There is no doubt that the past 12 months have been life-altering for everyone and veterinary hospitals have been drastically affected. In some ways, it is hard to believe that it has already been a year since the COVID-19 crisis  began, and in others, it feels like it’s been going for several years. I am confident I have developed a fair amount of grey hair over the past year!
Although I don’t want to say it for fear of jinxing it, it seems to me like the dust is starting to settle and that we are finally able to start (at least in some areas which is better than none!) to visualize and plan for our hospitals to return to a level of normalcy. As I read through forums, groups, and speak with colleagues around the country, I have noticed a common thread of concern and challenge, and no, it is not just about safety. It is about clients and how to proceed forward with them. Although a lot of these discussions begin with safety—how do we safely let clients back in the hospital and keep the staff and everyone safe—there is an element that I think we may have temporarily disregarded, suspended, or even forgotten during the crisis of the past year: Client relationships.
I have done much reflecting on the events of the last year and reviewed my steps and choices over and over again. No one was prepared for a crisis of this level; no one. A good hurricane or natural disaster plan probably did not include what to do in a pandemic or a year of what we just experienced.
If your business continuation plan was that specific, you deserve an award.
We all did the absolute best we could with our limitations, limited information, restrictions, and all of the side effects and events that the pandemic brought. I want to be very, very clear that I am in no way criticizing anyone. I am simply reflecting and thinking about the consistent outcomes I am seeing now and how to best proceed to maintain our standards in the future for the best possibility of success for the industry from both a professional and client perspective.
One of the worst things that has happened over the past year was the increase in angry and abusive clients. I myself experienced this—it was horrible—and I even wrote a blog on how I approached it  which included writing an open letter to my clientele. We are not a society of people that are used to being told no and having our sense of free choice challenged. We are a society of instant gratification. Purchases, banking, socializing, and information available at the touch of a phone in seconds have created a society of people who want what they want when they want it.
Of course, there are many benefits to this technology, but learning to practice patience is certainly not one of them. Did you ever get really frustrated when your Amazon shopping cart took too long to load that you forgot how lucky you are to be able to price shop and purchase something within minutes from your couch? I dare to say it happens to the best of us now and then. Let’s multiply that on a huge scale with all the restrictions of COVID-19, the fear of the unknown threat, and people being told what they can and cannot do. Is it really a wonder that we had an increase in frustrated people?
As I mentioned before, there is a huge difference between a frustrated client and a blatantly abusive client.
Sometimes people are just abusive and I still stand by my word that there should be no tolerance for this and those clients need to be terminated immediately. I am not talking about those clients.
We struggle with suicide and compassion fatigue in this industry and we all know that truly abusive situations and people contribute to that and it should be taken very seriously. I am talking about your average client who is mostly content but has been annoyed over the past year and is frustrated, not abusive. Have you repeated yourself 100 times over the past year explaining to an upset long-term client why you can’t fit their pet in today or in the next few days and they have to go to the local emergency clinic to be seen? I know I have.
Now again, before people get defensive, remember, I am NOT criticizing you and I am reflecting on myself as much as anyone else when I say this. Do you think you explained this to the 50th or 100th client with as much empathy and understanding as you did the first?
I can honestly say that by that time, although I do not believe I was rude or unprofessional, I am sure my empathy skills probably were not as good as they were when I spoke to the first client because I had the same conversation over and over and it was emotionally tolling. Here is the thing though, for that last client I or my team talked to, it was the first time that client talked to us and THAT is their first impression of the clinic when they needed help. It wasn’t the 100th time they had that conversation, it was the first and only. Did it go the way I would have wanted it to go prior to COVID-19 in normal times or did I let all of the stress and compassion fatigue wear me down? I know it didn’t. It was impossible for it not to, however at the time I knew I was doing the best I could do. I don’t know that I could have done much better while I was in the middle of it frankly, and this is why I approach this article assuring you that I am not criticizing anyone.
So if I am not criticizing, what am I doing?
I am looking at where we are now, what happened, and what I see as some inevitable outcomes of COVID-19 with a true concern for the veterinary industry.
Let’s look at this from our perspective. In countless conversations with managers of other hospitals around the country, forum posts, and discussion threads, I am seeing the same continuous concern. That is that teams across the country are now at a point where they generally dislike their clients.
I hear from other managers that they are not even sure how they are going to let clients in the building because they are afraid that the clients will hear the negative things the staff says in their absence. I hear teams and managers discuss that they don’t even want clients to come into the building anymore and not because of any safety concerns. I see anti-client rhetoric in forums, posts, and hear it too much when I talk to other managers.
How did this happen? Simple. Burn out. Compassion fatigue. Abusive clients. All that magnified by large numbers and the stress of all the challenges COVID-19 brought to us. We have put ourselves in a defensive bubble from all of the trauma we have endured from abusive people, to doing three jobs at once, and working many hours of overtime. We have begun to generalize clients as a whole and not in a good way.
Give Mark Opperman a chance
I would be willing to bet that most people in our industry heard of or read Mark Opperman’s Today’s Veterinary Business article “My dog broke his leg .” In this article, Mark talks about how his injured dog was not able to be seen by his routine vet and had to receive emergency care. Does this sound familiar? How many pets have you referred to emergency care because you couldn’t possibly see one more without compromising your level of care or the sanity of your staff? I can think of many that we have had to refer in our own clinic.
He mentions that the receptionist was a little rude on the phone while giving him the bad news that he couldn’t be seen. Remember that paragraph above where I talked about the lack of empathy and the last client in the line of 100 of the same conversations and how the client would perceive it? He talks about how the overall experience may mean he might search for a new vet because as a good client he couldn’t be accommodated in his pet’s time of need. He was heavily criticized for mentioning what a good client he knows he is. Here’s the thing, that is EXACTLY how our clients think of themselves. It doesn’t matter that you don’t see them in that light. This is the exact client perspective that our clients have when we tell them these things if we lack the empathy that has happened as a result of our burnout.
There were things in that article that we certainly know are not plausible, like a doctor getting on the phone to tell a client they can’t be seen versus a receptionist. People again said how out of touch he was. I would be willing to bet that someone who has been a major industry leader for decades would know that it is not feasible to do this. However, he told us his story from a client’s perspective. They don’t see why a doctor can’t just hop on the phone. Don’t clients try the “have the doctor call me” thing all the time? Again, it is the client perspective we are talking about.
How many times have we had conversations with staff that we want to make clients feel so special that they feel like they are the only client. A+ customer service, right? How do you think they feel when you suddenly say no, we can’t see your dog with the broken leg, and you say it in a less than empathetic tone because you are exhausted and burned out and your customer service has slipped?
Can we ask clients to be empathetic to us? YES! We can and should.
We should try to make people very aware through communication and transparency. The reality is, most of those people have no clue how the pandemic affected us as a business. They see us as being difficult or unavailable in their time of need. I will go back one more time and say this is no excuse for abuse, and those people should be held accountable for their behavior.
Mark offered a few suggestions about how to make what we can better, but my interpretation of the comments written to him—some of which were quite terrible particularly from an industry of people who so strongly oppose cyberbullying—was that it was understood that he was asking us to do more, see more pets, be better, get doctors on the phone, etc. During a time of high stress, if that is how someone interpreted the article while in a defensive bubble protecting themselves, it isn’t hard to see the anger it sparked. It was widely received as being an attack in our greatest time of distress. I fully admit that I was partially irritated at my initial reading. However, I would ask that people go back and read it again, now that the dust has settled a bit and see if you come away with a different message. Think of the summary of the experience as being written from the perspective of a client, not an industry consultant. I will point it right out to you, it is in the last line of the article. “How we handle clients today will be how we are judged in the future.”  He is 100% right.
What we did in the midst of this crisis is done. As I mentioned above, I don’t know that I could have done much better while I was in the lowest trench of my career with my colleagues, and I am certain that as the respectable veterinary community we are, we did our best with what was handed to us.
BUT, it has led us to now and I would urge you to consider Mark’s advice in conjunction with the slew of anti-client rhetoric that seems to be an issue right now. Yes, there are some abusive people here and there that need to be dealt with, and we should protect ourselves and our teams. Yes, clients are frustrated, BUT they have the right to be. COVID-19 and its awful effects on all of us are not our faults.
Don’t forget, it isn’t your clients’ fault either and they are just as frustrated as you.
This too shall end. Practice self-care, compassion fatigue training, adjust what you can in your hospital to make the limited experience the best one possible. No, you won’t please them all, but we will get through this. And when we do, we need to make sure we handled our clients respectfully enough that they are still there for us. We cannot go down the dangerous road of generalizing all clients and lumping them into a group of annoying, bothersome people that we “have” to see.We can’t forget that we need to have a functional, respectful relationship with clients to stay in business. Click To Tweet 
We have had a really rough year and it is no doubt that people have been burned out on clients. I know I was, and in some ways I still am. But we need to do what we can to end the bad relationships and foster the good ones through tough times. Yes, it is a two-way street but generalizing clientele and allowing staff to complain about them constantly in the clinic, on posts, and in forums cannot happen and will not bring us back to where we were with clients before the pandemic.
Provide yourself and staff compassion fatigue training, support self-care, and help your staff heal and get beyond the burnout, because it is critical for our industry to move forward and we won’t do it if we don’t respect our clients.
Going forward, I urge those with a negative client culture in their teams to end it.
We have fought for years to defend our industry against the concept of “vets are just in it for the money.” If we are so annoyed with clients that we don’t go back to outstanding customer service, they are not going to see the value in coming to us and will simply go to the cheapest in town. Is that what we want? Do we also want a team culture that spends energy on hating clients and complains nonstop about them? What kind of environment does that create for quality patient care and who would honestly enjoy going to work with that every day?
Negativity spreads in dangerous ways.
Remember friends, I am not criticizing how you handled the worst of the pandemic. I lived it and worked it with you. There were many painful days and nights and lots of tears and stress. But I think it is time we move on and learn what we can from the result.
We need clients and we need to have a respectable, functional relationship with them to succeed. We cannot do that if we allow client over-generalizing and bashing from ourselves and our teams. The bad ones do not spoil the bunch and we need to recognize that we were so tired and stressed that some of our views got skewed. Review, refresh, and rebuild because until the pets can provide their own payment and decisions, we are still an industry of customer service. Let’s get back to that with positivity.
Meg Oliver, CVPM is the practice manager at a three-doctor, small animal and exotics practice in Syracuse, New York. She can be reached at email@example.com .