How to handle angry clients without losing your cool

It’s been a long, weird time for everyone, and clients’ tempers are wearing thin.

“We’ve had some difficulties,” says Jennifer DiTrapani, DVM, owner of AAHA-accredited Morningside Animal Hospital in Jensen Beach, Florida. Morningside, like many hospitals, is mostly offering curbside service, and the team is seeing an increasing number of anxious, frazzled, and even downright angry clients. While handling an upset client is always tricky, especially for front-office staff who may not be trained in conflict resolution, the pandemic is making everything feel considerably more fraught.

When Morningside’s staff can’t resolve things on their own, they ask DiTrapani to step in. Usually, she can sort things out, but every now and then, there’s a client who just won’t calm down. “We try to just let the person talk and say what they need to say,” DiTrapani says. “Sometimes they just need to vent.”

That’s a good instinct, says Lori R. Kogan, PhD, a licensed psychologist and professor of clinical sciences at Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Kogan says the first and most important thing to do in order to de-escalate the situation is to keep cool and avoid getting sucked into the client’s emotional response. That’s not easy to do when someone is speaking to you loudly and angrily.

Kogan recommends starting with slowing down your breathing, which is one of the fastest and easiest ways to calm yourself. “If I can change my breathing,” Kogan says, “it will change my heart rate. It will help alleviate all of the stuff that my adrenaline is doing.”

Next, speak in a calm, measured tone. “I consciously talk slower than I would normally, and just a little bit softer,” she explains. “If you can keep yourself under control, there’s a better chance you can get the client under control.”

But even more important than trying to say the right thing in the right way is taking the time to listen. “You don’t necessarily need to agree with them,” Kogan says, “but it’s important to let people know that you’ve heard them.”

She says that one of the best ways to do that is to paraphrase what the client says and repeat it back to them. “If somebody says, ‘I’ve been waiting in my car in the parking lot for two hours and it’s super frustrating,’ you respond with, ‘Yes, that’s a long time to wait in your car.’”

This kind of simple mirroring lets angry clients know that you not only hear them, but you understand why they’re upset. “You’re not apologizing for things that are outside your control,” Kogan notes. “You’re acknowledging that it’s a frustrating situation.”

Sometimes, once is enough, and clients will calm down at that point. But not always. Angry people often can’t turn it around immediately, Kogan points out. They feel compelled to continue to vent. “So they’ll say their next thing, and I’ll still be in that place of, ‘Yes, I really hear you. It’s frustrating. This whole situation with COVID is frustrating for everybody.’”

Kogan says this kind of exchange, which might include a couple of back-and-forths, is enough to calm most people. “They just want to be heard,” she says. “They want to be validated that they have a right to be pissed off.”

That’s when, if you’re not careful, you can wind up right back where you started. If you’ve gotten to a point of calm, Kogan says, it’s important that you resist placating, explaining, or getting defensive. You might, for example, be tempted to explain or justify by saying you’re really backed up, or that it’s not your fault. But that’s likely to backfire and ramp an angry client right back up again. “Just let that validation piece sink in,” she counsels. “You need to resist the urge to make excuses while you’re trying to stay calm.”

Instead, with the client calmer and feeling heard, you have an opportunity to turn things around. “Redirect the client to whatever the appointment was supposed to be about, [such as by saying,] ‘We’re here now, so let’s look at what’s going on with Fluffy.’”

Kogan says it’s important to remind the client that you’re allies and that you have a common purpose: ensuring the health of their pet.

It’s rare that staying calm, paraphrasing, and offering validation don’t work, but it happens: There are people who really can’t get themselves under control. Kogan says that’s when you need to remind yourself that “nobody deserves to be verbally abused. If they’re just screaming at you, then you could say, ‘You know, we’re probably going to have to reschedule.’”  

This is even more important, Kogan says, if it seems that the client might get physical. “Don’t ever stay in a situation where you feel like you’re at risk. Your top priority is always your own safety.”

Morningside’s Jennifer DiTrapani concurs, noting that, on at least one occasion, she’s had to resort to calling the police, when a former employee who’d been let go returned to the hospital demanding to have a pet seen, and became confrontational. Mostly, though, she’s found that when a disagreement with a client can’t be resolved, it’s simply time to suggest that the client move on.

Recently, one longtime Morningside client, a local business leader, got upset about having to wear a mask and wound up storming out. DiTrapani followed up with him by phone. “I told him we were requiring masks to keep our staff safe. He told me he understood, but said, ‘Okay, well, I’ll have just have to go somewhere else.’“

“I think the goal,” she says, “is to let something like that end without any harm coming to anyone.”

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