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How to deal with angry clients . . . to a point

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If you’re noticing an increase in rude behavior on the part of clients feeling put out by the change in your pet-care protocols during the pandemic, you’re not alone.

Many hospitals are feeling the heat in a number of ways—scathing reviews on social media, disrespectful and hurtful language on the phone, or at the front door. And it’s taking its toll on staff.

NEWStat spoke with Caitlin DeWilde, DVM, owner of The Social DVM, a veterinary-specific digital marketing firm specializing in social media strategy and day-to-day management, consulting, and coaching for veterinary hospitals. An expert on conflict resolution, DeWilde discussed strategies that practices can use for dealing with angry clients.

When upset clients request to know why your hospital is still doing curbside or continuing to enforce social distancing measures, DeWilde says to refer to your plan.

“Everybody on the team needs to know what the plan is and why,” she says. In other words: why is your hospital doing what it’s doing? “Is the answer, ‘We’re doing curbside because we want to keep our team safe,’ or ‘Because we’re following local health guidelines’”? She says the “why” is a little different for every practice, and not all staff may be up to speed on the reasons for the “why.” So if a client demands an answer, one might not immediately come to mind for some employees, leaving them unsure of how to respond. “A lot of clients are picking up on [that] hesitation,” DeWilde says, which only makes them angrier. “But once everybody knows what the ‘why’ is, it makes it much easier to verbalize.”

Another factor could be where your hospital’s located, says DeWilde. If there aren’t a lot of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the area, it’s quite possible that some of the staff members don’t agree with how strict safety protocols have to be. Which is why it’s critical that all staff understand your reasons.

Make sure you have something to support your reasons for your protocols, she says, be it a shelter-in-place order, a county health guideline, or a city press release: “Having that handy as a rebuttal is also helpful because they can’t argue if [the hospital is] following the law,”

What do you do when you pick up the phone and there’s an angry client on the other end? “It’s good to have a point person who’s best equipped to deal with that,” DeWilde says, although she knows that’s easier said than done: For most hospitals right now, “it’s all hands on deck.” Because many hospitals are stretched thin, everyone’s answering phones or seeing who’s at the front door. Technicians, assistants, owners, everyone—because they have to.

And they most likely won’t know what to say to an angry client.

DeWilde’s advice: “If you have a caller who’s negative, say something along the lines of, ‘I understand that this is what you’re saying. I hear you. If you’d like to discuss this further, I’m going to need to refer you to a manager. Can you hold or can I refer you to [their] voicemail?’” And your point person should be able to say: Here’s our protocol, here’s why we’re doing it, and here’s the supporting documentation.

DeWilde says it’s vital that your point person be a manager or an owner: someone who has the authority to say yes or no to a client: “Receptionists don’t have the power to say, ‘You’re not welcome in this practice.’ A manager or an owner does.”

To sum up:

  • Identify the person (or people) best equipped to handle negative client interactions
  • Make sure they have appropriate resources and documentation to back up what they say
  • Make sure they have the ability to make the final call

“They need to be somebody who has the authority to say whether or not to continue to do business with that pet owner,” she adds.

And don’t be afraid to tell an unpleasant client to take a hike.

“At some point, I have to say, if my client is going to threaten to leave or call us stupid, are these clients I want to have?” DeWilde says. “Every clinic I know is just beaten down and busy like never before. Now is a good time to be a little choosy about the kind of clients you want to have.”

Clients who berate your team, make people feel bad, threaten your staff, or put their health and safety in danger: “Are those the kinds of clients you want?” DeWilde asks. “Especially when you’ve got plenty of other pet owners beating down the door trying to get in?” As a practice owner, DeWilde says it’s a question she asks herself, too: “We’re scheduling five weeks out for preventive care. That’s never happened before. I’d rather give that spot to somebody who’s going to be grateful for the risk we’re putting our team through.”

She concedes that this is quite a change of pace for her. “If you’d asked me this six or nine months ago, I might have said, ‘well, let’s try to work with them and figure it out.’” Ask her today, and she’ll tell you straight out: “You don’t have time for this.”

DeWilde says it’s important to demonstrate to your staff that you’re not going to support rude behavior. “Stand up to the bullies.” She adds that you don’t have to be rude in return: “Maybe standing up just means ignoring them.”

“Either way,” she says, “that shows your staff that you’re not caving to people who are putting them at risk or giving them trouble. The team is energized by that. We do not need to be dealing with people who are draining our life forces.”

Photo credit: © istock/cmannphoto