Self Indulgence Seeks Commiseration

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Why I’ll take teeth and claws over clients any day.

As any self-respecting service worker well knows, there’s nothing worse than an angry customer. Our veterinary workplaces are no different except that our customers come in a variety of species.

Given the choice, though, I’ll always choose to take my chances with the ones baring teeth and claws over the ones wielding checkbooks.

Irate clients are the stuff of any service industry. And just because we’re animal-loving doesn’t mean the occasional client’s entrance doesn’t provoke the staff to yell, “Incoming!” … at which point everyone dives for cover while the angry person unleashes vitriol and generally makes a nuisance of him- or herself.
Most of the time these are belligerent rants aimed at no one and everyone alike. And, as most of you reading this well know, the downtrodden reception staff gets it 99 percent of the time.

What gets me about these people is that their issue is usually something maddeningly trivial like, “How could you not have my cat’s food in stock?” (though we specifically ask our clients to pre-order) or the occasional grief over a dearly departed patch of fur the clippers had their way with.

Yet sometimes the complaint is simply insane: “I really didn’t like your calm, rational tone when I yelled at you over the invoice.” I mean, we all know there are some people you just can’t please, but what can you possibly do to foster mutual respect and encourage better behavior in that kind of person?

Staff Survivors

Inevitably, there’s one member on staff who handles these situations better than the rest of us. This person easily weathers the brunt of the storm while the rest of us cower non-confrontationally on the sidelines (or stay hidden behind closed doors, as is my preference).

In our hospital this talented individual is the office manager. Most of the time she stands her ground and listens attentively while the person spews venom.
Once the client has successfully relieved her- or himself of this burden, the office manager goes in for the kill (usually a thick layer of sugary rebuke only a wizened mother of three can muster): “Now let’s start over without all the foul language so I can properly understand you.”

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Sometimes this does not work, as with the elderly gentleman who consistently berates our staff for tiny transgressions (usually the vet’s fault), like the timing of a phone call related to his pet’s routine blood work, or the (typically brief) period of time he was left on hold.

After the fourth or fifth time the guy barks at the staff the office manager can be heard to mutter under her breath, “I don’t get paid enough to deal with this.” When that happens (ideally before the staff has gotten all worked up) the veterinarian steps in and says, “Mr. Geezer, please recognize that these people are not here for you to yell at. If you have a dilemma, please be polite when you speak with them.”

Usually, the vet’s reproach is enough to silence the likes of the Mr. Geezers. Just the mere presence of the veterinarian seems to elicit all kinds of sweetness and light from said individuals.

They pull a Dr. Jekyll and next thing you know it’s all over. In fact, the change is often so dramatic the staff is made to look foolish. This is why after especially egregious rants we vets have had to resort to asking the offender to apologize directly to the person(s) they yelled at.


You all know how this song goes. You’ve read it a zillion times, right? Filed under, “How to deal with a ranter 101,” most of these smart human resources solutions sound really good on paper. Trouble is, I’m apparently constitutionally incapable of doing what I know should be done under these circumstances.

You see, I’m a naturally non-confrontational sort of person (yes, really). I have to get pretty good and PO’ed before I’ll stick my neck out. And I’m not even the owner of my practice … just a lowly associate.

So it is that when the proverbial stool hits the fan, I’m the first one hiding behind a door somewhere (because I can). Nonetheless, if I hear a client tell a staff member to “f-off” (or utter some other such over-the-top epithet) I’ll inevitably feel compelled to come forward and ask for an immediate remedy. A gentlemanly duel of pistols, perhaps?

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Twice I’ve even had to ask people to leave and never come back. While I don’t really have the authority to make that happen, it seems to have worked out well (for me, anyway) in both instances. I never saw them again. It’s one thing if a client is emotionally overwrought over the death of an animal (or some truly important matter) and lashes out emotionally at the staff.

Sometimes we just have to accept this kind of episode with compassion and dismiss our injured dignity. It’s quite another when someone’s bad day launches across the counter and tries to strangle our receptionist.

The real teeth and claws are undeniably an accepted sort of professional hazard in the business of working with animals, but at least our patients have a good excuse: They are animals. 

Dr. Khuly is a mixed-animal practitioner in Miami and a passionate blogger at PetMD.com/blogs/FullyVetted.


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