Enough Already! Establishing Boundaries with Challenging Clients
Some clients are simply more challenging to work with than others.
You may look at the day’s appointments and dread seeing a particular client for a variety of reasons. One client may be easily angered or become anxious and overbearing at the drop of a hat. Another client may react overly emotional or aggressive during routine procedures.
Regardless of the situation, handling challenging clients daily can take a great deal of energy and time.
Empathy for the “devil”
It is critical to understand that anxiety and anger are unpleasant experiences for everyone—clients included. It is difficult to live well if you find yourself easily overwhelmed and anxious, or if you have a “short fuse” in stressful situations.
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes, and it is likely the strongest tool in your belt when working with challenging clients. Overt and transparent empathy can create an environment where your client feels heard, supported, and respected. Empathy can allow you to understand what it might be like to be a client who is worried about a beloved pet and who is feeling anxious about a diagnosis or treatment.
Often, people may feel empathy without knowing how to use feelings to connect and create a stronger relationship. This can be doubly difficult while maintaining a tight appointment schedule. Transparency can allow you to openly acknowledge your feelings, normalize your client’s experience, and establish boundaries.
Feedback and Feelings
One step toward transparency in client communication involves honest and direct feedback about perceptions.
Mr. Douglas is prone to respond with anxiety and repetitive questions about his pet rabbit’s care. This client has been identified by your team as “high needs.” One possible intervention to consider:
“I understand that you’re worried about giving Hops his medications at home. I feel anxious when I have to try to figure out new things on my own, too. I think your feelings are understandable in this situation.”
This statement normalizes Mr. Douglas’s feelings and also allows him to connect with you, which can improve the working relationship in this case and lead to increased client retention overall.
A follow up statement may be necessary to set boundaries, such as:
“I’m sure you have a lot of questions for me. I have a couple patients to check on, but then I will have about 10 minutes to meet with you individually. Perhaps you can think about the questions that you may have and identify those that seem most important to you. We can start there to make sure I answer your most important questions.”
Although the setting of a time limit may seem counterintuitive to good customer service, you are reflecting your respect for your client by answering his most salient questions while also clearly stating that you have limited time available.
Another challenge may occur when the intensity of your client’s emotional response does not seem to fit a certain situation.
Mrs. Strand is waiting patiently during the examination of her dog, Satchmo. As you retrieve a routine vaccine from the refrigerator, she clutches Satchmo and yells, “You are not injecting my dog with unsafe vaccines!”
In this case, you may feel yourself become defensive and want to raise your guard. Empathy may allow you to let down your guard and dissipate the intensity of emotion through connection and understanding. You may choose to say something similar to the following:
“It seems like this vaccination will be difficult for you. I’m sorry I didn’t check with you prior to taking out the syringe. Has Satchmo had difficulty with vaccinations in the past?”
This allows your client to explain her response without feeling judged and to share pertinent information about the case. Perhaps Satchmo became very ill after a previous vaccination, or perhaps Ms. Strand had another pet who responded poorly to a vaccination.
Whether Mrs. Strand’s initial concerns are accurate is not important. Her emotional response stems from the perceived link between treatment and outcome. Immediately correcting her about the facts of vaccines is likely to escalate her anger and make an uncomfortable situation even worse.
Resources at Your Fingertips
Working with your veterinary team to create resources that can be shared with clients can take the brunt of difficult client relations. The availability of certain resources can allow the client to feel less overwhelmed in the examination room and at home. These resources can include:
Creating a collection of resources can allow you to maintain boundaries while treating your clients with empathy and care. You may be able to give Mr. Douglas information about Hops’ medical condition to read at home in addition to reassuring him in person, or you may be able to direct Ms. Strand to someone who can help her cope with the loss of one of her other pets.
Empathy, expressed through caring and transparent communication, can improve relationships with challenging clients. It is imperative that you approach each client in a caring and thoughtful manner. If you are impatient and frustrated, your client will likely reflect that regardless of the words you use.
Boundaries can be established while maintaining and improving the relationships you have. It is important to remember that most people do not want to feel angry, anxious, or afraid. Your ability to provide genuine care and steady boundaries will make your client feel like they are treated with compassion and respect.