Communication Tips: Phrases to Avoid When Dealing With Difficult Veterinary Clients

In today's world, emotions are high and patience is low. Consumers demand instant gratification, seamless operation, and expedited service for everything, including veterinary care. When reality fails to meet this expectation, they may publicly react in a very negative way.

What Not to Say to an Angry Veterinary Client

Here are five phrases to avoid when dealing with a difficult veterinary client—as well as some communication tips for how you should respond.

1. "There's Nothing I Can Do"

Most pet owners are dissatisfied with lengthy wait times and may express their displeasure over the phone, in person, and online. Although the above statement may be an honest response, it won't diffuse your client's stress and the perceived indifference may intensify their frustration.

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In the end, angry veterinary clients want to be heard and understood, and although you can't fix a busy schedule or magically solve your staffing crisis, you can listen to their concerns and frustrations. As you do, listen to the words and not the emotion. Most angry clients are not upset with you but instead are reacting to the situation.

Communication tip: Once your client feels they've been heard, focus your attention and response on action statements, leading with phrases such as, "Here's what we can do for you."

2. "Let Me Speak"

Don't hurry to interject while the client expresses their frustration. Interruption can seem dismissive, defensive, or combative and may cause the situation to escalate. Instead, listen thoughtfully and don't rush to reply. The upset veterinary customer is most likely not looking for an explanation anyway; they want a solution.

Communication tip: Once the client has finished, repeat what you've heard using reflective listening language such as, "What I'm hearing you say is..." or "Am I correct in understanding that..." If you're incorrect, ask the client for clarification until you can show you comprehend their point of view.

When you reiterate the client's frustrations, they may recognize their own pettiness and back down. If not, provide solutions based on the information they've provided. For example:

  • If they've mentioned an erratic schedule, suggest that a drop-off appointment may be more convenient.
  • If they insist on a specific time or day, place their name on a call list for cancellations.
  • If you discover they're only seeking an ancillary service, such as a nail trim or ear cleaning, offer them a technician appointment, which may be easier to schedule.

Although you shouldn't reward bad veterinary client behavior, reasonable suggestions that reflect the client's needs can show you're dedicated to providing the best care for their pet.

3. "Everyone Else Has to Wait, Too"

Although the COVID-19 mantra preached "we're all in this together," reminding an emotional or hostile veterinary client about everyone else can sound condescending and imply they're being selfish. The goal here is to see the situation from your client's perspective and avoid belittling or admonishing them.

Communication tip: When clients complain about long wait times during their appointment, explain the principle of triage and prioritizing sick patients. This approach can help illustrate your point but with a pet-centric focus that most animal lovers can understand.

4. "I Understand"

Although you may be trying to genuinely empathize with an angry veterinary client, saying the words "I understand" without pausing to actually listen can ring false.

Communication tip: Remember that your client doesn't know you've heard the same complaints from nearly everyone for the past 18 months, so give them the chance to share their concerns so you can address them specifically.

5. "That's Not My Responsibility"

When faced with an irate veterinary customer, such as one whose pet prescriptions are unavailable due to supply chain problems, the blame game can feel like an easy way to dodge their wrath. But deferring the fault to a colleague (e.g., "she forgot to order your prescription") or another company (e.g., "everything's back-ordered right now") is unprofessional and a dead-end for your client.

Communication tip: Rather than pointing fingers, inform the client that you'll research alternative options for them. This diffuses the situation, buys you time, and shows them you're working toward a solution.

Show Clients You Care

Abusive or aggressive veterinary client behavior should never be tolerated, but it's also important to remember that all clients deserve to be treated with respect and concern. Take the time to connect with these clients and see past their emotional display to the real heart of the issue. When clients see how much you care, they're more likely to mirror those qualities back to you and your practice.


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Sarah Rumple
Owner, Chief Creative Officer of Rumpus Writing and Editing

Sarah Rumple is an award-winning veterinary writer and editor. Since 2011, her work has focused on pet health/behavior and veterinary practice management topics. Her clients include individual veterinary practice owners, national corporations, nonprofit associations, media companies, consultants, and others. Learn more at sarahrumple.com.

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