Dealing With Clients Who Treat Veterinary Staff Poorly

Debbie Boone, CVPM, 2 Manage Vets Consulting, North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina

ArticleLast Updated June 20243 min read
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Dear Second Opinion,

Some of our clients are disrespectful to support staff, but this behavior is typically not directed toward or displayed in front of clinicians. I understand clients may act rudely as a result of the stress and emotional duress of dealing with a sick pet, but treating staff poorly seems to be a regular occurrence and is inappropriate.

For example, I diagnosed a canine patient with diabetes. When the owner returns for rechecks, they are short with staff, refuse to answer questions, and claim we should already have the information being asked for in the medical record. They are not abrasive toward me but told a technician they must be “completely incompetent” to have to ask the same questions at each visit.

I want clients to know we will not tolerate this behavior toward any staff member. How do I address this with clients, especially when the behavior is not directed at me?


Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Dear Can’t We All Just Get Along,

It’s unfortunate that some clients are not friendly or willing to work with the veterinary team, and although it is important to have sympathy for clients under emotional duress, rude and/or aggressive behavior toward staff is unacceptable. Clients may become frustrated if they feel they are not receiving the clinician’s full attention or because they don’t understand the reasoning behind procedures or recommendations. Improving communication training for the team can help avoid inadvertently setting clients off on the wrong foot.

A clinician or practice manager should address disrespectful behavior by explaining that staff members are valued and disrespectful treatment will not be tolerated. If a client would like to make a complaint, they should be referred to a clinician or practice manager. Feedback should be listened to without argument.

Emotional intelligence is the best tool for preventing and defusing disrespectful client interactions. It can be helpful for everyone on staff to take and understand the DISC personality test (see Suggested Reading) to better understand communication profiles, as knowledge of the various ways people communicate can help with identification of client behaviors and allow staff to custom-tailor service experiences. For example, clients who become agitated answering the same questions at each visit may have a Driver personality, which means their greatest annoyance is perceived wasted time. Effective communication with these clients may include statements such as, “At the last visit, we noted Spot exhibited these clinical signs and behaviors, has anything changed?” This helps the client understand that although the information is in the record, details on whether the patient’s condition has changed are needed. Some clients may prefer to check in ahead of time via an online form to minimize the amount of appointment time needed for history-taking.

If, in spite of the team’s best efforts and a discussion with the practice manager, the client’s disrespectful behavior continues, a polite but firm dismissal letter can be given. It should be noted that if care is currently being provided for a patient, the relationship with the client cannot be terminated until care is transferred to another clinic.

One of my favorite stories involves a practice owner walking in on a client berating a staff member and telling the client they would no longer be welcome at that clinic. The staff member was grateful to have the practice owner on their side and returned the loyalty. Standing up to rude behavior can be difficult and requires bravery, but prioritizing staff members can strengthen the bonds within the team.


Debbie Boone, CVPM