4 ways to handle sticky situations with veterinary clients

Andy Roark, DVM and Brian Conrad, CVPM, provided anecdotes and tips at the CVC Kansas City for resolving conflict in an effective way.
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Aug 27, 2014

At the CVC Kansas City, Dr. Andy Roark and Brian Conrad, CVPM, led an energetic discussion on conflict strategies during their session, “Managing mayhem: Case studies of drama and survival.” What happens when clients delay difficult decisions about their pets’ care, or work around protocols you have in place, or bash your clinic online? Here are four tips for managing these and other tricky situations:

Find the underlying concerns. There may be concerns or fears that a client hasn’t told you that are impacting their decisions about the care their pet is receiving. Ask them what those might be. Early in his career Dr. Roark treated a dog that had just been diagnosed with renal disease. The client, although listening to Roark’s conversation about quality of life, was delaying euthanasia as long as she could. She wanted to try diet modification and chicken broth first, even though the dog’s blood levels were increasing. Finally, Dr. Roark asked her, “You seem to have concerns about putting your dog to sleep, can you tell me what they are?” It turned out that the dog had been her son’s and he had passed away in a car accident. The problem wasn’t that the client didn’t understand the clinical signs; it was that the dog was her lifeline to her son.

Control the environment. When a client is upset, let them vent at you. Otherwise they might vent online, which can be damaging. Also, gain control of the situation: if someone is upset in the lobby or parking lot, ask him or her to talk with you in an office or treatment room. Create some space to get clarity, find out what happened and follow up in a timely manner if you can’t solve the problem instantly. Deal with long- and short-term issues in the conflict. In the long-term would you usually make an exception to this rule? Will you do it now in the short-term to help resolve a conflict? Maybe you would, Conrad says.

Use your head, not your heart. When a client is asking to do something you wouldn’t normally allow, such as talking directly to the doctor or scheduling a surgery on a Saturday, take a step back. Don’t make the decision right then and there—get off the phone or away from the conversation to create space. Uncover any underlying concerns. Why is this person asking you to break protocol? Slow down and think the situation through, address concerns and offer options, making the client feel like you addressed the problem without feeling like you blew him or her off.

Maintain credibility. One of the most important things in conflict resolution, Dr. Roark says, is to keep the element of credibility. Not only should you apologize to the client, but also you should tell them what happened, why it happened and what steps you’re taking to ensure it doesn’t happen again. If you don’t tell what you’ll do to prevent it from happening again, the client may think it’s a common occurrence or you don’t care if it happens again.