There are some clients where the time for talking and managing is over, and it is simply time to move them on—and off your books. John Burfitt reports
There are fairly standard ways of dealing with problem clients but according to veterinary coach and mentor Dr Diederik Gelderman, one clinic he knows of has a particularly unique approach. “At the end of each year, as a Christmas present to the staff, the boss tells the team they can pick one client who has been horrible to deal with that year,” Dr Gelderman says.
“Once that client is decided upon, the boss then gets rid of that person, and believes that’s an important goodwill thing to do for the staff. I’m not sure if that’s the most effective way to manage a problem client but they insist it works for them.”
Every practice has a story to share about the client—or clients—from hell. They’re usually easy to spot: they monopolise the team’s time, demand extra attention, act as if they’re entitled to more than a normal service, repeatedly ask for discounts and make more than the usual quota of unreasonable demands. In the more extreme cases, they can be abusive and threatening.
When analysing the cost of keeping such clients, it might help to apply the Pareto principle (the 80:20 rule). In other words, are 80 per cent of the practice’s resources spent on 20 per cent of its clients?
When putting this principle to the test, also pay attention to the revenue these difficult clients generate. If they don’t generate the majority of revenue, it might be time to start diverting your resources to the ones that do.
And even if they do generate a significant amount, it might be wise to weigh up if their value really stacks up in the long run, advises Dr Gelderman.
“It should not matter who the client is—if they are having a negative impact on the way the practice runs and result in you having an unhappy team, then something needs to be done about that,” he says.
“It should not matter who the client is—if they are having a negative impact on the way the practice runs and result in you having an unhappy team, then something needs to be done about that.”—Dr Diederik Gelderman, veterinary coach and mentor
“That’s not to suggest that you get rid of every person who is difficult, but it’s about having a clear policy about the way you deal with clients whose behaviour crosses the line, like the ones who abuse the staff or carry on like a crazy person. There’s just no value in having them on your books.”
There can be a danger in labelling a client who’s more high-maintenance than others as a ‘problem client’, says business coach and mentor Nikki Fogden-Moore. “This is a time when you need to be dealing with facts and stats, and leave the emotions out of it,” she says.
“Be clear about why you identify someone as a problem. Are they a problem as you don’t gel emotionally with them, or they don’t listen to the advice or they don’t follow through? Or is it because they are abusive, a safety threat and genuinely disrupt the running of the practice and the team is upset every time they have been in?
“If that client falls into the latter categories, then you might need to move them on sooner rather than later for the sake of your business.”
Melbourne business consultant Louise Davis says when identifying a problem client, it needs to be done in consideration of your business philosophies and how your practice functions.
“When you have some clarity about the way you want to do business and the type of customer you want, you have a reference point to work from,” Davis says.
“If you have a problem client that you have already attempted to manage, and the problem persists so that it impacts your wellbeing as the business owner and places additional stress on staff, then that must be dealt with.”
Some claim the best way to move on a problem client is to never have room in the appointment books for future consultations and to refer them elsewhere, or to keep increasing the treatment prices in the hope they are priced out of affording the service.
“As a profession, we all know we’re at risk of mental illness, compassion fatigue and chronic stress. If that one problem client is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, then do something about it.”—Dr Matthew Muir, All Natural Vet Care
Dr Matthew Muir of All Natural Vet Care in Sydney suggests a more straightforward approach.“We have a formal process where our practice manager sends a letter pointing out we seem unable to meet their expectations and inviting them to make a formal complaint for us to investigate,” he says. “Otherwise, if they don’t wish to do that, we ask that they provide details of another practice where we can forward clinical records.”
Dr Muir says veterinary medicine can be difficult enough without tolerating ongoing bad behaviour.
“As a profession, we all know we’re at risk of mental illness, compassion fatigue and chronic stress,” says the veterinarian. “If that one problem client is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, then do something about it.”
Dr Gelderman adds that moving a client on should always be done in writing, and never in the heat of the moment during an argument in the clinic or on the telephone.
“You need to keep it formal, keep the emotion out of it, and just point out there are probably other practices that might be better suited to them,” he says. “It’s not about blaming anyone; it’s got to be a matter of pointing out the situation is not working, and that letter needs to be sent from the owner or practice manager.”
Dr Alan Guilfoyle works in the remote Clermont region of northern Queensland, and is president of Australian Cattle Veterinarians, a special interest group of the Australian Veterinary Association. He says that not all vets have the luxury to easily move on problematic clients. In some cases, there are better ways to deal with them.
“I had one client who bagged out my vets to other people, and one day I saw him again at our front desk,” Dr Guilfoyle recalls. “I said to him, ‘My staff wanted to sack you for the way you have carried on, but I said no, as we are the only vets in town, and we are concerned about your animals’ welfare’.
“He changed his behaviour with us from that moment on. I think we manage most situations but one thing I will never tolerate is when they are abusive with my staff. That breaks all the rules and the staff know they have our support in such situations. Just knowing that protection is there can be very important to the way the team functions.”