Are you ready to handle angry or threatening non-clients?
On Saturdays our clinic is open from 8 a.m. to noon and run by appointment only, except for client emergencies. We recently had a man come in with a sick cat, and we referred him to an emergency clinic that could see him right away, as our doctor wasn't scheduled to be in for another 45 minutes, and the pet owner wasn't a client of ours. It was a holiday weekend and we had been given strict instructions by the practice owner not to see non-clients. The man became very angry and said he'd wait for the doctor to come in. He eventually left and didn't come back. Do you have any advice for handling a situation like this, if he had come back? We're an all-female clinic and have been threatened by angry male clients before.
Many practices—including my own—consider every client to be "their client" even if they're not formally a client. That said, our Saturdays are always full and taking a walk-in emergency from a stranger will just end up causing your previously established client to wait. There's also the matter of your owner's orders, which obviously must dictate your action.
As an all-female practice, your team should be in the habit (or start getting in the habit) of identifying which team member feels the most confident in dealing with this type of client. Angry clients can be threatening, intimidating and dangerous. Usually, they've been able to get away with this behavior in the past and it's made it easier to do so again to get their way. Unfortunately, it's also possible that such a client is truly a threat and must be handled accordingly. In either case, I'd follow these steps:
> Identify a confident, composed leader among your team who can have a conversation with an angry client without escalating the problem and put this person on the case immediately.
> Since the angry man isn't a client, ask to step outside to discuss the matter. This takes him out of earshot of other clients and away from a more heavily populated area just in case things go badly.
> Explain the problem from your other clients' perspective. They all have schedules too and can't just wait while his cat is seen instead of theirs. If he's not sensitive to that approach, then take the position that waiting to be seen is not in his cat's best interests. Arguing about it is delaying treatment and you care about his cat's wellbeing.
> Apologize and be sincere. You're sorry his cat isn't doing well. You're also sorry the schedule is so full today. You're sorry that he's upset and you understand his frustration. Studies show that it's much harder to maintain anger when the other party is apologetic. Lie if you have to, but decelerating the situation is always better than the alternative.
> If you feel that he won't go away, or take no for an answer, then consider calling the police. Before doing so, however, I would allow him to think that we were going try and work him in if he could just have a seat in his car while the veterinarian wrapped up the case he or she was working on. At that point, if the problem escalates and you feel that his threatening demeanor is truly dangerous, and he refuses to wait outside, I would consider placing him into an open exam room, have your technician get started taking temperature, pulse and respiratory rate (if that's your process), and call the police while you stall.
The options that involve the police will put the practice in some future risk from him, and I'd consider a filing for a restraining order if it came to that.
If your most confident team member can't talk the man into leaving on his own, then it may be the least dangerous option to see the cat, despite the owner's directive. Fire the client later, but in all cases, the safety of your team and other clients must take priority over everything else, even if it means an extra hour on a holiday weekend.
We've faced this situation many times and have never had to ask for police intervention. Training the right team member in conflict resolution is just good business in general. But could be a lifesaver in this type of scenario.
Kyle Palmer, CVT, is a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and a practice manager at Silver Creek Animal Clinic in Silverton, Oregon.