Dealing with conflict - Veterinary Practice
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Dealing with conflict

At the Cx Congress, Andy Roark explained six key tools to “keeping calm and carrying on” when faced with difficult situations in practice

Using an organisational approach adapted from the hotel, restaurant and airline industries, Andy Roark offered delegates at the 2018 Cx Congress in Nottingham a guide to dealing with angry pet owners. He explained that there are three measurable outcomes that should be kept in mind throughout: word of mouth likelihood, word of mouth valence, and intention to re-purchase.


The first aspect of the model, Andy explained, is the perceived speed with which a response is given. Perceived response time is much more important than actual response time and impacts client satisfaction but not retention, he said.

The acceptable response time will depend on the context and the mode – how serious is the complaint and how are they complaining? You will have to respond much quicker to a client on the phone about an injury sustained in practice than to a letter from a client who doesn’t think their cat’s nails were clipped short enough, for example.

Andy emphasised the importance of controlling expectations. If it is Tuesday and you say you will call the client tomorrow, and you do ring them on Wednesday, they won’t be impressed. If you say you will call them by the end of the week and call them on Wednesday, they will be impressed. Remember that “I’ll call you right back” doesn’t mean the same thing to the client and to the vet!

It is beneficial to give the perception of immediate action. Call them immediately and say you’ll figure out what happened and set a clear time-frame for when you will get back to them with a plan, he advised.


This refers to the systems in place for allowing pet owners to give feedback and for dealing with angry clients. The first step, Andy said, is to get them out of the waiting room and into another room. “But don’t leave them there – get the right person in to talk to them. Tell them how long it will be.” The opportunity to vent feelings significantly increases satisfaction and decreases word of mouth. “If somebody is mad at you, the best person they could express that anger to is you – because you won’t tell anybody else,” he said, highlighting that it’s “better to be blasted on the phone than over Facebook”.


The problem with apology is that practices don’t want to admit that a mistake was made. They worry about liability. If it’s a legitimate complaint, Andy strongly advised saying you’re sorry. Show understanding for the client’s dissatisfaction without admitting guilt: “I’m so sorry that you’re feeling this way”; “I’m so sorry for your frustration”. Always apologise for a communication failure, he said.


This is the benefit complaining clients get from the practice. Compensation has a positive effect on satisfaction and client retention. Higher compensation correlates with higher customer satisfaction up to a point. It’s not usually about the money though, Andy said – they want the issue to be corrected. “If you don’t appear to care, then giving them their money back doesn’t really matter. You have to be attentive,” he explained, noting that redress doesn’t have to be money – it could be a coffee for a long wait, free nail trims or a gift card. In some cases, it may make sense to give a free consultation and medication, but remember to give the client a receipt with the prices crossed out to show its value.


This element is often missed and makes a significant difference. Redress without an explanation makes you look guilty. Andy advised that the practice acknowledge the complaint, investigate what happened and explain the problem, why it happened and how it will be prevented from happening again.


Andy left the most importance factor until last – attentiveness. This is what is said and how it is said, and is the number one most important factor in satisfaction, retention and word of mouth. It is also the most difficult dimension to consistently control, he said. Make sure all members of staff show respect for the client and actively engage with them, ensuring they feel heard. Consider your body language, come out from behind barriers and take notes to show that you are treating them as an individual, even if you are using a system.

Jennifer Parker

Senior Editor at Veterinary Practice

Jennifer Parker, BSc, PgDip, MSc, is a science writer and editor. She studied zoology, endangered species re-covery and palaeoanthropology in the UK. Jennifer was Senior Editor of Veterinary Practice magazine for almost three years; she left the publication in October 2019 to move abroad and pursue a freelance writing career.

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