Most of your clients are kind people who respect the veterinary team’s time, expertise, and care. Sure, tempers can run high when a client’s beloved pet is in distress, but what is not acceptable is abusive or manipulative behavior from clients.
Saleema Lookman, RVT, in Santa Fe, N.M., has witnessed first-hand the unraveling of a client relationship. “It’s disheartening to watch a conversation go badly and see the veterinary team member leave feeling defeated.”
When this happens—especially if it occurs time and again—the best course of action may be terminating this unruly client.
However, before saying, “you’re fired,” there are several things you must consider first. The most important being, how could this have been avoided? Undoubtedly, there will always be unreasonable people who act out regardless of the circumstances, but some instances could potentially be prevented.
What constitutes firing a client?
Practices may be motivated to fire clients for a number of reasons, including:
- Failure to pay for services
- Verbal abuse
- Physical violence
- Threats of violence
- Drug abuse
- Animal welfare
- Unwillingness to follow medical advice
When it comes to threats or outward displays of violence, most practices have a zero-tolerance policy and would likely terminate the client immediately. Hospital manager and partner Kate Parker, of Animal Urgent Care in Arvada, Colo., agrees. “Verbal or physical threats to team members’ safety are immediate grounds for firing,” she says. But the majority of situations are not so straightforward.
Set clients up for success
Before we discharge a patient, we set the owner up for success by equipping them with all the necessary tools—correct medications, aftercare instructions, and any essential skills—to ensure everyone is on the same page. The same should be done when it comes to the client/clinic relationship. Whether it is a brand-new pet parent who just stepped through the door, or an established client who has frequented your practice for decades, you can take action to set them up for success.
Shift in terminology
One shift you can implement immediately is opting for more favorable language. Scott Carlin, Wurtsboro, N.Y., former multi-hospital practice owner agrees, noting, “We should not ‘fire’ clients, because this terminology only serves to support our anger, escalate the situation, and drive a hostile approach to a normal client service challenge.”
To combat this mentality, practices should consider using terminology such as “terminate” or “end our relationship” throughout discussions with clients as well as within staff-only meetings. Similarly, avoid labeling clients as “difficult” and use phrases like “highly adversarial.”
Establish boundaries and expectations
Boundaries are essential for any healthy relationship, as they set expectations for how someone can and cannot treat you. If you have not already, consider adding these client-facing boundaries to your practice protocol.
- Clearly state hours of operation within and outside the practice.
- Post signs stating video surveillance is in progress.
- List accepted payment methods and whether payment is required at the time of service.
- Include agreements within your new client paperwork that clearly describe when payment is due and the consequences of late or nonpayment.
- Mention types of unacceptable behaviors, which would warrant termination, or state that “all staff and clients will behave in a respectful manner.”
Given the nature of patient care, it can be challenging to not only establish boundaries, but keep them. For example, when a client knocks on the door three minutes after closing, the goal is to confidently point them to the sign stating your hours of operation. In any other industry, this would be a no-brainer.
However, what about those times when it is an ill patient, and you feel compelled to squeeze them in? Unfortunately, if you bend the rules for one client, the expectation is you will do so for others. Just as you should expect clients to respect boundaries, everyone on your team must adhere to the protocols in place at your practice.
What if a client acts out despite your boundaries and clear expectation—how should you proceed? Your actions may vary based on the severity of the offense, but be sure to have a protocol in place. Consider borrowing or adapting these steps suggested by experienced hospital managers.
- Document everything. At the first offense, have the involved staff member alert the hospital manager of the incident and document the interaction in a sensitive correspondence.
- Reach out to de-escalate. At this point, the practice manager may be able to successfully de-escalate the situation and bridge any gaps in communication by contacting the client. Doing this will allow you to gently gain a better understanding of the situation and aim to improve the relationship.
- Assess if conflicts are with one staff member or many. As Carlin notes, it can be critical to ensure any issues with a client have been verified by more than one staff member. Carlin says, “This will filter out the majority of issues driven by a single staff member’s (or doctor’s) poor communication on our part that leads to escalation rather than de-escalation.”
- Consider different matches. Try pairing said client with a different nurse or doctor at their next visit, as this could change the interaction for the better. If this client continues to create conflict with various individuals, the hospital manager should further evaluate the incidents and may elect to terminate the client.
- Establish emergency protocol for the team. Again, if your team feels unsafe at any point due to verbal or physical threats of violence, make it clear whether they have the ability to call the authorities with or without the practice manager’s consent.
Should you designate a ‘terminator’?
There are differing opinions regarding who should complete the communication surrounding the termination. While some practices designate a “terminator,” who is typically the practice manager, owner, or another highly skilled communicator, others rotate the responsibility amongst leaders within the practice in order to avoid placing the emotional load on a single person. Although there is no wrong way to go about this, it is important to prioritize communication nonetheless.
Keep detailed records of all communications. Ensure all staff members understand the status of this particular client and how to respond should they try to contact the hospital after the relationship has ended. Carolyn O’Leary, hospital manager on Animal Hospital of Falcon in Falcon, Colo., suggests listing “clients to watch” during team meetings. “I usually start with good stories, such as clients who sent a nice thank you card or sang our praises on a Google review. Then we talk about the not-so-nice clients, and we come to an agreement on how to proceed accordingly.”
Communication truly is key—both with your clients and within your practice. Further, with the right boundaries in place, it is possible to avoid client conflicts and implement solutions to effectively de-escalate challenging situations.
Before you point and say, “you’re fired,” consider whether you are setting your clients and your team up for success or failure.
Rebecca Rose, CVT, certified career coach, founder, and president at CATALYST Veterinary Professional Coaches, has a diverse background in the veterinary community. She has worked in and managed clinics, collaborates with industry partners, and facilitates engaging team workshops. Her most current role includes outreach specialist for Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice. She can be reached via Rebecca@LapofLove.com.