Veterinary Practice Issues
September 2008 (Vol 29, No 9)

Management Matters — When Clients Attack

  • by
  • Katherine Dobbs , RVT , CVPM , PHR

A Manager's Guide to Dealing with Abusive Clients

During the many years that I've worked in veterinary medicine, I've been yelled at by clients more times than I can count. Usually, these clients were stressed because their beloved family member was sick or injured, and I sympathized with their situation. But on occasion, I've had to deal with abusive clients — those who used profanity, threatened violence or were repeatedly disrespectful to the staff. As a manager, when dealing with these individuals, you need to set limits and stand behind your team while taking all necessary steps to remedy the situation.

Although dealing with different communication styles and personalities is part of any customer service-oriented profession, sometimes situations can get out of control. The manager and the practice owner should work together to determine what behaviors will not be tolerated from clients. That way, if a situation occurs, the appropriate steps can be taken to either resolve the problem or, if necessary, terminate the relationship with the client. While each practice's plan will differ, outlined here is an overview of how to handle an abusive client and protect your employees.

Document the Incident

When an employee informs you that a client has behaved inappropriately as expressed in your clinic's policy (see Creating a Policy ) instruct him or her to file a written report of the incident. This should include the date and time of the incident, the events that transpired and the names of the people involved, including the client, the employee making the report and any employees who witnessed the incident. This report should be reviewed by the manager before any interviews are conducted.


Interview Employees

After an employee files a report, the next step is to conduct an investigation into the incident. Schedule a private meeting with the employee to hear his or her account of and reaction to the incident. It may be appropriate to say to the employee, "I see that this incident really upset you. I understand that it's difficult when communicating with clients makes you feel this way." This type of statement is not making a judgment on either party or placing blame — it is simply acknowledging the employee's emotional reaction to the incident. The manager also should interview the employees who were listed as witnesses to obtain their version of how the events transpired.

Contact the Client

You should always make sure you hear both sides of the story while conducting an investigation. After having conversations with the employees involved, the owner or manager should telephone the client. It is essential that you are not confrontational when beginning the conversation. This is not a time for judgments but for collecting the facts. Start the conversation by saying, "I understand that you visited the clinic the other day with Fluffy, and there was a miscommunication. Would you mind telling me about your visit?" If the client seems defensive or becomes agitated, remain calm and acknowledge the client's feelings but explain that his or her reaction may not have been acceptable. A way to express this could be, "I understand that your conversation with our receptionist, Tammy, had you very upset. However, you admit using profanity, and I do not agree that this was appropriate during your conversation with her."

Consider Your Options

After hearing both sides of the story, you should meet with the practice owner to determine how to proceed: Did the conversation with the client make you confident that the situation can be remedied, or is it in the best interests of the practice to terminate this relationship? When helping the owner make this decision, consider:

  • How long has the client had a relationship with the practice?
  • How often does the inappropriate behavior occur?
  • How severe were the client's actions?
  • How did the incident affect the employee's and the team's morale and performance?
  • What are the potential legal implications?

A long-term client is likely to be forgiven for an occasional bad day as long as the client's actions were not too severe. However, when dealing with a repeat offender or a client who threatened violence, you and the practice owner may agree to terminate the veterinarian"client"patient relationship (see Terminating a Client Relationship ).


In either case, when explaining your decision to the client, be tactful and professional.

Explain the Outcome

After speaking to the client, the management team should meet again with the employees involved to assure them that the incident was investigated and explain how the final decision was reached. This meeting lets employees know you took their concerns seriously and handled the situation fairly and professionally. During this conversation, remind the team to inform you if another incident occurs.

Employees need to be aware that management will not tolerate certain client behaviors. Dealing with abusive clients is stressful for everyone involved, but by supporting your team, you can help them remain professional and continue to provide excellent health care for each pet that comes through the clinic door.