Dealing with disruptive clients

Disruptive clients are not necessarily angry or unruly.

Disruptive clients are not necessarily angry or unruly. Sometimes, they come in a much calmer, yet needier format. Regardless of the type of disruption, the issue is perceived by some or all of your team members. Your approach should be tailored to that client and their needs, and ought to be embraced by the entire team.

The talker

Regardless of what you say, the client just keeps chatting away. They could be talking about their pet’s constant scratching or their son’s last baseball game. Either way, they are distracting team members and disrupting your schedule.

They don’t mean to be annoying—they are simply social butterflies. Some will even hang out after their appointment and talk to other clients in the waiting room or to your receptionists. They are not above sharing too much information. These clients can be ushered on their way with a few tactful strategies.

The obvious solution is to simply tell them you need to go, but it’s tricky to do this in a polite and professional manner. Instead, take all the social cues you normally would use to make a new client feel welcomed, and do the opposite. Body language can be a very effective nonverbal signal that you’re done conversing. Avoid eye contact with the client or stand close to the door, with one hand resting on the handle. Both are clear hints you are ready to end the visit.

You could also use verbal cues to suggest you are done with the exam (or phone call). For example, say: “To wrap things up…” or “To recap our discussion…” Then summarize the visit and encourage them to move to the checkout area.

Some talkers simply can’t read between the lines.
A stubborn socializer may require a more direct approach, such as: “Mrs. Smith, I’m enjoying our conversation; however, I really need to run. I’m getting behind in appointments.” Another strategy is to briefly excuse yourself to suggest to the client you don’t have the availability to stand there talking to them all afternoon, and that you are needed elsewhere.

With known repeat offenders, try these strategies:

  • Make a conscious effort to focus strictly on the reason for the visit (or phone call)
  • Don’t allow the conversation to drift to irrelevant topics. If you notice a shift starting, gently nudge the conversation back on topic and then quickly finish the visit or phone call
  • In desperate cases, ask a team member to knock on the door after a predetermined amount of time. “Dr. Jones, we really need your help in room XYZ,” might be all it takes to rescue you. An overhead paging system can be used to that effect as well

The know-it-all

Some clients act like they know everything. They don’t seek your professional opinion for a diagnosis because they already know what the issue is. They simply need you to prescribe the antibiotics or the medication they want to treat it.

This type of client has an insatiable thirst for information, but often doesn’t have confidence in the veterinarian or their team. They often will act like they are miles ahead of you and you’re the one who’s late to the party.

Some of these clients might be described as perfectionists or Type As. They often include breeders, rescue workers, and health-care professionals.

Dealing with this type of disruptive client really depends on whether they are truly in search of extensive knowledge or they just want it their way. If they are indeed after more information, be sure to provide them with a detailed explanation, as well as additional information to read at home (printed or online). These clients are more likely to actually read the information you send home and are less likely to need a follow-up call.

For those who fall on the extreme end of the know-it-all spectrum, try to get them involved in the treatment plan. Ask them to keep detailed records of their pet’s condition at home that includes progress, decline, and changes. This tactic can be used for seizures, vomiting, regurgitation, diarrhea, or anything the pet is experiencing. Let them know this is how they can help with their pet’s management.

Don’t get into a “who knows more” contest with them. You will lose every time. They actually do know more about their pet than you do. So recognize it and use it to help make a confident diagnosis.

If a know-it-all client still isn’t happy with your skills or diagnosis, make it clear you would be happy to refer them
to a specialist. This act might boost your credibility by showing you are confident in your skills, yet humble enough to acknowledge what is beyond your area of expertise.

The overwhelmed

Other troublesome clients are those who are easily overwhelmed. You know the ones. While you’re explaining their pet is suffering from kidney failure, they obliviously request a nail trim or an ear cleaning.

Then they might call back the next day, upset with you because they feel they didn’t get a detailed explanation of their dog’s diagnosis.

Other overwhelmed clients might hear the diagnosis and shut down. They may not register anything you say afterward. This can be apparent in their body language, such as lack of eye contact, weeping, wringing of hands, staring, a blank expression, and not responding to your questions.

This may be the easiest disruptive client to handle because all it takes is a little patience and a slower pace.

The first thing to remember when dealing with an overwhelmed client is to speak slowly and let your words sink in before you continue. Sit down and make eye contact with the client when you discuss any diagnosis, prognosis, or treatment plan at length. This is especially true when it’s a serious condition, such as cancer or organ failure. Give them plenty of reassurance, encourage questions, and regularly “check in” as you go by asking, “Are you following me?” or “Are you with me so far?” or “May I go on?”

Be sure to acknowledge their surprise and address their feelings. Ask them how they
feel about the situation. It’s always wise with this type of client to reinforce what you discussed by sending them home with a written summary of your conversation.

Don’t forget they may not absorb it all right away. If you sense a client is completely overwhelmed, set aside some time to do a follow-up call the next day. Check in on how they’re doing. Ask if they have any concerns or questions.

Some people think more clearly at home (as you might), when they are relaxed and more focused. These clients just need a little extra TLC and reassurance from you and your team so they can handle it.

My way

Some clients feel they need things their way or no way at all. Regardless of the options you give them, they will always find another approach they feel is best. The biggest difficulty with these pet owners is they believe their way is the only plan, regardless of the issue. The best avenue for this type of client involves acknowledging feelings and making them feel understood. Explain there are medical, ethical, and procedural limits they are not immune to.

Sadly, trying to justify your policies will typically get you nowhere. With especially difficult or stubborn clients, the easiest strategy is repetition. Become a broken record. These clients may not have heard you the first three times.

Importantly, if you are going to make an exception, ensure every detail you have discussed is very well documented in the medical record. This way, you have a written record of the agreed-upon compromise.

Regardless of how disruptive these four types of clients might be, at least they are usually nice and they truly care about their pet’s health. So do cater to their needs in a polite and timely fashion. Consider discussing these ideas during your next team meeting. Share stories and try role-playing to put these strategies to work. A practice-wide approach is essential to give these clients the best experience, without making other pet owners suffer the consequences.

Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ, Fear Free Certified, is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and author. His traveling surgery practice takes him all over Eastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey. You can visit his websites at and Kat Christman, a certified veterinary technician in Effort, Pa., contributed to this article.

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