Sparky, a seemingly healthy patient scheduled to go home, is lying cool and lifeless in a pool of her own secretions. This
chilling discovery melts your cheerful demeanor—and your prospect for a happy, productive morning. Once a source of reciprocal
joy and hope, this pet has become an instrument of misery. And guess who's giving Sparky's owner the bad news?
Mr. Pit takes up familiar residence in your stomach. You'll be distracted until the conversation is behind you, but you dread
its awkward, painful onset. So how will you deliver the message? The look-em-in-the-eye, tell-it-to-em-straight approach may
look good in Westerns. But in real life, it might send an unsuspecting pet owner into an emotional free fall.
My brother tells of a friend who, after returning from vacation, took his small children to retrieve their dog that was boarded
at their veterinary practice. The veterinarian disappeared to the back of the practice and returned carrying the lifeless
body of their pet that had died unexpectedly. While the doctor delivered the necessary information, it was an abrupt and painful
way to share it—especially for the children.
Whether you're telling clients the groomer inadvertently trimmed their pet's fur too short, describing a misunderstanding
about appointment times, explaining the doctor they want to see is unavailable, or giving biopsy results with a dire prognosis,
the same thoughtful communication ideas apply.
1. Set the stage
When you prepare clients for alternative outcomes, they're less likely to feel shocked or betrayed by bad results. So when
clients ask, "You won't let my pet die, will you?" my answer's always the same: "I can't guarantee I'll live through the procedure." Although we often laugh together at the prospect of my dying while performing surgery on their
pet, it's a statement of fact that puts the situation in perspective.
Do not let bad news wreck your day
Then I tell them about our impressive patient-monitoring capabilities and record of success. But I remind them we're dealing
with natural systems, so we don't have total control. Every year, people die from tonsillectomies and trips to the grocery
When it's necessary to deliver bad news, allow your clients time to embrace and digest the facts. Start the conversation by
saying something serious occurred. They'll start to realize the scope of the problem by your tone and demeanor, which will
prepare them for the details you'll provide.
2. Recognize the opportunity
Where there's crisis, there's opportunity. Some of the most loyal clients have experienced a pet-related problem or challenge.
When you express your concern and a desire to make amends, you can bond them more tightly to your practice than if nothing
bad ever happened. And, you can show how much you care and what you're willing to do to rectify the situation.
3. Control the venue
If you can, give bad news face-to-face. E-mails and letters can be heartfelt, but they're one-dimensional and easily misunderstood.
The absence of body language and voice inflections can lend different meanings to words than you intended. Rather, use written
communication for follow-up once you've reached an understanding.