Client Criticisms Actually Growth Opportunity, Says NAVC Speaker

There was no hand-holding during a seminar titled “The Five Worst Things Clients Say” at the North American Veterinary Conference this week. Ernest Ward Jr., DVM, told attendees that “complaints are camouflaged constructive criticism; tools that can make you better.” He advised veterinary professionals to train and support front-office staff members, who bear the brunt of difficult client interactions, and not to dwell on the negative. The key to dealing with clients who complain, yell or grouse about price is to recognize that you are not alone, Ward said, “They probably yell at everyone.”

Ward is a practice owner who worked as a musician and actor - two careers that taught him to put personal criticism into perspective. “Critics, if you let them, can destroy your career, but in truth it can only make you better,” he added.

There was standing room only at the seminar on Jan. 7, 2005; proof that client conflict is a common problem with veterinarians, who were advised to limit the amount of time they analyze negative client interactions to 10 minutes. Instead, Ward said, move beyond the words and focus on identifying the root cause of the complaint.

“A good leader asks, ‘How could I have made it better,’” when a client issues a complaint about price, service or anything else, Ward said. “A good leader looks in the mirror, he said. Bad leaders, Ward sound, look out the window,” blame someone else or worse, fires the client. “Don’t fire pain-in-the-butt clients; accept that’s the way they are,” Ward said.

James A. Bollmeir, DVM, who attended the seminar, disagreed. He fired a client who had come to the clinic and complained about prices for 10 years, but did it in such a way that the client referred someone to the clinic two days later. “There’s a way to do it,” Bollmeir said. His approach was to actually pay the client for the services his pet received that day and then explain why he was firing him. The client was at first baffled, but the receptionists were thrilled. “He always gave them a hard time,” said Bollmeir, who agreed with Ward’s advice to train receptionists on client communication techniques and to provide them with continuous support.

“Give them pep talks,” Ward said. “The real question is, ‘are we providing a service that is commensurate with our price, and the answer is yes.’ Reaffirm that with the receptionists, who take this [price complaints] all day long.”

Questions about care of an animal should always be responded to with data, Ward said. Charts are helpful when clients ask about feeding regimes during kennel stays, and explanations of what steps are involved in services help clients recognize value, he added. When responding to client complaints, address the issue head on, Ward urged. “I always identify that a client has taught me something. It’s not about winning or losing. You are trying to restore the relationship and improve your service,” he explained.

The way to do that, he said, is to maintain eye contact and regular breath control; listen carefully, open your body posture, use empathetic statements like “I understand” when a client is talking with you, and if a mistake has been made, “own the problem,” Ward said.

On a regular basis, celebrate the positive and focus on delivering high-quality medicine, Ward told the audience. “If I don’t get a complaint a day about money I know I’m not charging enough,” he added. However, “If every single client complained I would pay attention. Look for attrition,” he advised. “The proof is in the pudding.”