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How to Deal with (and Avoid) Complaints from Clients as a Vet

At some point, we have all experienced this.  We notice a message in our column regarding a client that seems rather displeased—Mr. Smith called, and he wants to discuss his dog’s care. He doesn’t think he should have to pay for any more follow-ups.  He only wanted to talk to a doctor.  Cue the collective sigh, and slightly deflated posture, as you mentally note the message’s presence. You prepare to make the call at the end of the day, partially because you don’t have time for a lengthy discussion between appointments, but also because you just don’t want to deal with confrontation right now. 

Now, let’s turn the tables on that inner dialogue, because believe it or not we can turn complaints into a positive situation. Client complaints can offer a wealth of knowledge when it comes to understanding the importance of communication in veterinary medicine. In fact, most complaints arise due to a break in communication or lack of understanding, rather than a true medical error. So let’s explore some of the most common complaints in veterinary medicine, examine the root cause, and discuss how to turn every complaint into an opportunity for learning.

“This is ridiculously expensive” 

Finances are stressful for everyone involved, especially when the client feels like they are surprised or trapped by the price of treatment for their pet. Decisions that may be deeply rooted in emotion, such as the health of a loved one, can be complicated by financial stress or even the client’s embarrassment to discuss their financial concern. Regardless of the scenario, it is always best to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

In any situation, do your best to be the first to discuss the financial details of your medical plan with the client. Clients don’t want to feel like they need to ask, or worse, feel too intimidated to ask before agreeing to a plan. Try using the following style of explanation,

“I am concerned that your cat may have an obstruction in her stomach that may require surgery.  In order for us to find out, we will need to start with x-rays and blood work. Luckily we can do these tests quickly, and the results will tell us if we can treat your cat with simple medication, or whether a more involved treatment plan is required. I am going to review an estimate with you that will encompass both of these possibilities, and if you have any questions about it please feel free to ask at any point.  I will be honest—the costs can add up quickly with a situation like this, so I will make sure that we are working together to make sure you are comfortable with the plan.”

A thorough explanation surrounding the value of the services, an acknowledgment of cost in a relatable way, and setting expectations for the client in a manner that prepares them to set financial limits, is a way to avoid this complaint in the first place.

“I am STILL waiting to hear back from the doctor for my pet’s results.”

This continues to be one of the most common client complaints, and easily the most avoidable. Let’s start by discussing methods to avoid this complaint. Then we will review how to turn it into an opportunity if it should arise.

Results can be complicated.  Sometimes results require extra research or consultation with an expert before they can be fully interpreted.  Other times there may be unexpected delays at the laboratory level.  A simple email or call to the client to give them an update is all that’s needed to buy more time and keep the client onside.  They appreciate the extra effort and they know that you haven’t forgotten about them. 

If, despite your best efforts, you receive this complaint, then a clear explanation should help to put your client’s mind at ease.  Acknowledge and validate their concern, but then reassure them that their pet’s case is top of mind. Tell them why you don’t have the results yet, and the system that you have in place that ensures the results are not lost or forgotten. Use this moment as an opportunity to explain what you are doing for their pet behind the scenes, which oftentimes equates to the client feeling bonded to you as their veterinarian.

"If despite your best efforts you receive this complaint, then a clear explanation should help to put your client's mind at ease. Acknowledge and validate their concern, but then reassure them that their pet's case is top of mind. Dr. Samyra"

“The vet just ran all of these unnecessary tests, and my dog is still sick. I want a refund.”

This is another common complaint that requires us to mix communication with the art of medicine to avoid or resolve. If you find yourself in this situation it is always best to start by acknowledging the client’s frustration, and that you too share this frustration. Do not hesitate to reiterate your number one priority, which is their pet’s quality of life and the client’s confidence in the plan. A brief explanation to review why certain tests and treatments have been chosen can also go a long way. For example,

“Whenever I consider our options for running tests, I always think about whether the results will change our treatment plan and affect my patient’s prognosis.  In this case, we have decided that our goal for your dog is long-term, safe, and effective pain control, which is why we have chosen to perform blood work before starting pain medication. I recall that at one time we discussed the ongoing nature of your dog’s condition. Now might be a good time to review what you can expect as we continue to tailor his treatment plan to his needs, as well as to make sure that we decide on goals for his treatment and follow-up together. It is important to me that we are making these decisions together.”

Now, how do we prevent this complaint from occurring in the first place? If we take steps to set expectations for our clients, then even when a diagnostic plan doesn’t confirm a diagnosis, the client is not surprised. In fact, if you discuss that this may occur and how it will be addressed if it happens, then the client will be prepared and never surprised.  Making informed decisions as a healthcare team will ensure that important tests are never seen as unnecessary, and criteria for treatment successes (and failures) will be clear and never confusing. 

Finally, you should not beat yourself up when you end up in this situation. It happens. Provided you are following a sensible plan and performing tests legitimately, there is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, a negative test allows you to rule many things out. Which is another way of saying you are making progress!

“Nothing was explained to me properly and now I am more confused than ever.”

Veterinary medicine is simultaneously a complex science and a fine art. We attend university for years just to barely scratch the surface of the profession.  We can’t expect our clients to remember everything that we say without offering them opportunities for clarification and tools to ensure their understanding.

If you receive a complaint like this, consider it an opportunity to find out where the initial miscommunication occurred, and seize the moment to re-establish a mutual understanding with your client.  For example,

“Mrs. Smith, I wanted to thank you for calling me to let me know that you are feeling confused about your cat’s treatment plan. I am terribly sorry that you feel this way. It is never my intention for my clients to feel confused or distressed by my treatment plan.  I am hoping that we can discuss the situation so that you can help me understand where I can improve my communication in the future.  I would also be more than happy to review your cat’s case from start to finish so that I can answer any further questions.  Would now be a good time to chat, or would you prefer I call back at a different time?”

As always, acknowledging and thanking your client for presenting their feedback is important in establishing trust within this crucial conversation. From there, you can use this as an opportunity to re-establish the trust that is needed for the continued care of their pet.

Avoiding complaints like this typically involves frequent check-ins with your client during important conversations.  Letting them know that they may ask you questions at any point, as well as asking them how they feel about the plan throughout the process, are all important approaches. Additional ways to ensure all clients’ learning and communication styles are met is by remembering that some people are better visual learners, offering a write-up, or emailing them educational handouts after the appointment

Complaints are actually opportunities to build client loyalty

Most client complaints are opportunities in disguise. However, it is worth mentioning that there is a small subset of clients that will lodge an unfounded grievance about something that is out of your control.  In these situations, try to remember that you can’t be everything to everyone and that these are the same clients that probably complain wherever they go whether it is to the mechanic, the grocery store, or to the dentist.  With time, practice and confidence, you will be able to recognize these complaints and move on without dwelling on the negativity. 

The flip side is you will eventually find that some of your most loyal clients are those that once had a complaint thoroughly and thoughtfully addressed by someone in your clinic.  Whether it was by you or someone on your team, the interaction allowed your client to feel heard, understood, and acknowledged. So really try to think about client complaints as opportunities to build meaningful relationships.  Lessons learned from these encounters will strengthen your communication for every future client interaction to come.

Learning to acknowledge them and resolve complaints in this way will also remove one of the greatest sources of stress. Converting the debilitating cortisol and adrenaline fueled anxiety into an altogether different serotonin and dopamine infused glow that accompanies the resolution of conflict successfully.

Want to learn essential skills they don't teach in vet school? Why not join our 'So You're a Vet... Now What?' course?



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