The frustration and financial woes caused by clients who refuse to pay can take a significant toll on practitioners. So here’s how to solve this issue of freeloaders. By Kerryn Ramsey
There’s nothing more satisfying than successfully completing a medical procedure but there’s nothing more frustrating and stressful than dealing with difficult customers, particularly those who can’t or won’t pay.
The frustration caused by these ‘freeloaders’ shouldn’t be underestimated and can take a significant toll on vets and nurses alike. So, what are the options when dealing with this stressful and costly situation?
A common mistake, according to vet and businessperson Sam Bowden, is believing that vets and nurses are responsible for a client’s financial situation. “It is not your responsibility to provide goods or services to people who don’t have the finances—or say they don’t have any money,” says the founder of United Vets Group. “They point out that you’re an animal doctor who loves pets. Therefore, you should treat this pet at a ‘decent’ price.”
However, the veterinarian simply doesn’t have the facts about this client’s financial situation. “They may have chosen to spend their money on luxury items they can’t afford or they may be paying off a university fee or renovation costs,” says Bowden. “However, a practitioner isn’t required to assume responsibility for their financial situation.” Moreover the practitioner and their team have to follow the practice’s financial systems.
While it’s easy to refer to customers as freeloaders and cheapskates, it’s important to look at things from their perspective. A frugal client may be tempted to try and negotiate on medical costs.
In an article in Choice magazine back in 2014, it stated that, “more than ever, many vets are under pressure to extract as much money as possible from every customer visit”. In the article, ‘Pet Premiums’, the Australian Veterinarian Association (AVA) admitted that “some practices are more profit-driven than others”.
It stated that there are no standard fees for standard services, adding that vets set prices in line with their overhead costs, and such costs “vary widely from place to place”.
So, there’s no wonder a customer who believes they’re being upsold is willing to try and negotiate on the price of veterinary procedures.
To avoid any surprises, Dr Paws Veterinary Clinic in Lane Cove, NSW, provides an estimate before they go ahead with any procedures. “We prepare our clients as best as we can in terms of financial costs so they feel prepared,” says Dr Paws’ Dr Pat Chan. “We try to eliminate any undue stress by providing estimates and discussing why we are providing specific treatments and the costs associated.”
From the top down
When it comes to dealing with penny pinchers, Bowden suggests taking a ‘top down’ approach. When a pet requires surgery, it’s best to recommend the most appropriate procedure, regardless of price. “Then if the client says they can’t afford it, discuss other options that are more affordable,” he says. This includes online payment programs, making sure they have pet insurance, sending the pet to not-for-profit organisations or euthanasia.
“We try to eliminate any undue stress by providing estimates and discussing why we are providing specific treatments and the costs associated.
Dr Pat Chan, Dr Paws Veterinary Clinic
Online payment programs, such as VetPay and Zip Pay, involve a payment plan that debits the client’s bank account or credit card. Dr Paws also offers a payment plan called Open Pay which allows clients to pay a small deposit and then pay off the balance over a flexible payment plan.
These easy-to-use platforms have a high success rate of clients being accepted. “It’s crazy if a practitioner doesn’t make these platforms available to their clients,” says Bowden. “The benefit for vets is that you’re protected. You do have to pay a percentage but you’re getting your money up-front.”
To help clients who can’t afford surgery, it’s worth encouraging them to sign up for pet insurance. And while a practice’s prices shouldn’t budge, it’s still important to include discounts for clients who have a health-care card or a pensioner concession card.
Bowden suggests that there should be no give when it comes to negotiations. If a client suggests they could pay half now, then pay the rest in a week or a month’s time, forget it. “All of a sudden, you’re being used as a bank,” says Bowden. “When they walk out the door, they’re then sitting in a position of control. Most people do the right thing but sadly, between three to five per cent of clients will disappear without making the final payment. They’re the ones who annoy the daylights out of you.”
If a freeloader says they can’t afford the cost at the current price, a practitioner can suggest sending their pet to not-for-profit animal practices at the RSPCA or Animal Welfare League, which may discount the price.
If a client is not prepared to pay for quality service at your practice, the final decision is euthanasia, which may be the most humane option available.
In this situation, euthanasia is hard on veterinarians, as well as your staff and pet owners. It’s important to debrief with the team afterwards to help come to terms with this decision.
Carrying the debt yourself
Working as a veterinarian brings along complex issues and there are times when a practitioner may let emotion override finance. In other words, they occasionally carry the debt themselves by doing free work, even for the most abrasive clients.
However, it’s important to keep this under control as it may become more common. “What happens is that it’s monkey see, monkey do,” says Bowden. “The rest of the team, particularly other vets, look at what’s happening and go, ‘Well, perhaps I should help people like this—clients who can’t afford expensive work’.”
Before this situation spirals, it’s important that you demonstrate good leadership. “It’s an unfair judgement for your team to make. The best solution is agree on your process, then stick to it.”