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  • Writer's pictureDr. Bill Wagner

The Customer Isn’t Always Right: How Do We Navigate This?

Veterinary healthcare workers find themselves in a challenging position during their workday. They must balance the fact that they have a professional and ethical responsibility to advocate for the wellbeing of their patients against the fact that veterinary medicine is a service industry. Simply put, there are no patients to treat without clients to bring those patients in for care (and to pay for services rendered).

However, anyone preaching “the customer is always right” as company policy has never worked on the front line in the service industry. The customer is NOT always right, especially when it comes to matters of medical science, so it is important that veterinary medical teams are trained to have more tools than appeasement at their fingertips when dealing with challenging clients.

Veterinary healthcare workers deserve a safe work environment where they are treated with respect. Their employer needs to protect them. This shouldn’t need to be said, but unfortunately some veterinary employers buy into the idea that it is easier to appease difficult clients even when they’ve crossed the line of conduct towards staff rather than potentially dealing with a bad online review.

There needs to be a no tolerance policy with regards to abusive clients.

Great communication means that there doesn’t need to be a compromise between quality of care and quality of service when serving reasonable clients. Communication is a skill that requires training and practice, and most veterinary healthcare workers get neither before interacting with clients. The veterinary team and the average reasonable client share a common goal of ensuring that the patient gets excellent care, so conflict often arises as a result of gaps in the amount or quality of communication that a client receives. The medical team must operate within the real limits of what can be done medically and at what financial cost, but most clients are able to understand those limitations if they’re receiving the answer to “why?” instead of just “what?” when they communicate with the team. This is also

Recommending best possible care will predictably cause conflict. Show up prepared! No client wants to hear that the expensive boutique diet that they’re feeding their pet is nutritionally deficient, or that they need to make room within a tight budget for things like heartworm and flea/tick prevention. Clients tend to be especially unhappy when delivered with the news that you don’t think that their pet is genetically fit for breeding or that you think it is a bad idea for them to welcome a litter to their home when they’re lagging on providing care to the pets that they already have. Tough recommendations are always best supported with consistency and external validation where possible. The entire team should know what your hospital’s preventative care recommendations are and preach them consistently from check-in to check-out. Hearing the same message 3-5 times from the entire team is MUCH more effective than only hearing it once from the veterinarian. Wherever possible, support recommendations with client handouts or otherwise direct them to legitimate, peer-reviewed resources so that they can build comfort around the rationale of your recommendations. While it would be nice if every client walked into the exam room with complete trust in you and your team at their first visit, trust is built over time and providing external validation that your recommendations are rooted in medical science rather than opinion is a useful trust building exercise that takes minimal effort as long as you have those resources prepared in advance and at the fingertips of your team.

Some clients will be unreasonable no matter what you do. This is the unfortunate reality of practicing veterinary medicine. You can do everything right medically and with customer service and some clients will still be unhappy. The immediate assumption from management when they see an angry client should not be that the team must have done something wrong. When dealing with a truly unreasonable client usually the only path forward is to provide that client with their pets’ medical records and a letter terminating their VCPR with your practice.

The difference between a good client having a bad day and a truly abusive client isn’t always going to be clear. Having clear ground rules and communicating them to clients is important. We all have good days and bad days, and veterinary teams spend a lot of time working with people who fall into the latter category because their pets are ill. It is important that we are empathetic and understanding that we’re dealing with people who aren’t at their best and may reflect that in their behavior. However, there does need to be a line of conduct that is communicated to clients as being a point of no return in the relationship between the practice and that client. Being grumpy because your dog is sick is understandable, but being verbally or physically abusive to the veterinary team is NEVER acceptable.

Have a plan for how to handle an unruly, potentially dangerous client BEFORE it happens. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Basic de-escalation training and crisis training can be covered in a single staff meeting and pay massive dividends if a concerning situation ever arises.

Many “difficult” clients are just highly engaged. Turn this into an asset. Clients coming in with strong but medically incorrect opinions about their pet’s care is frustrating, but also an opportunity to redirect that enthusiasm in a positive way. Unfortunately, in the age of the internet and with many players in the business of selling food and pet care products resorting to misleading or inaccurate claims, the right path is harder for enthusiastic pet owners to decipher than ever without the guidance of their veterinarian. This is an opportunity to teach, and to guide them to legitimate resources where they can continue their independent study after they leave your exam room. You’re not going to be able to convince a highly engaged client to stop “researching”, but you can make sure that they’re putting that energy into reading peer reviewed, legitimate information. Modern pet parents want the medical decisions for their pet to be a collaborative process where their input and opinions are given weight rather than looking to their veterinarian to be the unilateral medical decision maker. Acting as a teacher and a guide means that you can set clients up to be better, more informed collaborative partners in the future.

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