Trust means telling veterinary clients youre sorry


Admitting mistakes Is not as detrimental as youd think. It can actually strengthen trust.

GETTYIMAGES/View StockWhen I first started practicing in Southern Idaho in1980, parvo had swept into our community and my partner went out of town for his first real vacation in five years. The clients didn't know me, the team didn't trust me and I was worried sick about making a mistake in diagnosis, treatment, surgery or communication. Under the microscope, I obsessed about each exam. I was doing pretty well until the end of the second week of practicing alone: a pet owner checked out, took their dog out to the car and brought back in the thermometer I had forgotten to take out of the dog's you-know-what. 

Flushed, my mind raced. I couldn't trivialize what I'd done or lie my way out of it. I had to admit I made a mistake and say I was sorry.

There I was, age 26, in the second week of practice holding the instrument of my error. 

Flustered, I distinctly remember thinking this was a big mistake and the client wouldn't trust me to see their pets but would rely on my partner, their longtime veterinarian. 

About two months later, they brought another pet in to the practice. To see me.

Poking fun at myself, as I inserted the thermometer, I asked them if they trusted me to remember to remove it this time? With a smile they said, “We never gave the missing thermometer thing another thought after that day. But we were impressed when you called back the next day to check on the Sam and said you thought you might have made a mistake in the antibiotic you prescribed and asked them to come in and exchange what you'd sent home. While we like somebody that is confident and competent, we value more somebody who is compassionate, emotionally connected, can admit mistakes and build trust.”

Talk about a teachable moment. They gave me constructive feedback that I've used for the next 34 years of practice. When I'm chasing or made the wrong diagnosis, my prognosis was off, or the treatment plan didn't work as expected, I tell people I made a mistake, am sorry, and then outline how we can make it right or what steps we'll take to make it less likely to happen in the future.

Far from diminishing my reputation or the economic vitality of the practice, these immediate, sincere admissions of error served to build trust, repeat visits and referrals. 

After all, when somebody recommends you or your practice to someone else, don't they almost always say that you or the team are someone they can trust? True trust means always saying you're sorry when you make a mistake.

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