create an angry client. Perhaps you're feeling rushed and make an offhand comment about Fluffy's weight or fail to have Rex's prescription ready when you promised. If that happens, admit your mistake and apologize.

You're not a litter box

Sometimes clients cross the line and use profanity—or even get physical. When this happens, clients are likely looking for a reaction from you to justify their behavior. Maintaining your cool is your best defense.

Clearly state the consequences if they continue their behavior. "I can't help you as long as you continue to use that kind of language." If they settle down, you can continue the conversation. If not, seek support from another staff member. This is one of the most common reasons for firing a client.

In the worst case, a client may make or carry out a physical threat. Say, "I'm asking you politely to leave our hospital. And Ithink it's better for all of us if you take your pet somewhere else for care. We will contact the police if necessary. However, I'm sure you're willing to leave quietly on your own."

Most of the time, however, you're just facing a stubborn, difficult, scared, or confused person who has the potential to be a good client if you can work past his or her reaction—or overreaction—to the situation. If you're getting angry or upset yourself, or if the situation isn't going well, the best solution is to hand off the client to a co-worker or manager. You might say, "Mr. Do No Wrong, let me invite the office manager to talk with you. She might have some ideas to help us resolve this problem." The handoff works well because clients assume that they've been passed to someone with more authority. And because of the rehearsal, clients give a shorter description of the problem. Sometimes they realize they were off base and describe a totally different scenario. And when a second team member offers them the same information, they're often convinced it's true.

Try these helpful phrases to connect with angry clients:

  • I can see why you feel that way.

  • I see what you mean.

  • That must be upsetting.

  • I understand how frustrating this must be.

  • Let's see what we can do to resolve this problem.

  • Your pet's health is our biggest concern.

  • What can we do to make you happy?

  • Thank you for telling us about the problem.

Obviously, your goal is to defuse the situation. Then show you're willing to work with clients to find a solution. It's your responsibility to assure clients that you want the best for their beloved companions, and you want to help them make the most informed decisions about their pets' care.

Not long ago, Mrs. Impatient came to our practice for an appointment. The receptionist checked her in. Then she got sidetracked and forgot to tell the technician Mrs. Impatient had arrived. Well, you can imagine Mrs. Impatient's reaction when, 10 minutes later, she was still waiting. The receptionist, realizing her mistake, apologized to Mrs. Impatient and offered a complimentary bag of food for her inconvenience.

Mrs. Impatient wasn't interested in the food. But she told the receptionist that her niece, who was with her, had never been to a veterinary hospital before. When the receptionist offered a tour, all eyes lit up. The client was grateful and impressed, and after that she became a model client. She's even referred other new clients to us.

When you team up with difficult clients, they may even thank you and become your best clients—just as Mrs. Impatient did. And that means smoother days and less frustration for everyone.

Nancy Allen is a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and the practice manager at Olathe Animal Hospital in Olathe, Kan. She shares her home with Sophie, a 3-year-old schnoodle adopted from the shelter, Andy, a 3-year-old papillon adopted from a rescue group, and Simon, a 13-year-old African Grey parrot who bosses the dogs around. Please send your questions or comments to

Nancy Allen

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