How to harness a pitchfork-wielding horde for your veterinary practice

How to harness a pitchfork-wielding horde for your veterinary practice

In the right forum, your clients can be your best defense.
Apr 01, 2013

It was the type of conversation any veterinarian knows well: A client, frustrated with the deteriorating state of her pet's health, was venting to me about her distress and using the opportunity to slide in a few incorrect statements about my expertise, my staff's handling skills and the garage-full of sports cars she and other hapless clients were surely funding with her bill. And I was doing what most of us would in that situation-nothing. I was letting her get her feelings out, thinking about the appropriate response.

Before I got the chance, my technician decided to step in. "Don't say that about Dr. V!" she said in an offended tone. "She's a wonderful doctor and she works her fingers to the bone."

Uh-oh. As I turned around to rush her out the door, the technician leaned her head back in and said, "And she drives an old beat-up Toyota!"

I paused for a moment and took a breath before turning back to the client, expecting the worst. Much to my surprise, my technician's words had produced the exact opposite effect from I was expecting.

"I'm sorry," the client said once the door was shut. 'I'm just frustrated, that's all." I acknowledged that, and the rest of the visit went well.

Now, I'm not saying you should train your staff to argue with distressed clients on your behalf, but this experience got me thinking about how difficult it can be to defend oneself against any accusation or criticism, justified or not. It's one of the biggest reasons veterinarians give for their reluctance to be active online: "How do I handle angry clients?" And that fear-the fear of playing out my exam room scenario under the glass dome of the Internet for all to see-is keeping many of them from participating in the greatest communication revolution of our time.

The fallacy of Yelp

I stand by my assertion that there's no single greater online annoyance to today's veterinary practitioner than Yelp. It's a great site for, say, restaurant reviews, where the critiques can be dissected with a fair amount of accuracy. (The parameters on which a restaurant experience are judged are pretty simple to understand.) Was the meal incredible or inedible? How was the wait? Look, here's a lovely Instagram picture of my Caesar salad. Usually one's dining experience isn't a deeply emotional event, making it easier to evaluate in a dispassionate manner.

Veterinary care, on the other hand, is a whole different beast. Few people bother to seek out Yelp and write a review unless they hold strong opinions about the care you've provided. And with the Internet being what it is, those opinions may have little relation to what actually happened. But what do you do? Going on the defensive looks, well, defensive, violates most ethical standards for discussing cases and usually escalates the whole situation. So your office manager might post a polite, neutral "We're sorry you had this experience. Please call us to discuss it further," and that's that.

Veterinarians see this, assume this grim public discourse is the future of veterinary online marketing and run screaming. Not that it helps. Like it or not, people are out there talking about us. But here's the good news-there are plenty of pitchfork-wielding hordes who want to defend you. Your clients and fans have your back. Really, they do.

That's the glory and the magic of social media. It taps into our most basic primal needs for community. Sure, a bad review can be problematic if that's the only online imprint you have, but if you have a vibrant and active Facebook community, for example, that will make a far greater impression on your current and future clients than one person complaining about the price of your office visit.