Take the bite out of negative veterinary client interactions
Veterinary hospital clients can become emotional when they perceive that they or their pet's been treated inappropriately. When they let those emotions get the better of them, they may become highly agitated, inconsolable or even violent. Here are some tips to attempt to prevent the escalation of an unhappy client encounter into a miserable or dangerous event:
Preemptive action> Try to identify your volatile clients. If they create unnecessary confrontations with you or your staff over minutiae, consider asking them to use another practice before more serious trouble starts during a subsequent visit.
> If a threat or serious disagreement occurs, review the record thoroughly and interview any staff members who were involved. Get their written statements if it seems necessary, especially before memories blur.
> Review the strategies below and be comfortable with how you plan to respond before a client confrontation or belligerent phone call occurs.
When things derail
> Control emotions and choose words with precision. President Obama, in unscripted speaking, selects words with great care and sometimes even pauses to collect his thoughts mid-sentence. This is the mark of a skilled and diplomatic debater.
> Establish and understand your position clearly. Don't develop it during a phone call or client conversation.
> With respect to the problem's main issues, know the law, know your policy, know the AVMA and your state board's position on the topic. (If medication is involved, fully familiarize yourself with the label).
> Don't be condescending or arrogant with the other party. The temporary satisfaction isn't worth the headaches you may end up with by sounding or behaving in a haughty manner.
> Consider implying that you agree with the opposing party's position. For example, if your client thinks you have overcharged for a patient's hospitalization, say, "I hospitalize this type of case for three days because that is the widely accepted protocol. Some researchers say fewer days would be just fine, and although I personally think they may well be correct, we must follow the published best practices until well-established science directs a different course."
> If the client is just not rational, consider simply blaming somebody else (somebody invulnerable to your wacky client). For example, occasionally one of my clients will go ballistic when his or her pet has bitten somebody and the law requires that I report the bite to health authorities. Sometimes in response, I just start whining that the client is absolutely right: the law is absurd and the government is poking its nose into everybody's business. I also tell them that "they will arrest me" if I don't comply with that idiotic rule. Once the client and I are on the same side, a "win-win" prevails—they leave quietly and a few days later I can send them copies of their records and bid them sayonara. It doesn't matter that the fools think I agreed with them.
After it's all over
> Use the trouble as a learning experience. If a client claims he was not fully informed, improve documentation of client contacts. If a staff member made an error, review the proper way to deal with such cases with the entire staff.
> Develop or hone your security plan. I have had displeased clients huddle in the parking lot waiting for a staff member to come outside so they can badger them further. We have had clients threaten violence. A few times physical altercations have occurred. Your practice should know what you want them to do, who to call and how to diffuse any potential threat.
Dr. Christopher Allen is president of Associates in Veterinary Law PC, which provides legal and consulting services to veterinarians. Call (607) 754-1510 or e-mail