Transforming Client Anger

Dealing with an irate customer.

It happens; clients get angry from time to time. Every position in the practice has had to deal with an angry client at some point. Clients get mad for a variety of reasons, but we can keep in mind some basic concepts no matter the reason.

First, the angry client wants to be heard. Clients who are angry want the time and space to speak their mind. They need someone to give them that opportunity, or their anger will only increase. However, you do not necessarily want them to be heard by everyone in the lobby, so the first plan of action is to isolate the incident. This is typically done by escorting the client into an empty examination room or another place such as a comfort room or office. If there is no empty private space, then at least take the client to the quietest corner in an empty hallway or to the most remote end of the front counter, where you can give the client undivided attention and minimize the range.

Then let them tell their side of the story. Come prepared both mentally and physically. Your attitude needs to be one of calm control and understanding. Do not approach the client all smiles and bubbly small talk or the client may think you aren’t prepared to take them seriously. Begin by introducing yourself and explaining your job in the practice. Maintain an upright and confident body language and give appropriate eye contact. Bring along paper and pen to take notes. This allows you to make note of the facts, and just as important, it gives you the opportunity to break your eye contact and disengage every so often from their assertive or angry body language. There is a concept called “emotional contagion” and you can unknowingly absorb the negative energy. Instead, you want them to lean more toward the stance you are taking and absorb your positive energy. This is only accomplished by maintaining confidence and a respectful attitude.

Once they’ve had the opportunity to vent, finish your notes while confirming you did hear the facts correctly. Paraphrase what they said, beginning with the phrase, “What I heard you say is … Is this correct?” This demonstrates that you were actively listening and you heard what they had to say. The notes also provide data for following up on the complaint. Your job at this point is to make sure you clearly understand the facts, and most importantly, ensure that the client feels heard.

When they are finished explaining their side of the story, it is NOT time for you to state yours because they simply don’t care at this point about your side. It’s best to tell them how and when the complaint will be addressed. Are you the practice manager and intend to investigate some of their comments and call back tomorrow? Are you a veterinarian who needs to talk with staff members to get more information, which may take a few days because of the different work shifts? Or are you in a position such as technician or receptionist where you’ll need to pass along the complaint to another person who will call the client to confirm the details? Let the client know what action will be taken and when they can expect to see this done.

Most importantly, do not become defensive. It is human nature to want to stand up for yourself and your practice, citing company policy or rules and regulations. This is not what the client wants to hear. Frankly, they feel the word “policy” is the most offensive “four-letter word” in the veterinary language. At this point it’s time for you to remain impartial and neutral, acknowledging their feelings but without apologizing on behalf of any person or the practice at large. You do not know who is to blame, if anyone truly is to blame, at least at this point.

It is imperative to realize that you and the client ultimately want the same thing, the well being of their pet. You may just have two different perspectives that need to meet in the middle. If it is your job to follow up with this client, or just pass on the message but gain some valuable insight in the process, you must look at the situation from the standpoint of the pet’s experience. While this may not be possible for every type of situation, most of the company policies were established with the well being of the patient and client at heart. You can reduce the number of angry clients by explaining this from the beginning. For example, if you know you are sending home a pet that has been hospitalized but hasn’t been strong enough to handle a full bath, explain ahead of bringing the pet to the client that the pet’s stress level had to be considered and they can have a bath in a few days. Or if you know the invoice contains items that the client was not fully prepared for, talk with the client before the invoice is presented so you can buffer this news. It’s always best to anticipate and block a complaint than be in the position of reacting to one.

Lastly, there are indeed those clients that you can never make happy. These people can be compared to a cat that you will never be friends with … the type that sits in the corner of the cage hissing at everyone who walks by. You do not take this personally as you stop to sweet talk to the cat, only to see its ears flatten out and teeth flash; it’s not anything you have done, it’s simply this cat’s personality at this point in time, in this situation. In the end do your best to transform angry clients, but realize you cannot take it personally. We all have bad days and bad moments, and these clients need our understanding more than anything else. <HOME>

Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, PHR, is a 20-year veteran of the veterinary industry and has worked all support positions in a practice. She was certified as a veterinary practice manager in 2006 and is founder and current president of the Veterinary and Emergency and Specialty Practice Association. Dobbs owns interFace Veterinary HR Systems LLC of Appleton, Wis., and blogs weekly for

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