How to handle shocking behavior from stressed-out veterinary clients

by By Meg Oliver, CVPM

14 min read

As a practice manager, I’ve seen countless business challenges for my four-doctor practice over the past several months in response to COVID-19. I’m sure you’ve experienced much of the same. But, to me, the absolute most surprising and disappointing challenge has been client behavior.  

I have worked with my fair share of difficult clients over the past 20 years and I am proud to say we are a clinic that doesn’t tolerate abuse of our staff. I’ve always felt there is a difference between a difficult client and an abusive client. Difficult clients are annoying to deal with and can be grumpy but that’s a far cry from someone who is blatantly abusive toward staff. If you think you can be rude to our receptionists and sweet to our doctors, this is not the place for you. 

It is perhaps the fact that we’ve built such a good clientele that I am utterly blindsided by the client behavior that I have seen in the past several months. 

Stressful times cause stressed-out clients and bad behavior

a woman on her phone with her dog beside her sitting in a dog carrierOn March 20th, the Governor of New York state released an executive mandate that restricted us to performing only urgent and emergency care starting March 22nd. 

I made every effort to keep our clients informed on what we knew about COVID-19 and animals, what our current policies were, and what they should expect when bringing a pet in on an urgent care basis. Facebook posts, a COVID-19 info page on our website, newsletters, and emails spelled out every detail and step-by-step procedure for curbside service. We kept clients informed of the clinic’s operations, staff capability etc. in an informative and caring way. Many of our clients were appreciative and understanding, but a substantially larger amount than I would have ever expected showed a side I did not know they were capable of.  

Straight out the gate of not being allowed to perform routine services, a normally kind, long term client, began shouting and threatening to find a new veterinarian if we didn’t cut his ferret’s toe nails. Others reacted with excessive anger and frustration as we called to tell them we had to reschedule their well visits because the state said we could not see them at this time. Over-the-top behavior and accusations upon telling clients that we could not currently perform spays and neuters was common. 

Where did our sweet veterinary clients go?

What caused this? How could a normally kind and rational client suddenly lose their marbles because we needed to hold off on a toe nail trim? 

I’ve spent a long time pondering this over the past several months looking for ways to prevent it. I think it ultimately boils down to the clients taking their fear and frustration out on anyone who inhibits and prevents them from getting what they want. 

All U.S. citizens have had varying levels of restrictions on their lives. They’ve been told they can’t work so they can’t get paid, they can’t leave home, they can’t see loved ones in nursing homes, and they can’t have elective surgeries. 

Regardless of the necessity of COVID-19 restrictions, [bctt tweet=”the U.S. is not a country that is used to having this level of restriction placed on its citizens. Just because someone wholeheartedly agrees that these sacrifices must be made, does not mean they are happy about it. “]

As fear escalates, unemployment rises, and uncertainty of the next horrible thing around the corner grows, the stress of the average individual reaches new heights. When they can’t successfully voice their frustration to political leaders and authorities, what do they do with it? They take it out on the next obstacle that stands in their way, the next person who might be my receptionist saying “I am sorry but we can’t see your pet right now due to state restriction.”

Fair? Not in the least — But it’s reality

Even as we began to see routine appointments again, people were angry that we couldn’t get them in as soon as they wanted. No one seemed to care that we were and still are under restriction that prohibits the amount of people in the building forcing us to operate with less staff. Despite numerous attempts at clear communication and great service through curbside with fewer employees than ever, someone still gets mad that their visit wasn’t perfect.

In my entire career, I’ve never seen such an influx of unfounded complaints that seem to be made out of pure selfishness and a lack of caring about what a business has been going through during this national emergency. I’ve fired more clients in three months than I have in my entire career. I’ve put out more fires than ever, ones that shouldn’t have been fires in the first place and are born out of unwarranted client reactions that don’t line up with the circumstances. 

What can we do about bad client behavior?

a woman wearing a mask with her hands on her forehead, looking concernedI see complaints from veterinary practices and other industries across the entire country. So how do we return to the previous harmony we had with our clients before COVID-19? 

I don’t think anyone knows for sure because we are far from over with COVID-19 and the lasting effects it will have. But my best guess and my course of action will continue to be calling out the bad behavior. I will put a stop to it, as always, even if it’s on a much more frequent basis than it ever was before. 

Prior to this, I might have had to call someone out on being disrespectful or rude to my staff maybe once every 6-8 months. Now, it’s at least once a week if not more. People are tired, scared, and frustrated — I get it — but my clinic will not tolerate being the target of misplaced frustration. 

Last month I posted on social media an open letter to our clients regarding our experiences and the behavior we’ve seen with the intent of making it very clear what our expectations are. The entire staff signed it. My hope was that it might make someone stop and think about what it’s like to be on the other side right now, even if the bad behavior wasn’t at our clinic or even in veterinary medicine. Perhaps they would look back on how poorly they treated an essential worker and make a better choice in the future. 

This post has been shared over 60 times and has been seen by over 11 thousand people. 

While it saddens me that this letter was necessary, it gives me hope to have received over one hundred positive, heartfelt comments from clients, reminding me that we do have clients that care and understand the current limitations. Seeing my staff appreciate the fact that we would stand up and defend them in the face of abuse and disrespect is beyond worth it. 

Where do we go from here? 

a vet with a clipboard looking at clients in the clinic waiting roomI continue to urge my staff to think of all our amazing clients, especially those who have sent us treats and thank you notes. I remind them of the grateful people and I try hard to keep the moral up. I don’t complain about clients to my staff, I just handle it. I make sure my staff knows that they were defended and move on because I don’t want to bring them down. 

I’m eternally grateful to my team for struggling through this with a smile and for the clients who believe in us and defend us. I’m also grateful that technology makes it easy to connect with clients and disseminate information. Technology is a wonderful thing but perhaps we’ve gotten a bit too used to getting what we want at the touch of a button. Perhaps this excessive client behavior is the negative side effect of that. This experience has certainly reminded me that we have a lot to learn as a society when it comes to patience and understanding.

So, what are you seeing in your practice and how have you handled shocking client behavior? Hang in there friends! 

Meg Oliver, CVPM

Meg Oliver, CVPM

Meg Oliver, CVPM is a Certified Veterinary Practice Manager at Cicero Animal Clinic, P.C. in Syracuse, NY. She is also a finalist in the Practice Manager of the Year Contest. Over the past 20 years, Meg has worked in many aspects of the veterinary industry, in both Syracuse and Buffalo. Working her way up from receptionist to Practice Manager in various clinics has given her the experience and insight to understand the internal workings of a successful practice. Meg is passionate about preventive care, customer service, and financial management and focuses her energies on these areas. Meg and her husband Rob share their life with their daughter Faye and identical twin sons, Jimmy and Toby.

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