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TRENDS IN YOUR INBOX: Turning Challenging Clients Around—6 Expert Tips from AAHA-Accredited Practices

Try to put yourself in your client’s shoes and acknowledge their feelings in the moment.

Note: This article is adapted from Exceptional Customer Experience: 80 Tips for Compassionate Care, Clear Communication, and Authentic Client Connections (AAHA Press, 2020).

At AAHA, one of our richest sources of inspiration is the practices we see every day. Our staff is constantly delighted, surprised, and inspired by the tips and tricks found in AAHA-accredited hospitals and thought up by their talented and creative staff members. We want to help amplify the voices from our member community that can help other practices in their daily work, especially when it comes to client communication and customer service.

Providing excellent patient care is more than just medicine, and a thriving practice must also provide customers with an experience that relies on communication, compassion, and service. This can be especially challenging when faced with a difficult, toxic client. Every practice has one—the pet owner who causes tension and conflict and has a negative reputation with every member of your staff. Managing these clients can be a major hurdle in your practice, but it can also present an opportunity. With skill, understanding, and preparation, even the worst offenders can be turned into loyal, satisfied clients. Here are six of our favorite tips from AAHA-accredited practices on how to provide the best care and service to even the most challenging clients.

 

① Weave Practice into Your Routine

Most veterinary staff don’t enter their first hospital as experts in communication, and they have little experience dealing with the daily challenges of client communication. So it’s understandable that even the most talented staff members need to practice difficult client interactions in order to build a client communication skill set. Rather than let staff members sink or swim on the job, Melissa Magnuson, DVM, and her teams at Canobie Lake Veterinary Hospital, All Pets Veterinary Hospital, and Greenland Veterinary Hospital take the time to practice. “Role-playing is the number-one way we make challenging clients become our friends,” she said. “We practice these scenarios so all staff is educated and prepared. We close for two hours every week for rounds and training.” Do the same in your own hospital and carve out time to practice on whatever schedule works for you and your staff.

② Start with Active Listening

Jamie Davis, CVPM, of Mile High Animal Hospital explained, “When encountering a challenging client, we remember that we never know what is going on for them personally. We try to give the client the benefit of the doubt and be a good listener. We learn so much more about the story when we stop to listen.” Give your client your full attention, eye contact, and engaged body language. Ask questions to clarify their points, and avoid dismissive language, distractions, and jumping to conclusions. Being able to truly hear and understand a client’s perspective is crucial to providing them and their pet with excellent care. Furthermore, this skill will carry over into every interaction in your practice, from clients to coworkers to superiors.

Demonstrate that you can provide the best medicine for their pet with options for care, thoughts on the best path forward, and supporting materials to help them move forward with their beloved pet.

③ Follow Up with Empathy

Crystal Wachtel, hospital manager of VCA St. Clair Shores Animal Hospital, said, “When presented with a challenging client, really listen to what they have to say, take notes to review with your team, and comfort them with concern and understanding. Use phrasing like, ‘I’m sorry you had to go through this,’ or ‘I’m sorry this happened to you.’ Even if there is little that can be done, they leave feeling heard and sympathized with—which goes a long way.” Who in a veterinary hospital hasn’t had feelings of frustration, fear, and even shame in their lives? Even though it can be challenging, try to put yourself in your client’s shoes and acknowledge their feelings in the moment. Being able to see the world through their eyes, and from a nonjudgmental perspective, is the best way to de-escalate a difficult client situation and make strides toward developing a lasting relationship.

④ Seize the Silver Lining

Patricia Kennedy Arrington, DVM, of Jefferson Animal Hospital, advises, “Always find at least one positive thing to say.” Compliment the pet and the owner both, despite any conflicts or conditions they might have come in with. A small and heartfelt compliment will keep the appointment positive and serve as a good reminder for the staff member as well. As veterinary professionals, it’s helpful to remember that even the most challenging client has love and affection for the pet they are bringing in for your care.

⑤ Highlight Value Instead of Cost

One of the most common and caustic sources of friction between clients and staff is the cost of veterinary services. Dana Shaffer from Brodie Animal Hospital said, “When we receive price-shopping calls, we explain what goes into a particular procedure or exam. We never just give a bottom-line cost.” Take the time to walk a client through the steps involved in the procedure and use their attention to show off. A pricing conversation can be a chance to illustrate your hospital’s medical excellence, how you stand out from other competitors, and how you plan to take every measure to give their pet the best possible outcome. If a client understands the value in the cost of care, they are less likely to balk at the dollar amount.

⑥ Search for Solutions

Deborah Anderson at Otay Pet Vets said that she and her staff try to “validate [clients’] concerns with solutions whenever possible.” Regardless of the client request, try to think of what you and your practice can do to create a plan, resolution, or recommendation for them. Clients have come to your practice for your expertise. Demonstrate that you can provide the best medicine for their pet with options for care, thoughts on the best path forward, and supporting materials to help them move forward with their beloved pet.

Want more expert tips on how to improve communication and service for your clients and staff? Exceptional Customer Experience: 80 Tips for Compassionate Care, Clear Communication, and Authentic Client Connections is filled with unique ideas and creative practical tips all sourced from AAHA’s expert members. Get your copy now!

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