Managing difficult clients

managing difficult clients

Managing difficult clients is not the most pleasant task. But ignoring their complaints can hurt your practice and erode your employee morale. Manage complaints right, however, and you can turn a cranky client into a lifelong customer. By Shane Conroy

Customer complaints come in many forms. There’s the gentle constructive criticism you can use to improve your practice. There’s the short-tempered snap from an emotional client. There’s the reasonable reaction to an honest mistake. And then there’s the completely unhinged client who is impossible to satisfy. 

But whatever the variety, complaints should never be ignored. Doing so only hurts your business, says Dr Joanne Sillince, managing director at Pets Australia.

“It’s a competitive world, and social media is real. But complaints don’t just get shared on social media, they get shared in the school car park, at the dog park, coffee shop, and sports field. Practitioners don’t operate nationwide—they operate in a small community so it’s relatively easy to get a bad reputation—which means business loss.”

But there is help at hand. Pets Australia runs half-day complaints management workshops for vet practices. Dr Sillince says that the informal and fun structure of the workshops also works as a team-building exercise.  

“It can be a great team-building exercise for a practice because staff get to have discussions about clients that normally don’t happen. It’s often the only chance for nurses and receptionists to ‘share the grief’ with practitioners and owners. Practitioners and owners are often unaware of what nurses and receptionists deal with daily. Often staff members think that difficult clients and complaints are only coming to them and are relieved when they find out it happens to everybody.”

Dr Sillince believes that everybody in the practice should be trained in complaints management, and that there should be an escalation process in place to ensure all complaints receive the appropriate attention. 

“Complaints management is a step-wise flowchart that starts with proper handling by the reception staff, then can escalate all the way up to the owner depending on how the complaint goes,” she explains. “I’ve seen too many cases where a staff member has turned a low-level complaint into a really nasty one with flippant, stand-offish or disrespectful ‘up-front’ management.”

But get your complaints management right, and you can win over disgruntled clients and boost your business while you’re at it. 

It’s a competitive world, and social media is real. But complaints don’t just get shared on social media, they get shared in the school car park, at the dog park, coffee shop, and sports field.

Dr Joanne Sillince, managing director, Pets Australia

“The rule of thumb is that a positively handled complaint equals either no damage to the business or a client for life,” says Dr Sillince. 

The 6 difficult client archetypes

Dr Sillince has created six difficult client archetypes that she explores with in-depth role-plays during the workshops. Here she shares a snapshot of each with a tip on how to handle them. 

1. The Serial Killer

This one picks off members of the practice one at a time. They move from one practitioner to another and make a complaint about each—but they don’t change practices. 

Tip: Do you really need these clients? Sometimes these people are not well respected in the community, so it might be better to politely tell these clients that they should consider going to another practice—but your social media management has to be excellent. 

2. The Master: Serf

This person thinks that because you are a service, you should be servile. This can be a particular problem for nurses and receptionists, who bear the brunt of these people, although practitioners may cop it too.  

Tip: Do not try to impress them with your training and expertise (which is a natural response). Do not waste energy correcting them when they are clearly wrong. Play their game and have a behind-the-scenes coping strategy. 

3. The Tattletale

These clients find fault in everything you do and then report it to the boss behind your back. 

Tip: Cohesion and transparent communication is vital. It’s important that the boss/owner knows staff well, can investigate where necessary and get to the truth. 

4. The Gossip

These clients spread nasty and usually untruthful information about you and the business around the community and social media that can damage the practice. 

Tip: Quality social media management is essential. Be prepared to take legal measures if necessary. This may well be a client that the business politely needs to ask to go elsewhere. 

5. The Changeling

This person has a habit of constantly changing their mind, and is often not quiet about telling you. 

Tip: Always get it in writing, always, BUT don’t just single these people out—you should be using the same forms for all clients. Be firm but fair.

6. The Just Plain Bloody Rude

This person likes to wind you up just for fun—to see you react. Sometimes they throw in completely unacceptable language
as well. 

Tip: Their game is about making you react. Deny them their thrills. Be amazingly polite and respond courteously at all times. But team cohesion is essential to avoid one of you ‘blowing up’ under the stress.

To enquire about a complaints management workshop for your practice, email  

Management mistakes

Dr Sillince shares five common makes vet practices make when managing complaints.

1. Ignoring the complaint: This usually results in hotter anger from the client and sometimes complaints to registration boards. 

2. Being defensive: It’s not about you, it’s about the situation. Being defensive makes things considerably worse. 

3. Failing to really listen: So many complaints are not what the client leads with. 

4. Failing to inform the insurance company: Many think they will be penalised for doing so, but it’s usually the opposite. 

5. Failing to keep proper records: That includes not adding extra commentary that disadvantages the practitioner if things get to discovery. 


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