Disarming an angry client - Veterinary Practice
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Disarming an angry client

Listening and taking your time should be the first considerations when dealing with an intimidating client

A report published by the BVA at the start of October found that 85 percent of vets have reported that either they or a member of their team has been left feeling intimidated by a client’s actions or language. While it’s understandable – clients treasure their pets – it doesn’t make abuse right and it leaves vets and practice staff having to find strategies to cope.

There are a number of steps that practice staff can use to lengthen the fuse of irate clients. No matter what your approach, one thing is certain – your actions will either make a friend or an enemy out of the client – so tread carefully.

Customers are allowed to be angry

We’re all human and so while never deliberate, mistakes do happen. But when mistakes come to light, clients will make a point of bringing it to the practice’s attention. Whoever is on the receiving end of the complaint is probably going to want to take a stand, deflect the complaint or settle it quickly – all on the hop while the client is still talking. Contrary to what some might say, the advice here is to start from a position of assuming that the client has every right to be angry. Maybe they thought the vet was rude and didn’t listen to their concerns, or the treatment didn’t do what was promised. It’s entirely possible that the client is continuing with

Whatever you do, never respond with any form of emotion. A client is not angry at the person they are talking to, but rather the practice or something within it

a previous issue they have had with the practice. Alternatively, they are angry and emotional because they are tired and the pet needs treatment at a time (and cost) when it is inconvenient. But no matter the reason or whether they’re right or wrong, you need to make a point of letting them vent their spleen. In doing this you will let them express the root cause of the complaint, which you can deal with.

Listen carefully

Listen to what is being said and how it’s being expressed. Are there any key phrases that keep being repeated that will give you a clue as to the real issue? Is it technical or personal? Fixing a problem with, say, a booking system, won’t do much for harmony if the client has a real issue with the personnel administrating the booking system over the phone.

Whatever you do, never respond with any form of emotion. A client is not angry at the person they are talking to, but rather the practice or something within it. Clients who start to raise their voice, who become angrier and move into the realm of abuse and bad language do so out of frustration; they’re feeling that they are not being taken seriously or that the issue is not being understood.

A key part of the disarming process is to acknowledge that there is a problem in a way that the client can see.

Allow time

Rarely will a client say everything in one go – they will seek attention, start talking, ramble and move into other areas before coming back to the main point. The worst thing you can do is to interrupt them – it will just make them angrier. If you let the client talk until they are done, their emotional high will subside and they will be more amendable to interactive conversation.

Be supportive with your comments and when the client has finished, take control of the situation by acknowledging that there is an issue.

Be gentle

You will never win a shouting match with a client. Sure, you may win a verbal argument, but you will have lost all self-esteem and control in the process and other clients (and staff) will hear the ruckus.

A much better solution is to always respond by speaking in a calm and gentle tone; shouting over the client will just raise tensions and voices and the key point of their complaint will never be heard. Remember that silence is golden – listen and learn. Given time, an angry client will have to calm down in order to hear what you are saying.

Don’t lose sight of the fact that the client wants to hear what you have to say – it’s the very reason they have approached you. If they didn’t want to talk, they would not have complained and instead made a point of telling everyone they know what they think of the practice. In essence, the client wants your help in seeking a resolution to the problem.

Acknowledge the problem

Before you can properly deal with the issue at hand, it’s important to go over your understanding of what the client is upset about, reiterating the key points and the priorities as the client sees them. This will not only confirm your understanding but also reassure them that you understand their problem. Again, use a gentle and calm voice and ask the client to confirm your understanding is theirs.

Work the problem

It’s irrelevant how a problem started or where the client sees themselves in the resolution process. All that matters is that you take ownership of the client’s problem and see it through to the bitter end. If you don’t take this course of action, you will be pouring fuel onto the fire and giving the client very good reason to become incandescent with rage.

It’s very tempting to deny responsibility for the issue and state that it has been caused by someone else, hoping that the client and their problem will go away. Unfortunately, in today’s litigious and social media-based society, it is not going to.

The harsh reality is that even if you need to go to someone else to find out more, possibly at another of the practice’s locations, you will still be the client’s main point of contact. The client doesn’t care for hurdles and is also not bothered how internal procedures work – they just want a resolution. You, as far as they are concerned, are the one with knowledge and internal access, so assure them that you’ll use it on their behalf.

It’s irrelevant how a problem started or where the client sees themselves in the resolution process. All that matters is that you take ownership of the client’s problem and see it through to the bitter end

People first

Do not lose sight of the priorities. Should you fix the issue first or deal with the angry client? Should you deal with the technical or the personal? Everyone will have a different take on the quandary, but the best bet is probably to deal with the person rather than the technical issue. While it may seem entirely logical to deal with the physical manifestation, dealing with the human side of the complaint will help satisfy the client. Once they have calmed down you will be able to move on to the technical issue with them on your side. So – deal with the anger first and then progress on to fixing the problem.

Interestingly, it may transpire that the technical issue behind the complaint – say a poor booking system or a double charge made on a credit card – could be affecting other of your clients. Your client could actually be doing you a favour by bringing the issue to your attention.

Fix the problem

Once the client has been reassured, you need to move and deal with the reason for the complaint while also looking to ensure that long term, the problem does not reoccur. Cast iron guarantees that the problem (or something similar) will never happen again are not always possible. However, what you can do is tell the client that should an issue ever arise, you will be happy to be their point of contact. That said, if you think you’ve fixed the problem once and for all, make a point of proving this to the client.

Follow up

People like to be remembered and it is good practice to revisit a complaint and contact the client to ensure that they are happy with the resolutions (and the practice). A phone call or personalised email or letter is all that it takes to make the point that the client is valuable to the practice and that their complaint was taken seriously. It’s an incredibly powerful message to show that you care.

Remember if you truly don’t care about clients, dealing with issues will only ever be a short-term problem; no more clients, simply put, means no more complaints.

Adam Bernstein

Adam Bernstein is a freelance writer and small business owner based in Oxfordshire. Adam writes on all matters of interest to small and medium-sized businesses.

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