What to do when your clients complain online


No matter how effective, careful or sensitive a veterinarian tries to be, somebody is going to complain.

National Report — No matter how effective, careful or sensitive a veterinarian tries to be, somebody is going to complain.

People complain about price, cleanliness, the receptionist or the staff. They might say the doctor flirted with their spouse. They might complain that the doctor didn't take enough time with the patient or that the doctor never saw the client. They might even blame the doctor for their pet's death.

The age of transparency: The Web offers pet owners many more avenues to praise and criticize your reputation online. How you handle negative online reviews can say just as much about your practice culture. Respond to complaints quickly, and invite your best clients to post positive ratings.

And since it is so easy to share complaints online, they might just tell the world.

But that doesn't mean a veterinarian has to live with such reputation smears.

You can repair the damage by responding privately, quickly and with respect, experts say. How you respond to a complaint says a lot about you and your bedside manner.

First, though, you need to know what's out there about you and your practice, says Jason Merrihew, communications coordinator for the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA). The easiest way to do that is to set up a Google Alert (www.google.com/alerts), a regular automatic search that lets you know when certain words pop up on the Web.

Table 1 A selection of Web sites that rate veterinarians

Merrihew recommends you set the alert to search for your practice name, the word "pets" and the city where your practice operates.

"And of course ... assign monitoring of alerts to a specific person so it doesn't fall through the cracks," Merrihew says.

Responding to criticism

So what do you do when you find a negative review? Take a breath first. Count to 10 if you have to. Think before you speak.

If there is a chance a lawsuit may be filed against you, check with your lawyer first.

If the comment is libelous, Karyn Gavzer of KG Marketing and Training Inc. says you should contact the Web site's host, explain that the comments are lies and that you're considering legal action if they're not removed from the site. But Gavzer, who advises veterinary practices one-on-one and at seminars, says that's a last resort.

Dr. Carin Smith of Smith Veterinary Consulting, says that if an online comment makes you particularly angry, you should take a break. "Turn off the computer and go lift some weights or go running," Smith says. "You can't respond maturely when you're angry."

Smith is author of the AAHA publication "Client Satisfaction Pays: Quality Service for Practice Success."

Veterinary communications and marketing experts also agree that it's a good idea to respond to a negative comment personally. A phone call is best; an e-mail is second best.

Don't put it off, though. An angry client who doesn't hear from you for too long may hold that grudge for a long time, according to a recent marketing study published by the American Marketing Association. The study was conducted by Yany Gregoire, Thomas Tripp and Renaud Legoux and was published in the November 2009 Journal of Marketing.

The study showed, paradoxically, that it's the most loyal consumers who get the angriest when something goes wrong. However, it's those same consumers who can be won back with a quick apology.

"You simply must come off as calm, professional, empathetic, thoughtful and responsible," Smith says.

If you decide to respond, Merrihew suggests that you state your case reasonably and be as honest and transparent as possible. "Even though you may see it as a personal attack, make sure that you don't respond with another personal attack," he says. "You always want to take the higher road."

Sometimes a generic response is best. Smith suggests something like: "We do our best to resolve any problems with clients in a personal and caring manner. Any client who experiences a difficult situation with our hospital is encouraged to talk with us directly so we can clear up the issue as soon as possible. Our goal is to provide the best possible care for our clients and their pets."

If you choose to respond to a comment with a public comment and the other person gets nasty, just walk away, Smith says. The public will see who the reasonable person is.

The average consumer looking at reviews online is pretty savvy, says Merrihew. "A lot of times they can tell (a comment is from) a bitter person or (whether it's) a legitimate concern. Or, wow, this is a staff member paid to give glowing reviews," he says.

Here's a novel idea: How about thanking the person for criticizing you? If you treat it as constructive criticism, you may be able to use the feedback to improve, says Stephanie Ichinose of Yelp.com. an online review Web site with 8 million reviews. A two-star review can get bumped up to a five-star review if the complaint is handled quickly and with care.

Bracing for cyber attacks

Of course, there's always the chance that complaint was meant for another doctor. Your practice could be mistaken for another.

That happened in Arizona a few years ago when a veterinarian was accused of punching a Chihuahua. Because the name of the accused veterinarian's practice was similar to another doctor's practice in the same city, online commenters got them confused. And the doctor who didn't punch the dog was attacked on the Internet.

The doctor with the similar name had a Web site that turned out to be both a blessing and curse. The doctor who was accused of attacking a dog didn't have a Web site, so when people searched for him, they found the doctor who wasn't involved.

Merrihew advised the doctor to post a statement on his Web site explaining the confusion. That helped stem the vitriol and death threats. Finally, a press conference cleared things up, he says.

Making a negative positive

The probability that someone will say something negative about your practice is high, so it's a good idea to create your own positive Web presence now to balance out things in the future, Merrihew says. Include customer testimonials on your Web site. Make sure to update the testimonial page regularly, or it won't be effective, he says. People will wonder why your last nice comments from clients came years ago.

Also, cost doesn't need to be an issue when you're creating a practice Web site. You don't have to spend thousands of dollars. For instance, AAHA members can create their own practice site through AAHA's Web site. Other options include doctors creating their own free Facebook pages or taking advantage of online review Web sites that offer free pages for businesses, like Yelp.com.

Invite your customers to post positive reviews on your Web site or on Web sites that offer consumer reviews like Yelp.com and Angie's List (www.angieslist.com).

Because Angie's List doesn't allow anonymous reviews and consumers pay to be part of their online community, many of the reviews tend to be more positive and thoughtful than free sites.

About 11,000 veterinarians are reviewed on Angie's List. And when people do complain about a business, many times it comes as a result of poor communication, says Hicks, the founder of Angie's List and its chief marketing officer.

Dr. Kate Knutson of Pet Crossing Animal Hospital in Bloomington, Minn., a mid-sized practice with about 25 employees, says she includes language addressing open communication in all her client handouts.

"One of the most important things that all our pieces of client literature says is, please do not hesitate to tell us if we have done something to your disliking," says Knutson, who is also an AAHA board member. "It's always about communication or the lack of communication.

"I learned that we were often misinterpreting people's actions, making inferences. Clients wouldn't say they were angry, but we assumed they were. Maybe we, ourselves, were in a bad mood and were impacting the conversation. At some point, if you think somebody is not satisfied, you need to ask them."

The goal is to stop a client from leaving the office angry.

At Pet Crossing, complaints are logged in a client complaint book. And team members who take the complaint have the responsibility of fixing it right away and telling the rest of the hospital about it — whether they made the mistake or someone else did.

"Then we write the client who complains a thank-you for bringing the problem to our attention," Knutson says.

In the worst-case scenario — when a doctor does make a mistake that causes the death of a pet — the best way to handle it is to be honest, Knutson says. Talk to the clients and let them see the medical records, she says. Let the clients ask questions and give them honest answers. "If you don't, they're gonna always feel that you did something wrong," she says.

Knutson can speak with some experience on this topic. One of her own cats died while being treated by another veterinarian. The death was the result of a medical mistake. It still chokes her up to talk about it. One of the worst parts about the death, she says, is that the veterinarian never said sorry.

The truth, as Dr. Knutson sees it, is medicine is not perfect and the people working in it aren't perfect either. "Sometimes we're tired. Sometimes we don't know exactly what we're getting into. And sometimes we fail," she says. But being transparent about that restores trust between your clients and yourself, so they know you're doing everything you possibly can to make their pets healthy.

Ms. Ruiz Patton is a freelance journalist living in Cleveland.

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