Handling Adverse Client Interactions With Grace And Aplomb...or Burnout



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Dealing with negative clients can sometimes squash a vet's enthusiasm.

Last month one of my veterinary school colleagues took an early leap into semi-retirement. Though he offered many reasons—including his partner’s enviably well-paying position at an investment bank—the soul-sucking stress of practice had clinched it.

While he relished the challenges of patient care, he admitted that daily exposure to adverse client interactions had killed his commitment to veterinary medicine. Client communication, he claimed, was to blame for his burned-out brain.

Depending on where you work, your practice style and your personality’s fundamental makeup, you, too, may be at high risk for the same.

Altercations with clients lead to bad moods, sleepless nights and doubtless contribute to depression. The stress of this kind of interpersonal strife surely helps explain our high burnout rate—not to mention our well-documented suicidal tendencies.

It’s one of the most glaringly inconvenient ironies of our profession: Many of us honed in on vet med because dealing with humans … well … it kinda sucks at times. And yet helping animals, by and large, cannot be accomplished without them.

So what’s a stressed-out, would-be-misanthropic veterinarian to do?

While I can’t claim to have any easy answers, I do have one solid tip for handling any unwanted expressions: I try my best to apply a soupçon of humor with a healthy dose of honesty to any undesirable client interaction, whether it’s an innocent question, annoying diatribe or crotchety rebuke.

How so? I quash their predictable negativity, abject creepiness or downright cluelessness by trotting out a few choice phrases that typically stop them cold and make my point—without acrimony.

Consider it a game of sorts. I do. Otherwise, I think I’d spend the day slamming doors, popping pills and/or hiding in the bathroom.

So to help you navigate these turbulent waters and hopefully help you mitigate your own risk of burnout, I made a list of my clients’ most common unwelcome utterances and polled some of my colleagues to source some truly entertaining (and effective) ripostes.

“Would you sign this [noun] for me?”

Noun =

a) Acclimatization certificate stating said pet is safe to travel in both sub-zero climes and hot tarmac extremes.

b) Pet health insurance statement attesting to the dearth of pre-existing conditions in a two-pound pet shop Yorkie with kennel cough-originating bronchopneumonia, bilateral MPLs, and two undescended testicles.

c) A prescription for Viagra in your client’s name so his own health insurance can cover it—“And can you make that 60 pills instead of 30, Doc?—just in case I ‘lose’ some.” [wink-wink]

d) A letter stating that my client’s 50-pound Rottweiler cross weighs less than 15 pounds so she can circumvent the condo commando’s strict regs on pet size.

… and, as you well know, there are many more. I’ve been asked to falsify everything from vaccination and OFA forms to health and sterilization certificates.

Here’s the most common answer to any expectation that we’d happily commit fraud to make our clients’ lives more convenient and/or profitable:

[Delivered with a big smile and friendly chuckle]: “Ha! That’s pretty funny! If I had a dime for every jokester who tried that one on me, I’d be rich! I mean, how could I continue to be Fluffy’s vet if I got caught cooking her books?”

“Doctor, what do you think about this rash I have right here under my bra-line?”

Similar scenarios have plagued me so often I no longer bat an eye, even when I’m forced to endure female visions unimaginable. (Luckily, no man has yet to disrobe for the pleasure of my medical expertise.) Here’s how I’ve learned to handle it:

“That’s a great bra. Did you get that at Macy’s or is that La Perla?”

A local colleague has had plenty of similar experiences, but her approach is somewhat different: She averts her eyes and tells them pointedly that she has an almost pathological aversion to human flesh, which is why she went into veterinary medicine in the first place, in spite of her parents’ protests. She says that tack works very well because these clients then readily agree they could never imagine a career in human medicine either.

“That makes it a bonding moment instead of an embarrassing one,” she says.

“How can you call yourself a veterinarian and NOT help this [emaciated, FIV-positive, congestive heart failure-suffering saddle thrombus afflictee]! You’re all the same. All you care about is money!”

“I’m so sorry you feel that way. But I’m happy to end her suffering at no charge. After all, no money is any match for her current condition.”

Which is too nice for this situation, I know, but according to the colleagues I polled, the alternative approach in this case requires too many expletives to print. We agreed: Here’s one time the nuclear option is probably more appropriate—and satisfying—than a candy-coated client retention-oriented approach.

“I bet I just paid for your sailboat with that bill.”

“Lady, I have no sailboat. What’s more, I couldn’t buy half a broken-down dinghy with the 400 bucks you just grudgingly spent on the bare-bones treatment you elected for your blocked cat.”

That’s what I want to say whenever that particular refrain arises. Good thing another colleague said it better:

“Wow, a sailboat! And here I was thinking I could pay off all my student loans if I had $25,000 thousand more clients Just. Like. You.”

Such is life for those of us who bargained for a career in vet med and misjudged the perils of working with actual people.

Good thing that for most of us that our client population is diverse (and pleasant) enough to forestall an obsession with early retirement—much less a nervous breakdown. 

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