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The Challenging Client: Setting Boundaries & Showing Compassion

Stacie Fishell Rowan, MA, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin

April 2014|Web-Exclusive

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Some clients are simply more challenging than others.

Do you look at the day’s appointments and dread seeing a particular client? One who gets angry or anxious for no obvious reason? One who is always overbearing? A client who becomes overly emotional or argumentative during routine procedures?

Difficult clients do require extra time and energy but it is possible to overcome the challenges they present.

Related Article: The Impaired Client

Empathy—the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes—is likely your strongest tool when working with challenging clients. Empathy allows you to understand what a client who is worried about a beloved pet and anxious about his or her diagnosis or treatment is feeling. That obvious empathy then helps create an environment where the client feels heard, supported, and respected.

Once that environment has been created, the next step is client communication that involves honest, direct feedback about perceptions.

Empathy is likely your strongest tool when working with challenging clients.

The Over-Anxious Client

The scenario: Mr. Douglas is prone to becoming very anxious and repeating the same questions about caring for Hops, his pet rabbit. Your team realizes that he often requires additional time and education about his rabbit but find that difficult to deal with, given all their responsibilities. One possible intervention:

“I understand that you’re worried about giving Hops his medications at home. I feel anxious when I have to try to figure out new things, too. I certainly understand the way you feel.”

This statement acknowledges Mr. Douglas’s feelings and helps him feel connected to you and the practice team, which in turn helps the overall relationship and the likelihood of client retention.

Next, gently set some boundaries with a follow-up statement, such as:

“I have a couple of other patients to check on, but then I will set aside 10 minutes to meet just with you. Perhaps you can think about any questions you may have and identify the most important ones, so that we can start with those.”

Although setting a time limit may seem counterintuitive to good client service, you are showing respect for Mr. Douglas by ensuring his most important questions are answered despite your limited time.

The Intense, Emotional Client

An emotional client whose intense response does not seem to fit the situation presents another challenge.

The scenario: Mrs. Strand waits patiently while you examine her dog, Satchmo, but when you take a needle from the refrigerator to give him a routine vaccination, she clutches Satchmo and says loudly, “You are not injecting my dog with unsafe vaccines!”

Your instincts may put you on the defensive and make it seem necessary to protect yourself, but using empathy will allow you to put down your guard and dissipate the intensity of emotion through connection and understanding.

“It seems like this vaccination will be difficult for you. I’m sorry I did not check first if Satchmo has had difficulty with vaccinations in the past?”

This allows Mrs. Strand to explain her response without feeling judged and to share any pertinent information. Perhaps she remembers that Satchmo, or another pet, became ill after a previous vaccination. This step provides an opportunity for you to validate her concerns and work with her to decide on a mutual course of action. 

Related Article: Addressing the Angry Client: Empathize & Apologize

Have Resources at Your Fingertips

Work with your team to develop resources that will help clients understand that you only provide the medical care that you believe is best for their pet. Resources that also provide easy-to-read explanations of the services you provide can help the client feel less overwhelmed both at the practice and at home. Such resources can include:

  • Pamphlets or brochures that describe specific illnesses or treatments
  • Classes your practice or other local organizations provide
  • Reliable websites
  • The names of 2 or 3 therapists who specialize in pet-related concerns.

Empathy, expressed through caring and transparent communication, can improve relationships with challenging clients. They will most likely always pick up on your impatience and frustration, no matter what you say, so always approach a client with a caring, thoughtful manner.

Also, it is possible to maintain, and even improve, relationships at the same time as you set boundaries, so long as you show clients that you will provide genuine care, compassion, and respect within that time frame.

Remember, most clients do not want to feel angry, anxious, or afraid. Putting yourself in their shoes will allow you to overcome the challenges and win over these clients.   


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