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The worst client ever seen in equine practice
You know those horse owners who ruin an otherwise great day? Well, shape 'em up-or ship 'em out.
Some clients make and keep appointments, listen to your advice, and would never yell at you. But we know you also have some complainers, hagglers, and that special breed of client that just doesn't pay up. Of course, you're not alone. Here's how some of your colleagues have managed their most difficult clients and conversations.
I want it now!
"My worst client ever is now one of my best clients," says Dr. Dina Duplantis, DABVP (equine), owner of Equine Health Maintenance in Bueche, La. The client in question had left her previous practice after she argued with the veterinarian. "I should've known it would be trouble," Dr. Duplantis says.
Initially, she found the client quite pleasant, but that didn't last. She would page Dr. Duplantis instead of leaving a message on the machine and waiting for a callback. In fact, she could never wait for anything. "Whatever she needed, it was 'it must be done now' or 'I'm leaving in the morning. Can you come today?'" Dr. Duplantis says.
Then the client started questioning Dr. Duplantis' approach to treatment and compared her work to the previous veterinarian's. It all came to a head on a December 23 at 5 p.m. The client was Dr. Duplantis' very last appointment on a long, windy, tiring day, and it was supposed to be a routine visit.
"She asked me to take a quick peek at her cutting horse and flex him to see if he needed his hocks injected again," Dr. Duplantis says. "He took a couple of 'off' steps, and I suggested we do the hocks after Christmas. Of course, she wanted them done right there at that moment."
Dr. Duplantis thought about all the Christmas wrapping she needed to do and the social event she'd promised to attend and told the client she could do it after Christmas. "She went crazy and talked about going back to her old veterinarian the next day, Christmas Eve, and getting the hocks injected," Dr. Duplantis says. She told the woman she could fit her in the day after Christmas and left, hoping that would be the last she'd see of her. Instead, the woman gave the horse a joint-therapy shot on her own and rescheduled with Dr. Duplantis for the hocks—after Christmas.
A month later, the woman asked Dr. Duplantis if she'd been a difficult client. Dr. Duplantis explained that she didn't like being yelled at and didn't appreciate demands or ultimatums. She also asked the client to plan ahead and make appointments rather than paging her at the last minute. "I didn't think I'd hear from her after my lecture, but she has actually become a great client," she says. "She still gets flustered, but she tries hard not to tick me off."
Dr. Ruth Sobeck, an equine practitioner in Palos Verdes, Calif., also had good luck setting boundaries. A client accosted her when she was out riding with a friend and complained about a bill. Dr. Sobeck got into an argument with the client right there in front of her friend—who happened to be another client.
"The incident brought the situation to a climax, and a lot of pent-up anger and frustration came out," Dr. Sobeck says. "In hindsight, it would've been better to calmly remark that I'd be happy to explain the charges during an appointment made during regular business hours."
The client stuck with her, though, and learned an important lesson: "I don't like to be bothered with questions when I'm relaxing with my horse," Dr. Sobeck says.
Unsafe with any breed
Sometimes it's not the owner who's biting and kicking but the horse. Dr. John Gifford, owner of Western Reserve Veterinary Service in Akron, Ohio, has seen his share of owners who don't know how to handle their animals.
"I once saw a rescued pony who needed to have his hooves trimmed," Dr. Gifford says. "Well, this pony was untouchable. He was in a stall and we had to throw a lasso over his neck to get him close enough to tie to a post and then use a pole syringe twice to sedate him enough to trim. When I was done, I turned to the owner and asked, 'What are you going to do next time something goes wrong, next time this horse gets sick or injured? Will you be able to handle this horse?'"
Dr. Gifford says he tries to help these out-of-their-depth owners as well as he can, but they often drift away, unable to afford proper veterinary care, and try to take care of their horses on their own.
Just as frustrating are owners who apologize for their horses' bad behavior but refuse to do anything about it, says Dr. Sobeck. "The clients will offer the horse's history of abuse as an excuse," she says. "But these clients don't care about my safety." Dr. Sobeck says she takes the steps she deems necessary, such as sedation or immobilization, to get the horse under control for treatment.
Dr. Gifford agrees, knowing that an out-of-control horse can break his leg—and then he'll be out of work. "I ask owners if they have good insurance," he says. "I tell them, 'You're going to need it when this animal hurts you.'"
A danger to the horse
"I've fired a client for neglecting his horses," Dr. Gifford says. The horses were in standing water and weren't getting any farrier treatment, even when Dr. Gifford offered to transport the animals. "Animal control was going to get a call, and then that client was going to say, 'Dr. Gifford's our vet,'" he says. "So I discontinued my relationship with him."
Dr. Gifford also sees clients who kill their horses with kindness. Owners who feel guilty about their infrequent visits often overfeed their horses, a practice that can be fatal. Dr. Gifford used to dance around the subject and try to be subtle, but that didn't work.
"Now I look them straight in the eye and ask, 'Why are you slowly killing your horse? There are quicker, less painful ways to do it,'" he says. That gets their attention, and Dr. Gifford has had success with owners who listen. One obese horse on its way to laminitis was pulled from the brink with a six-month intensive diet. The client came back and told Dr. Gifford, "I just did what you told me to do, and it worked."
Dr. Jim Hamilton, owner of Southern Pines Equine Associates in Southern Pines, N.C., says equine clients face more serious financial issues than small animal owners. The cost of feeding and boarding a horse dwarfs the cost of cats, dogs, and other smaller pets, and finances are often at the forefront of a horse owner's decision-making. That can make for difficult conversations.
"I'm often told, 'My horse is sick, I need your help, and I can only afford so much,'" Dr. Hamilton says. Emergencies such as accidents or colic episodes can cost an owner a lot of money, and many want alternatives to the top treatment recommendations. Sometimes there are other options; sometimes there aren't.
Dr. Hamilton has developed three methods of addressing cost with horse owners when it's an issue: financing, payment plans, and treatment alternatives.
"I first recommend outside credit options as a way to finance emergencies," he says. "Sometimes we offer an in-house payment option, but we're not in the lending business so we don't do it often. When it comes to the alternative treatment, I tell a client, 'There are some options. Each carries some level of risk. The most expensive approach reduces the risk to the horse, but the price tag is going to be the highest.'"
For example, in a colic scenario with a horse at the hospital, some of Dr. Hamilton's clients ask to take the horse home and handle the IV catheter themselves or administer fluids orally. He makes sure the client knows exactly what's involved with this choice."I require that they walk through this difficult decision-making process with me," he says. Medical treatment is his responsibility, but the realities of financial decisions are theirs, he says.
"It's not that I want them to feel guilty. I just feel it's a decision we need to make together," he says. "I don't get to avoid understanding the risks, and they can't either."
Sometimes it's ignorance that makes clients difficult, Dr. Hamilton says. He has seen a drop in clients' overall equine knowledge, so he's careful to spend extra time explaining what's wrong with the horse and what medicine can reasonably be expected to fix. He also debunks any myths or bad advice the client has received from other owners.
So, sometimes your "worst" clients are just being forced to make tough choices about their horses and not doing the best job of it. It's likely worth your time to work through the problems with these clients. In other cases, when you're dealing with someone who's unkind to you or your patient, or you're facing a horse owner who consistently fails to pay, you need to decide whether this person is worth the pain.
"It ruins my whole day to work with a client who doesn't respect me," Dr. Gifford says. "We do this for a living, of course. But still. If you don't enjoy going to Mrs. Jones' farm, don't go."