Client complaints: all practices get them, although some more than others. Some complaints have a factual basis while others arise largely from emotion. Some complaints are large in scope, while many of them are relatively small. Despite the reasons why a client complains, it’s best to respond to them, early on. By doing so, you can often prevent a small issue from becoming a bigger one, and you can sometimes mitigate the damage done when there is a larger complaint. If, however, a client feels unheard, that can lead to veterinarians receiving letters from clients’ attorneys and state boards as the dissatisfied clients seek legal recourse.

In general, clients resort to litigation and/or state board action when they believe their veterinarian either acted negligently or failed to respond appropriately to their concerns. So, if your practice receives a client complaint, how should you respond?

Step One: Listen

First, focus your attention on the client and just listen. Your day is filled with numerous distractions, but if you can attentively listen when an issue first arises, many complaints can be effectively dealt with. Often, a client with a complaint is angry and just needs an opportunity to vent. If you listen and take notes, without interrupting, this can often help to calm the waters. Don’t interrupt the client, for two reasons: one, this will likely cause him or her to become angrier. And, two, this will probably interfere with your ability to gain a clear understanding of the facts.

Step Two: Remain Calm and Objective 

Although it can feel challenging, especially if you’ve had a difficult day and/or the complaint feels unwarranted, avoid becoming defensive and/or emotional. If you react defensively, this may reinforce the client’s belief that you don’t care and that actions taken at the clinic really were inappropriate. Remember that the client is upset and probably needs to vent. If he or she criticizes your actions, they may or may not be justified. And, even if they are fully justified, this does not necessarily mean that any negligence occurred. Veterinary medicine is an imperfect science and veterinarians aren’t omnipotent.

Step Three: Communicate Your Response 

In fact, communicate, communicate and then communicate some more, if that’s what is necessary. Many lawsuits are filed because veterinarians fail to adequately communicate with their clients. Often the client does not fully understand the diagnosis or proposed treatment of his or her pet and has unrealistic expectations of the veterinarian’s services and the respective outcome.

To ensure a better stream of communication, you can:

  • Obtain informed consents
  • Provide fee estimates
  • Encourage questions and then answer them
  • Provide handouts explaining services being considered
  • Use plain English, not medical jargon; jargon can be both confusing and intimidating

Step Four: Show Sympathy and Concern

Clients whose pets have died, for example, are often emotionally distraught and, under certain circumstances, may seek to blame someone, sometimes their veterinarian, for their pets’ deaths.  Veterinarians who are compassionate and attempt to comfort their clients are more likely to diffuse their clients’ perceptions that the veterinarian should be held accountable for their pets’ deaths.

Veterinarians should not hesitate to recommend grief counseling for clients who appear to have difficulty coping with the loss of their pets. Several veterinary schools have such hotlines, including the University of California at Davis, the University of Florida and Colorado State University.

Step Five: Coach Your Staff

Staff members can go a long way in helping to diffuse client complaints and should be coached in what to do and say when a client complains. As just one example, the staff should remain professional at all times and avoid offensive/defensive discussions with clients. These kinds of conversations are unlikely to be productive, and can be perceived as unprofessional (and therefore increase, not decrease, the client’s dissatisfaction). Moreover, some clients are less intimidated with staff members, as compared to the veterinarians, and the conversations therefore could become decidedly more hostile.

Step Six: Do Not Admit Fault or Offer a Settlement

When a client is upset, it’s only natural to want to apologize and/or to otherwise try to make the situation better. You should, however, avoid making apologetic statements or excuses and you should not admit fault, since this can be problematic if the client later files a lawsuit. Veterinarians with only a few years of experience are more likely to feel guilty and accountable for bad outcomes, even when there was no negligence, but veterinarians of all levels of experience need to be careful in this regard.

If the situation becomes more complicated and an actual malpractice charge is made, veterinarians should not offer to settle the charge or agree to any settlement offered by the client without first contacting their insurance carrier and attorney since it may be interpreted as an admission of fault, thereby prejudicing their case. Under certain circumstances it may be appropriate to reduce the client’s bill to try to amicably and expeditiously resolve a dispute, but without admitting liability. Your attorney can provide guidance in this situation, as well.

By following these six steps, you can significant improve client satisfaction and potentially reduce your chances of having a malpractice suit filed against your practice.