More than words

More than words

An angry client taught me to probe deeper to uncover the real reason behind his seemingly unreasonable behavior.
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Jan 01, 2008


Kristine Suszczynski cuddles with her favorite feline, Beaner. She's worked in the veterinary field for more than 20 years as a kennel attendant, veterinary assistant, and hospital manager.
You can learn a lot from clients if you take time to look beyond their words and discover what motivates them. In fact, an experience I shared with one unusual client five years ago shaped how I communicate with clients and co-workers today.

I met Rocky and his owner, Steve, when we admitted the cat to our practice with elevated liver enzymes and hepatic lipidosis. We placed Rocky on intravenous fluid therapy and the appropriate injectable medications. The veterinarian explained the diagnosis to Steve and provided an estimate for treatment. Steve agreed to the treatment and signed the doctor's care plan for Rocky.

The first whiff of trouble

During Rocky's hospitalization, our team noticed he couldn't hold food in his mouth. A brief oral exam revealed a broken upper premolar digging into the lower gum line, which created a painful ulcerated wound. The doctor recommended a dental cleaning with extraction of the affected tooth, but we needed to stabilize the cat before anesthetizing him and performing the procedure.

The veterinarian called Rocky's owner, explained the diagnosis, and gave further treatment recommendations. Because we hadn't developed a new care plan and estimate yet, they didn't discuss additional charges during the call. Soon afterward, Steve came to the hospital to visit his cat, and he asked me more about Rocky's case. I discussed the current charges, which exceeded the doctor's original estimate, and Steve's temper sparked. The treatment would cost him more money and, in his opinion, Rocky's condition hadn't improved.

Steve complained loudly, paid the bill, and took the cat home—refusing further treatment. He called the next day, still irate. Rocky was vomiting, and he demanded to speak to the veterinarian. The doctor wasn't at the practice, so the receptionist asked me to speak with him.

The showdown

I took the phone gingerly and prepared for the onslaught. Rocky's owner launched into a series of criticisms and exaggerations. He didn't believe we ordered and administered additional injectable medications, and he accused us of lying and padding the bill because after all our efforts, his cat was still sick. As Rocky's patient care technician, I knew the details of this case. I had to look beyond what Rocky's owner said to see what he wasn't saying: He loved Rocky, he wanted his cat to recover, his lack of funds embarrassed him, and he didn't know how to handle the situation. When I realized this, I guided the conversation toward care options Steve could understand and afford.

I remained calm, showed empathy, and, as an authority on the case, I was able to diffuse Steve's complaints with direct communication and accurate information. I helped him understand Rocky's broken tooth kept him from eating, which most likely initiated the disease. These factors encouraged Steve to discuss further treatment options and costs. A half hour into our conversation, Steve finally agreed to bring Rocky back for the tooth extraction with anesthesia and declined further stabilization of Rocky's lipidosis. At the hospital, Steve signed an anesthesia consent form, which stated he understood Rocky wasn't a good candidate for anesthesia and that Rocky might die. We scheduled the procedure for that afternoon.

Lessons learned

Rocky's owner taught me how important it is to view a situation from every angle. I could have sent him home because he treated me—and my team—poorly. But I didn't. And that's why he opted for the procedure and his cat recovered. Rocky started eating by himself the next morning, and I faced an apologetic and sincerely thankful client. From then on, Steve treated me and my team with more respect. And when I left the practice a few years later, Rocky was doing well and still a patient.

This approach doesn't work all the time, but I've had much success trying this empathetic view first. And I believe I'm a better manager—and a better person—because of my efforts.

Kristine Suszczynski is the hospital manager at Portland Veterinary Specialists in Portland, Maine. Please send questions or comments to