Grumbles, complaints, and other daily difficulties... - Veterinary Practice
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Grumbles, complaints, and other daily difficulties…

LIZ WATKINS continues her series with an outline of the six stages of ‘conversations’ and the guiding principles and communication skills required when dealing with complaints from clients

IS there a simple formula for managing conversations that are difficult and make us feel uncomfortable? We all carry out these conversations every day, and the easier we can make them, the less stress they will produce.

And the less stress staff have in their daily work, the better their job satisfaction, the better the client satisfaction, and the better the practice’s business reputation. The classic win-win-win situation.

Whether we are consulting, counselling, negotiating or dealing with complaints, the basic structure of the conversation is the same:

  1. Introduction and opening.
  2. Listening.
  3. Empathising.
  4. Discussing/negotiating/reassuring.
  5. Agreeing a plan.
  6. Concluding.

It’s just the fine details that change. In my last article we looked at bereavement. Now let’s look at communication skills in terms of complaints.

Two guiding principles should lead our thoughts and behaviour. The first was proposed by St Francis of Assisi, better known as the patron saint of animals, which is appropriate! “Seek first to understand.”

The second is a common business mantra: “Every complaint is an opportunity to improve.”

Taking the basic structure item by item…

Introduction and opening

The complainer will often open the conversation, sometimes discretely, but often in full view of other clients. If possible, complaints should be dealt with in private, not only to avoid clients being exposed to possible shortcomings of the practice, but also to avoid exposing others to the discomfort we all feel when witnessing someone airing grievances.

Moving the conversation to a quiet place allows a more thorough discussion, while avoiding interruptions: if given this reason, most people are willing to move into a private area.


This is where we can really start to understand the client’s point of view. When our body language and words clearly show that we want to understand, we start to help the client understand that this is not an adversarial situation: both parties are working toward a mutually agreeable outcome.

When people are angry, they may say things that are loud, rude and hurtful. But it is difficult to maintain anger when your “opponent” refuses to act as an opponent, but only wants to listen, understand and help.

Listening must be active listening: this doesn’t mean remaining silent – short queries where clarification is requested helps communicate your desire to understand, as does reassuring body language.

Conversely, it is absolutely essential not to interrupt for any other reason. Interruption, especially when it is in order to give one’s own views, will be interpreted as failure to want to listen.


By repeating back the gist of the complaint, we are showing that we have understood, and this invites the other person to correct our understanding, or to enlarge on any point.

We then need to express our empathy, using words that show we understand how they feel, and know it must be difficult/upsetting/tough. But we must avoid the phrase “I know how you feel.” It invites the retort, “No, you don’t.”


Only now has the time come to explain events from our own side, always couching it in language that repeatedly assures the client we understand his or her view. For example: “It may have seemed as if we were very slow to report Bessie’s results, but this was because the case was complex, and the vets were in discussion as to the best way forward.”

Gradually, a resolution satisfactory to all involved can be formed.

Agreeing a plan

Once the exchange is complete, a plan will have emerged. This should be clearly stated and agreed.


Explain with clarity your own next action. It’s often appropriate here to explain also what you will do to prevent a similar situation occurring in the future. For many people, the reason for a complaint is at least in part to stop a repeat of the actions they saw as a wrongdoing.

And afterward? Add a little wow factor – deliver far more than you agreed. For a non-trivial complaint, maybe send some flowers, write a letter thanking them for coming and outlining the agreed plan, or invite them to contribute at a practice forum.

Convert the complaining client to an ardent fan!

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