Tips for Handling Frustrated Clients During the COVID-19 Pandemic

It has been months since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Many clients are still scared about their health, the economic impact to their families, and the ongoing desire to return back to normal. In this stressful environment where their day-to-day has been upended, they are more prone to frustration over small things that normally wouldn't phase them. Help your veterinary team maintain calm in the practice with these tips.

Establish Policies and Follow Them

For many pets and their parents, a trip to the vet can be stressful at the best of times. Combined with the rules of the new normal — reminding people that pre-pandemic days are not coming back anytime soon — that stress can cause frustrations to erupt. Here's how to make your clients happy while keeping your team safe with guidelines that encourage social distancing:

  • Overcommunicate. Explain exactly what your new policies are and what to expect during their appointments, so there are no surprises when they arrive.
  • Be consistent. Your rules must apply equally to everyone. For example, if you're not allowing people into the building, don't let one family in. Others will find out and the complaints will roll in.

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Deliver High-Quality Care

Pet owners come to see you because their pet needs medical attention, whether it's preventive services, an illness, or an injury. With the increased steps that every appointment currently requires, clients are making an extra effort to be at your practice and will be expecting the best care for their pets. Avoid simple mistakes that may undermine the hard work your team is doing, implement new technologies that make your job easier, and develop useful protocols that will be implemented long after the pandemic is controlled:

  • Follow your protocols. Offer everything a client needs the first time to prevent the client from having to return if the staff missed something, like administering an important vaccine.
  • Check your work. Quality control is key to customer satisfaction, as simple mistakes make your team appear incompetent or uncaring. Double-check that you completed all your treatments, all the charges are in, and records are sent to clients.
  • Leverage your PIMS. Make use of your PIMS to support your protocols and automate processes. At my practices, we've created smart groups to ensure all service components are included in an estimate and added "reminder" items for the team to inquire about at every visit, like preventives and nail trims.
  • Consider new technologies. Practice workflow tools that integrate with your PIMS allow your team to complete items that update automatically and create appropriate charges. If you can improve inventory management, charge capture, and accuracy while streamlining the process, everyone benefits.

Prioritize Transparency

Being transparent has always been important; it helps to avoid conflict by addressing concerns before they turn into anger. If you delay talking to clients, or give them only part of a story, you run the risk of being perceived as dishonest and losing credibility:

  • Keep them updated. If you're running behind, let your client know how long they might have to wait. If you need to move their appointment, provide an explanation.
  • Be upfront about cost. Every procedure should have an estimate, so the client knows exactly what you're doing and how much it will cost. If something changes, like an additional treatment or test, keep everyone in the loop to avoid any surprises.

Make the Best of Curbside

Unfortunately, some recent changes really do make things harder on pet owners. Many resent waiting in their cars where it's harder to move around, they have nothing to do, and they can't be part of their pet's exam. At my practices in Texas, the sun makes it really uncomfortable, even with air-conditioning, and, for many, the lack of facetime with the doctors also undermines their relationship with us. There are things you can do to make it better, though:

  • Identify parking spaces. Have numbered signs at each parking space that direct the client who to call and let your team know who is parked where.
  • Add phone lines. Don't let anyone waiting in the sun get a busy tone. Your phone vendor may be able to increase your incoming lines so calls are completed the first time.
  • Extend your Wi-Fi. Give pet parents something to do while they wait. Consider an external access point and captive network to give them Wi-Fi access.
  • Encourage drop-offs. Drop-offs give you control over timing, while pet owners can get on with their day.
  • Consider client comfort. Some procedures take time, and people can get uncomfortable if their basic needs aren't met. Do you have a bathroom access protocol in place, and what about bottled water?

Remember, You Can't Make Everyone Happy

Unfortunately, you're not going to please everyone that comes into your practice. Some might have been frustrated before they showed up for their appointment, while others have made up their minds about COVID-19 protocols that you're never going to change.

That means making some tough decisions. We've lost more than one client because we're still operating a curbside service. We hate to see people leave, but it's equally important to support our team. The management team can't let them down at the last minute by creating exceptions for a client who isn't happy. Make your team feel safe by sticking to your guidelines, and they will continue to stand up for themselves during any client confrontations. If a protocol is necessary to keep you, your clients, and your team safe, then stand by it, and thoroughly explain why you have it. Being honest will help garner support from your team and the vast majority of the people who visit your practice.

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Des Whittall
Practice Manager

Des Whittall is an owner and manager of two veterinary clinics and pet resorts in Texas. A software engineer by training, he worked with an investment bank for 13 years in roles ranging from technical support to business divestment, managing large international teams and complex vendor relationships. With his partner, he has grown the clinics and resorts and is focused on developing businesses that can provide high-quality medicine and development opportunities for their teams.

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