When clients attack


When you're faced with savage clients, you need to know which ones you can tame and which ones to release back into the wild.

Amy answers the phone and by the look on her face, tone of her voice, and contortions of her body, anyone can take a good guess who's calling. Let's face it: There are some clients everyone dreads.

Some folks are never really happy—they're tigers in the shadows waiting to pounce at the first whiff of weakness. These clients resort to sneaky, mean-spirited tactics to gain power over others. They reach into their toolbox of lies, theatrics, and selective memory to pit team members against each other with shifting sands of untruth.

These impossible clients destroy office decorum with ready, frequent use of a verbal bazooka: the accusation. And once we've been publicly accused of dropping a dog, failing to record an appointment time, or making a beloved cat sick, we're forced to defend ourselves—an action that makes us look guilty. We're eager to appease and quick to give away resources. They win again. These are full-time jerks who make their living off the good nature of others.

While these dreaded clients prowl in our hallways and reception areas, their numbers are fortunately few. And surprisingly, not all of these clients need to be fired. Once you've explained where the boundaries are, they may sheath their claws. If they don't, it's time to take action.

Jim Kramer, DVM, CVPM

Why they pounce

There's a difference between authentic jerks and well-meaning people who care so deeply about their animals that their behavior turns beastly. Many of these folks are good-hearted, sweet, wonderful people elsewhere in their lives—the kind of people who wouldn't put up with the treatment they give us. They don't realize their actions are unreasonable. They're blinded by a higher calling: a fierce loyalty to those who can't speak for themselves.

Animals aren't small children. As children grow older, they can talk about the care they receive. Animals always await the pleasure of others, which brings out the mother bear reaction from otherwise reasonable folks.

Love is perhaps the most powerful force on earth, and it blinds some clients. While love is unlimited, resources aren't. There are only so many hours in a day, so many team members, so much patience, and so much goodwill.

People who are on a holy mission produce boundless demands, because they believe their actions are necessary to protect their pets. We're criticized for failing to supply a variety of wants, including unspoken desires. The more we give, the more they expect us to give. For example, they call to say they're on their way to pick up Romeo if we can stay open 10 more minutes. They show up 30 minutes late. Then they use this exception as a precedent to coerce us to meet them before we open or long after we're closed because "Dr. Jim always does this for us." Once you explain the physical limits of your well-intentioned care, they may respond. If they don't, you may need to part ways.

Tranquilize angry predators

Other clients act irrationally for reasons we can't see or understand. Almost all of our experiences with clients involve loss: preventing it, mitigating it, or reversing it. And grief is the spontaneous response to loss. Remember, grief isn't an event, it's a process. So grieving people are often confused, angry, sad, scared, in denial, or all of the above. They can be difficult to work with and hard to reach.

Grieving clients don't respond to logic. But they may respond to patience and reassurance. If they don't, it may be time to set these clients free. The truth is, if clients are constantly critical and unhappy or chronically expect more than we can deliver, it really doesn't matter why—unless knowing why guides our efforts to turn them from the dark side.

Trap, neutralize, or release?

We spend much of our time, effort, and resources attracting clients, so asking them to leave our practice seems counterproductive. Yet there are times when we're all better served by parting ways. How do you decide?

At the heart of all relationships with clients, there's a sacred trust. Veterinary practices exist to minister to people who care about their pets. For a growing number of people, a relationship with an animal is the most important relationship in their lives. Sometimes animals take on symbolic importance. They may be the only link to a spouse or parent who's died, a child who's moved away, or a happier time before the divorce. Other times, people bond closely to pets because they're denied human relationships.

9 deal-breakers

People who are drawn to animals may receive little respect or kindness elsewhere in their lives. These folks may respond profoundly to even a small dose of compassion. Appealing to the good nature of seemingly bad people can be powerful. Animals can be their bridge back to reality. Those clients who drive rusted-out vehicles, dress shabbily, or reek of body odor may still care deeply for their pets. So talk respectfully, and look for a reason to compliment them. For example, "I can see you take very good care of Minnie." Use a kind voice, soft, available eyes, and open body posture. Reassure them with phrases like, "I'm confident we can help you." Let them know you won't perform any procedures without their consent.

When owners entrust us with the safety and care of their animals, it's a sacred trust. If we violate the trust, then we need to apologize and make up for our failure or die trying. If owners violate the trust, it's a deal breaker.

Consider this example: When we present Mrs. Anderson with the bill, she tells us she forgot her checkbook. We may decide to trust her. Perhaps we give her a copy of the invoice and tell her we trust her to honor the agreement, appealing to her sense of honesty and fair play. We give her a deadline, and if she ultimately breaks the trust, we'll call her and explain we're referring her bill to a collection agency and inactivating her account. There's no reason to wait 30, 60, or 90 days. We act as soon we're sure that the trust has been violated. That way, we concentrate our resources on those clients who honor the trust.

Where the wild things aren't

We worked with a client who was abusive to our team members and impossible to deal with. He'd served our country and returned damaged by the experience, earning our compassion. He craved animal companionship because human companionship eluded him. He often showed up unannounced with loud, immediate demands. He threatened our team members, cursed at them, and accused them of mistreating him. I met with him and explained he needed to respect our team and act with decorum if he wanted to continue our relationship. After our conversation, he called ahead for appointments. Because he didn't understand proper behavior, he worked hard to show his respect. He talked quietly and took direction from our team members.

People often respect the untouchable. Like children, they may be pushing to find where the boundaries really lie. The spoiled child knows that "no" only means the tantrum needs to be louder and more public before the answer becomes "yes." We're proud of our work, our team, and our practice, and we won't be criticized unfairly. If our collective conscience is clear, we have no problem suggesting to a client who doesn't recognize our commitment and effort that the door swings both ways. A leopard just might change her spots if she knows it's the only way we're willing to continue working with her. If she refuses to change, we can send her on her way knowing we tried our best to heal all wounds.

When it's time to fire, tread gently

What's the best way to say goodbye? Some experts recommend using letters to fire clients. But I worry that a "Dear John" letter may be hurtful. Imagine opening your mail to discover your veterinarian no longer wants to see you or your pets. Do we want to punish these people for mistreating us, or are we trying to mutually resolve a common problem?

Letters are one-way communications that don't give the receiver any chance to comment. When you put words on paper, they take on more power. A brief e-mail may come across as curt, or a letter requesting more information may take on the tone of a demand. Without voice inflections and facial expressions, words carry different meanings.

We have a saying in our practice: "All problems are communication problems." For us, the best way to end a relationship with a client is face to face. If that isn't possible, we discuss the situation by phone. Perhaps we've misunderstood or our actions caused the problem. These conversations can open a path to work with the client or offer closure.

If you're not involved in the firing process, you can still be part of the solution. Decorum is infectious, so set an example for clients. Be kind, patient, upbeat, and slow to anger. You can also help by sniffing the wind and acting at the first sign of smoke. When clients start to make a scene, isolate them from the herd to limit the damage and focus on their concerns. Bring in a decision-maker with the authority to negotiate, and don't keep clients waiting while their anger builds.

Avoid lashing out from hurt feelings, embarrassment, humiliation, or anger. Communicate your concern and willingness to help, but don't allow them to bully you. Stick to your guns with confidence, professionalism, and empathy.

It's also important to discuss your practice's policies on how to deal with untrustworthy clients and ask the practice owner who's authorized to speak for the practice. Then determine the circumstances when a client may be fired.

There's no reason to be mean-spirited, petty, or unkind. You're simply discontinuing a business relationship for mutual reasons. And if the client reconsiders or recants, you may be able to resume the relationship. Remember, there are many practices with loyal clients even though their cultures, treatments, capabilities, and even values differ greatly. And this client may simply fit better in a different practice. So agree to disagree and use your energy on those patients whose owners recognize, appreciate, and honor the trust.

Jim Kramer, DVM, CVPM, is a partner at Columbus Animal Hospital in Columbus, Neb. Please send questions or comments to firstline@advanstar.com

Related Videos
© 2023 MJH Life Sciences

All rights reserved.