Some clients are difficult to deal with and some of those difficult ones are downright nasty. It doesn't happen often, but sometimes I do get a client particularly irate and irrational.
One client, we'll call him Mr. P, has been bringing his pets to us for several years. One of them is a very sweet but grossly obese mixed breed dog. More than a year ago she developed a mass in her mammary gland and it has grown rather large since then. In recent months it has begun opening up and draining due to tissue damage in the center. The dog is 15 years old, has a heart murmur, and isn't in great health, so she isn't a good candidate for a radical mastectomy. Unfortunately, surgery is the only way to resolve the problem.
Recently she was taken to a neighboring grooming salon that we work with. They brought her over to me because the mass was open and nasty. When I looked at her it was worse than when I had seen her two months before, with the center open larger and the surface skin eroding. I cleaned it up as best as I could, called Mr. P, and told him what was going on. As before, I had reiterated that there was nothing we could permanently do other than surgery. However, we would try some antibiotics and antiinflammatories to help it a little. He was okay with that, agreed to the treatment, and picked her up a little later in the day.
This day was particularly crazy for me. I was the only doctor on staff and we had a ton of patients. I ended up seeing 31 pets that day, when a typical schedule is for 18-20. This meant that I never stopped, didn't take any breaks, and ate my lunch while putting in medical notes. I was absolutely swamped and barely had time to take a breath.
Mr. P calls and speaks to my receptionist, saying that his dog's mass was oozing. He wanted to speak to me for just a few seconds to find out what to do. I simply didn't have any time to spare as I had all exam rooms full and dropped-off patients I still hadn't seen. I had them tell him that I'd call him back later, which wasn't good enough for him. He got mad on the phone and said that he'd be right down with her. When they told me this I sighed and prepared for a rough afternoon.
When Mr. P came in I had all four exam rooms full with appointments. He saw me through the window of one and knocked on the door, which I ignored since I was in the middle of an exam on another pet. As soon a room opened up my staff put him in there, but I had scheduled appointments and continued to see them. By the time I was able to go into the room with Mr. P and his dog, he had been waiting about an hour. Remember that he had just shown up, even though he had been told that we were very busy.
When I finally walked into the room Mr. P was quite mad. As we started talking he became verbally abusive, talking about "g*dd**n" this and "f***ing" that. He also said that he was being treated like a third class citizen. I could see that we weren't going to get very far, so I stopped him and told him that if he continued to speak like that I was going to ask him to leave.
I'm a very patient guy and have learned to handle stress and frustrated clients. But there is no reason for anyone to stand up and simply take cursing and abuse, no matter who is doing it to them. I've always told my staff that they don't have to put up with people acting that way, and I'll back them up. Over the years I've had clients get that abusive on the phone, but rarely in person. In either case, it's not acceptable to me. Having a conversation is one thing, but yelling back and forth is quite another.
For those new to the profession or customer service, here's a good tactic that has served me well. If a client is cussing or being verbally abusive, I will give them a couple of warnings. I'll tell them that if they continue to act that way I won't be able to talk to them. If that doesn't work, I'll tell them that if they continlue to use that language I'll hang up on them. After that I'll warn them one more time. Almost every person will calm down when I threaten to hang up. They seem to realize that they're saying the wrong things and aren't going to get anywhere. There have been only a couple of times that a person has continued to rant and cuss, and yes, I did hang up on them.
Mr. P wasn't happy with me threatening to ask him to leave. He got up and said that I'd be talking to his lawyer.
The whole "I'll sue" or "you'll be hearing from my lawyer" is a common thing to be thrown around, and it simply doesn't phase me. In 99% of those cases I am absolutely certain that the client doesn't have a case, even though I have no legal background or training. What lawyer is going to take a case where I was willing to see the pet and work him into my obviously busy day, yet I ask him to leave when he becomes abusive? Yeah, not going to happen. Unfortunately we have a very litiginous society and the "solution" that people want to jump to is involving lawyers. I think part of it is an empty threat, hoping that the threat of a lawsuit scares someone into doing what the client wants.
I told Mr. P that I'd be happy to talk to him and help his dog, but we couldn't have a conversation if he was going to speak to me that way. He blusted again about the "third class citizen" thing, but I stood my ground. I again repeated with a serious expression that I can talk to him and work with him, but not if he was going to use that language. He started calming down and eventually we worked out a solution. I placed a bandage wrap around the dog's belly to prevent leaking on his furniture and clothing, and said to come back in a few days for me to recheck it.
That was really all he wanted! But because I didn't drop everything else that was going on and move him to the front of the line, he thought that I was somehow treating him poorly. The dog was in no immediate danger, and it seemed to be more about the seepage onto his belongings than the dog's actual health, so to me it didn't merit pushing aside every other client who was patiently waiting at their appointed times.
I'm sorry, but the customer is NOT always right, and I have to prioritize my cases based on many factors. When you blatantly ignore our instructions and comments, you do not have the right to use any language or attitude that suits you. All it would have taken is him to have patiently waited, have a calm conversation with me, and we could have easily taken care of things. To give Mr. P a little credit, he did tell my technician to apologize to me on his behalf for his anger and attitude. At least by the end he realized that he probably went too far.
Folks, these are the things they don't teach you in vet school. These are the situations that we have little to no training in how to resolve. I've been lucky enough to have gotten conflict resolution classes over the years, so combined with my 17 years of experience I feel confident handling most of these kinds of clients. But it's still emotionally and mentally draining, and in almost every case is completely unnecessary.
If anyone wants to become a veterinarian because they don't like dealing with people....they are certainly going into the wrong profession!