Re-earning client trust by leading down the chain of command

“Trust takes years to build, seconds to break, and forever to repair.” ~Unknown

Many clients understand veterinary clinics have a backlog, but when they are experiencing an emergency, they are under stress and expect an immediate response. Photo ©
Many clients understand veterinary clinics have a backlog, but when they are experiencing an emergency, they are under stress and expect an immediate response.

Nothing builds or destroys a client’s trust like a veterinary team available (or not available) when a pet is in crisis. Whether a respiratory distress at 2 a.m., a hit by car on Saturday afternoon, or a desperate same-day euthanasia request during normal business hours, a client calling under such circumstances is awash in fear.

When our own pets become severely ill, we invariably take off our veterinary hats to become pet parents, and we, too, get hit with the fearsome knowledge we are not in control of the situation. Fear rules even the most hardened of us. Life and death moments are the times our clients need us at our very best.

Yet, nothing perpetuates burnout in the veterinary team like being yanked too many directions at once for exactly these high-emotion, high-stakes interventions.

Facing off

We all try our best to accommodate true emergencies. Veterinarians and clinic staff cherish the bond like no other group of people on earth. They slow down to give euthanasias the tender care they deserve. It is all hands on deck when a pet crashes and the team pulls the animal through.

From the client’s perspective, however, any cry for help that meets perceived resistance (a prolonged wait time, an appointment scheduled days out, a referral to the emergency clinic because we ran out of hours in the day) breaks the pet owner’s trust in the veterinary team.

Above is an infographic intended to help you “lead down the chain of command” to the client.
This infographic can be accessed at for download or print.

Euthanasia and emergency visits are a litmus test for the veterinary profession’s performance right now. There are too many pets to see with too little staff and too little time with too little left in the mental and emotional tank to see a way out. We are floundering.

The SITREP (situation report)

In my current work with a veterinary triage company, I hear the gamut of calls hitting veterinary clinics every day. They come in fast and relentless—callers who have never owned a pet before, others who have been loyal to a clinic for generations. Some clients are aware of the backlogs in patient care; most others are blown away their veterinarian is not immediately available for their moment of crisis.

If we could all walk an hour in each other’s shoes, we might gain the respect and understanding needed to preserve our bond with each other. In the meantime, all veterinary professionals really want is relief.

This gets me thinking about a concept I learned recently from Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. In their book, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win,1 they discuss how principles developed during military urban warfare operations in Ramadi, Iraq, translate to success in life and business.

These warriors shifted my paradigm with a concept called “leading up and down the chain of command.” In a nutshell, taking Extreme Ownership of a situation means you take responsibility for the success of your part of the mission by ensuring everyone above and below your position is on the same page. It means you must communicate the battle plan to your downstream team clearly, test their comprehension, and creatively engage when you recognize the message is not getting across—because the fault of the miscommunication is yours.

Likewise, leading up the chain of command means questioning the people above you when your orders are not clear, comprehending the motive behind sometimes incomprehensible requests, and articulating better ways to accomplish a goal only you can see from your unique vantage.

Our chain of command

The veterinary clinic has a basic, branching chain of command to achieve a single mission. The practice owner, practice manager, associate DVMs, veterinary technicians, veterinary assistants, and client service representatives answer to each other in various ways to provide effective medical care with a level of service that satisfies or surpasses the client’s expectations. Notice what I did there. I included clients in the “chain of command.”

Most veterinary teams already feel terrible about the prolonged wait times our clients experience and the fact we physically cannot see every pet needing our attention. Our colleagues give the client a quick apology and push to get through the interaction as fast as reasonably possible, because there is always another patient to see…and another.

Instead of a quick apology, I propose the practice takes ownership of a client’s misaligned expectations. Let’s gather facts, embrace vulnerability, and explain to clients what is happening across our profession. Only then can clients transform from potential adversaries to allies, working with us to achieve effective medical care in a manner each party can own and be proud of.

Holly Sawyer, DVM, human-animal bond certified, is a 1999 graduate of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. After 19 years in small animal private practice, she became a veterinary regional director for GuardianVets, a triage and virtual care provider.


  1. Willink, Jocko and Leif Babin. Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017.

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