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October 15, 2020

When clients bite: Dealing with difficult clients … in a pandemic

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Veterinarians can change negative feelings about clients if they change how they think about clients, even difficult ones—even amid the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Julie Squires, a life coach and the founder of Rekindle LLC, presented “When Clients Bite: Dealing With Difficult People” on Aug. 22 during the AVMA Virtual Convention 2020.

Curbside service: Client and canine patient
Current stressors for veterinary professionals—and clients—include the logistics of curbside service.

Squires has spent 25 years in the veterinary field, starting as a veterinary assistant. She also worked in sales and training for companies and has managed a practice. She said, “In all of those years, I’ve experienced what it is like to deal with clients,” whether in the examination room or over the phone. Now, veterinary professionals are dealing with clients in the parking lot as curbside service becomes the new norm.

Squires said current stressors for veterinary professionals include COVID-19, from the fear of contracting the disease to regional incidence and inconsistent guidelines; wearing personal protective equipment all the time; clients’ actions and expectations; the logistics of curbside service; packed schedules; wanting to be able to provide the best for clients and patients while not always being able to; knowing one’s actions can put co-workers at risk and vice versa; their personal life; and a lack of work-life balance.

“We have to understand where our feelings actually come from,” Squires said. She continued, “If you believe that the way you feel comes from things outside of you, you have to control the universe in order to feel the way you want.”

Circumstances trigger thoughts, which cause feelings, which cause actions, which cause results. Squires recommended separating facts from thoughts. If the fact is that a practice is offering only curbside service, then the staff members might think they’re not giving their best to patients and clients. An alternative thought is that the staff members are doing the best they can for patients, clients, and themselves during this pandemic.

The second step is taking responsibility for feelings. Someone might say internally, “I’m feeling angry because I’m thinking the thought, ‘Clients really need to be more patient.’” Then the third step is to create emotions on purpose. Someone could say instead, “I’m feeling understanding because I’m thinking the thought, ‘Clients are under a lot of stress now, too.’”

Squires offered the following tips for dealing with difficult clients:

  • Listen to understand.
  • Pause.
  • Remember, it’s not personal.
  • Don’t be defensive.
  • Respond to the emotion, not the words.
  • Resonate compassion.
  • Walk away if necessary.
  • If you fail, forgive yourself.

“Human beings right now are very stressed,” Squires said. She continued, “There is a lot of emotion flying around, and naturally, it doesn’t make people always show up their best version of themselves. So when we can literally see through some of that to see people’s brilliance, to see the light that they actually have that’s beyond all of that, and then treat them as if that’s all you see, it will change everything for you.”

The AVMA provides resources to help veterinary professionals protect and maintain their well-being during the pandemic.