Coping with shockingly bad client behavior

Remember to acknowledge the extreme stress your team is under

Everything has changed. Whether we are still curbside or taking clients in one at a time, most of us are still laboring under the pandemified conditions we have been forced to adopt. Our clients, for the most part, understand the need for these pandemic-cooling concessions. Others, however, are having a harder time adapting. Roughly one year ago, I described 2020 as “the year of the angry client.” When I did so, I pictured storm clouds in the rearview mirror and bluer skies ahead. Vaccines were being doled out nationwide and the pandemic was obviously on the wane.

Fast forward 12 months and, well, you now know the truth of it: This virus is by no means done with us and, consequently, many of our clients are in no way emotionally stable enough to behave in ways we once expected them to.

Everything has changed. Whether we are still curbside or taking clients in one at a time, most of us are still laboring under the pandemified conditions we have been forced to adopt. Our clients, for the most part, understand the need for these pandemic-cooling concessions. Others, however, are having a harder time adapting.

Those especially allergic to change and those who have been politically sensitized one way or the other are probably most affected, but this does not mean it is easy to predict which clients are on the verge of emotional violence.

It is tempting to think there is a particular client demographic most inclined to implode, but in my experience it has been all over the place. To be sure, our older clients seem the most petulant, but cranky complaints are not the topic of this column. Extreme, shocking misbehavior we have seldom experienced is more like it. We are talking full-on flip-outs with foul language, shouting, physicality, even violence.

If you work in the profession, I have no doubt you have firsthand experience with the behavior I am referring to. Whether it is the young mom with three kids who loses it and starts banging on the windows, shouting she was never told she could not bring her entire brood (despite an email, text, and phone call confirmation) or the guy who starts throwing things, yelling about calling the police because it is against the law to refuse service if he will not wear a mask (please, please make that call, dude!), it is usually much ado about nothing important. It is always because they cannot get their way on something that by all rights is trivial.

What’s a veterinary practice to do?

1) Attempt prediction

Though it seems like they have gone from zero to 60 faster than a Tesla, some of these situations might have been predicted. In retrospect, warning signs were often in the history: snide comments made on the phone, a spicy retort in the exam room, a frazzled demeanor, etc.

While it typically starts off as a mundane enough grievance (a spicy comment or two in the exam room, perhaps), it can quickly escalate to the level of altercation. Once there, it does not take much. From sizzle to explosion is the work of mere seconds. Flagging them in advance might just help by preventing that last straw from landing on the exact wrong spot.

2) Preempt, if possible

Preemption of a blowout is all about listening to the client’s initial complaint, recognizing it for what it is, and defusing the situation quickly and effectively. Too often we are not aware enough of a client’s real issue.

We can tell they are frazzled, annoyed, or overwhelmed (back to prediction), but to avoid inadvertently escalating we have got to let them verbalize the problem and interpret it correctly. I am no mind reader, so simply asking someone to “start at the beginning” sometimes helps.

3) Be tough on the problem; not the people

Blame the behavior, not the client. Whenever I overhear a team member say something along the lines of, “Careful this is cat is mean!” I will gently redirect them: “Our patients are not ‘mean’ or ‘bad;’ they are ‘terrified.’”

I will even accept “aggressive” or “fractious,” but morality-based value judgments are verboten in our workplace. Same goes for our clients. They’re not a “[fill-in-the-saucy-noun]” but they are “behaving like one.”

4) Try not to contradict or correct

Never reprimand their behavior unless it is truly abusive. People do not accept correction well, even when they know they have misbehaved. Recently, one manager told a long-time client her behavior was unbecoming and would not be tolerated. (It was loud, kind of “crazy” behavior, but not actually abusive. This person had retired from a life as an authority figure and did not take well to being “dressed down.” While I well understand the impulse to say your piece and defend your team, this situation re-escalated needlessly.)

Instead, train your team to avoid confrontation at (almost) all costs. A conflict resolution course would not hurt, either.

5) Bring in the ringer

Always have your ace player on hand to come to the rescue. It should not be the sweet one who dissolves in a puddle of tears after a few choice words. Nor should it be the one who truly gives no f*&#@s. You should always recruit the one who knows how to take a verbal punch and yet still—somehow—always manages to communicate clearly and compassionately in accordance with the above basic guidelines.

6) Be safe

Of course, we should not neglect our physical safety. After hearing about flight attendants getting socked and other wanton acts of undeserved violence aimed at those of us in helping professions, it behooves us to prepare for these possibilities. Call the cops if you have to (we have had to). Install automatic door mechanisms with buzzer-style entry function to keep the crazies out if you have to (we did).

7) Learn to cope

Easier said than done. Me? I compulsively make these situations worse. I stay as far away from them as possible, conflict averse that I am. In fact, whenever I am in earshot of dramatic misbehavior (once a week at this point), I feel the psychological aftermath almost physically.

I go home needing two hours of hot yoga and a blisteringly hot bath to alleviate the stress—and I still feel emotionally hungover afterwards.

COVID has decimated veterinary medicine. Veterinarians have retired. We have lost countless team members. I will even confess to reading about how much practice owners are being paid for practices and wondering whether I should sell now and settle down to a life of writing novels instead of wrangling humanity.

I always come back, though, to feeling like I won’t be forced out of my profession just because a bunch of entitled brats are “going through something.” I mean, aren’t we all?

The best solution is to address the issue of stress as directly as possible. Organize a weekly coping session where you share de-stressing techniques over comfort food. Sign them all up for Zoom yoga.

Gift your team or your teammates bath bombs or those lovely wooden foot massagers. Above all, acknowledge the extreme stress they are under and show them you care enough to help them get through this.

Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, owns a small animal practice in Miami and is a passionate blogger at Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

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