Is the Customer Always Right?

Sarah J. Wooten, DVM, CVJ, Vets Against Insanity, Silverthorne, Colorado

ArticleLast Updated September 20234 min read
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Dear Second Opinion,

I recently graduated and am practicing in a busy general clinic. I have enjoyed building relationships with my clients and patients. Overall, I receive positive feedback; however, I am unsure about how to navigate the occasional client complaint.

For example, a new client contacted the clinic because their pet was acutely vomiting. I squeezed an appointment into my schedule for a same day consultation. Instead of thanking us for fitting them in, the client complained about waiting 10 minutes past the appointment time while I was finishing my previous appointment. They also complained about the cost of recommended testing and accused me of price gouging. The patient was ultimately discharged with subcutaneous fluids and antinausea medications and is expected to make a full recovery. That evening, I came across a negative review posted by that client on our social media page.

The staff and I did everything we could to help the patient and provide the client with excellent service, but I feel discouraged by this interaction. It’s hard not to take complaints personally, even when I know some circumstances are outside of my control. Furthermore, I find myself dwelling on client complaints, continually replaying the situation in my head, even on my days off.

How can I learn to better handle client complaints in order to preserve my mental health and avoid burnout?

—Can’t Just Let It Go

Dear Can’t Just Let It Go,

Receiving negative feedback when you’re doing your best can be disheartening . The client seems to have been stressed (potentially about their pet) and projected those feelings onto you and your clinic. Unfortunately, clients with high levels of stress can react badly and often don’t realize they are behaving this way because they can only see through their own point of view: defending themselves in what seems to them a psychologically threatening situation. When a human feels threatened, the prefrontal cortex (morality, logic) goes offline, and the amygdala (the seat of our emotions and the fight, flight, or freeze response) takes over. This can look like reactive behavior, complaining, and bad online reviews—explaining (but not excusing) bad client behavior.

Dwelling on negative client interactions also emotionally commandeers your amygdala, which is trying to protect you by constantly thinking about these interactions. It’s also why we tend to remember psychologically traumatic events more than positive experiences. Even if you had 30 positive client reactions on that same day, the negative one is what you will remember most. It’s basic neurobiology, but you don’t have to let it ruin your day.

Try the following the next time you experience a negative client interaction.

  1. Remember that stressed clients are emotionally hijacked by their amygdala and are likely not thinking clearly. The response is similar to scared, fractious behaviors in dogs and cats; the amygdala can cause a dog to bite out of fear and a human to behave badly. Understanding that the behavior is a reflection of what they are experiencing, rather than a reflection of you, is important. At a high level, this may inspire compassion because only those who are suffering tend to behave extremely rudely.

  2. Use empathetic statements, and be the best version of yourself. You should act in a way that makes you proud of yourself, regardless of how the other person is behaving.

  3. If you need reactive clients to change their behavior, use nonviolent communication techniques. Non-violent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg is a good resource.

Understanding human behavior can also be helpful. Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman and Behave by Robert Sapolsky are excellent resources that can help with resistance to the emotional and mental hijinks of others and protect your mental health and well-being.

Wishing you all the best!

Sarah Wooten, DVM, CVJ