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.
Happy pitchfork-wielding hordes are your friends
This is where most veterinarians who avoid Facebook pages panic. Now I've given disgruntled people a megaphone! Why would I put myself out there when people are just waiting to take me down in a post that Google will archive forever and ever?
Here's why: Because a good page filled with fans is the virtual version of that exam room experience I described earlier. Valid complaints are easy to acknowledge, demonstrating you care. And if the complaint is over-the-top and off-base, you won't need to defend yourself. Your clients who know you-and who know how hard-working and loving your staff is-will do it for you.
The old assumption that only angry people write about businesses is no longer true. Your Facebook page is your online real estate-a virtual waiting room where you can talk at your leisure with friendly faces. A page populated with good content, one that establishes your staff as the pet lovers they are, will attract just the kind of person you want around you. So let the hit-and-run types go to Yelp. Invest your energy in giving people like you the chance to build a relationship with you.
Social media is about belonging. Interacting with a business on a one-on-one level gets people emotionally invested in that business. Those fans, once they have cemented that additional little bond with you through your Facebook page, will fight for you. It happens over and over online. Take, for example, the person who goes to the Lululemon page to complain about a new top. The brand's hardcore fans rally with an almost frightening passion and force to its defense. Lululemon doesn't even have to say a word. You can't pay for that kind of loyalty.
And that's just yoga clothing we're talking about. We're actually dealing with people's beloved pets-talk about emotional investment! I started a blog and a Facebook page back in 2009, the Neanderthal years of social media. My bosses took a "don't ask, don't tell" approach to my online writing; they never once checked what I was saying, which fortunately for them was nothing bad. When I told people what I did, other veterinarians in particular, their reaction was much like what Match.com subscribers experienced in the early days of online dating-a vague sense that they were embarrassed for me and scared for my clinic.
When did that all start to change? Right about the time people started e-mailing and messaging me wanting to know where I practiced. Although they knew nothing about my clinic or my background, the way I presented myself in that space was enough for people to trust me with their pets. In less than five years, social media morphed from something to hide to something to tolerate to something to shout about from the hills.
I was nervous too at first. As one of the first veterinarians out there online, I braced myself to be put on the defensive every time someone had a bad experience or read the latest accusatory article in The Wall Street Journal about the cost of care, asking me to defend my profession in the face of their complaints.
You'd be shocked at what a once-in-a-blue-moon experience that has been. I don't create an online environment conducive for complaining, so they go elsewhere, where people are more receptive to their vents. (Even complainers want to belong.)
On the rare occasion that someone does complain about my profession, an amazing thing happens. Those people I have built a relationship with over the years come roaring in, defending not only me but all of you. They tell their stories about the veterinarians they love so much, about how wonderful and compassionate they are. They express indignation that someone would extrapolate one bad experience to me, their online veterinarian-writer friend, and to their own clinic they love so much.
For every negative person out there griping, there are legions of pet lovers who care about us and our success. But we're so frightened of being beat down by the negative folks that we neglect to cultivate the happy hordes who love us and will stick up for us.
And that's a shame, because when these people seek me out to talk about the veterinarian they adore, they may very well be talking about you. And who doesn't want the whole world to see that?
Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, known as Dr. V. among her readers, is a regular contributing author for a number of well-known publications. Visit her award-winning blog at pawcurious.com.