Responding to complaints and criticisms

Are you being cyberbullied?

AVMA members have access to a 24/7 hotline at (626) 531-1140​ staffed by crisis management experts at Bernstein Crisis Management.

Expect some negative reviews. That’s the reality of doing business in the internet age. A few negative reviews can be considered normal (but still deserve a response; see below). But a trend of negative reviews or a common thread among those reviews is cause to perform an honest evaluation of your practice, making sure that you’re following best practices.

When animals are involved, emotions run high and can quickly spark passionate reactions that rapidly escalate via social media. Above all, remember that there is a human being on the “other side” of the phone or keyboard whose comments may be emotionally driven and later regretted; empathy can go a long way when responding.

When a negative review is posted, there are two audiences for that review: the reviewers themselves, and other clients and potential clients reading that review. You may or may not be able to satisfy the reviewer; but how you respond to that review will influence a potential client’s opinion and decision regarding your practice.

The way you respond to complaints or criticism online can make, or break, your reputation. Your goals should focus on reputation management as well as protecting the emotional health of your entire staff (including yourself). There are steps you can take to mitigate the issue:

Strike the right tone

  • Understand that the burden of professionalism and a professional response is on you – not the client. 
    • Make sure you aren’t responding to cyberbullying or even a valid complaint by inadvertently cyberbullying or harassing your client. Be aware of how you are presenting yourself and do so objectively. If possible, use others to help you, including advisers who are less connected to the details. 
    • Never respond to cyberbullying with a counter-threat. It is never appropriate to say something like, “If you don’t stop posting these negative things about me, just wait and see what I’ll be saying about you...”
    • The goal of a cyberbully can be to make you respond inappropriately; don’t give that to them.
  • Focus on hearing, understanding, and resolving the underlying client issue.
  • Remember that the critics may be lashing out in an emotional, visceral response resulting from miscommunication, misinformation and/or loss. Responding in a like manner will only escalate the situation.
    • Avoid responding emotionally or with a defensive tone. Take, and stay on, the high road.
    • Draft your response, wait, then re-read it and edit it – repeat this as needed, but within a reasonable time. Have someone else take an objective look at it. Pretend that you’re responding to someone you care deeply about, if that helps you temper your emotions and demonstrate compassion.
    • Write your post with prospective clients in mind. How will someone who’s considering your practice view your response to the review?
  • In the interest of avoiding “bad actors” as well as maintaining the confidentiality of your team, your clients, and your patients, online responses can follow a simple formula:
    • Positive commenters should be thanked for their review and for their business.
    • Negative comments or complaints should be responded to in a way that takes the conflict and the conversation offline, but lets readers know that you are taking the comments seriously (for example: “Thank you for sharing this feedback, I am sorry you are disappointed with your visit and would greatly appreciate the opportunity to speak with you and address the issues you bring up. Can you please call the hospital and ask for _________?”)

3Cs of crisis communications

  • Remember the three Cs when responding:
    • Competent
    • Confident
    • Compassionate
  • Understand the difference between a legitimate complaint and an attack. An attacker is generally insulting and uncooperative, and their complaints often lack merit.
    • Look at the comments objectively for any indications of something that was done wrong by your clinic or something that could be done to resolve the situation. 
  • Assume positive intent – even when it is difficult. Just because a client disagrees with you, doesn’t mean they are lying. If the client is posting something negative, there is likely something they didn’t like or don’t understand. Showing that you care enough to speak with them about it can help, even if you disagree with their concern.
  • Embrace opportunities to respond to complaints. Your responses should be competent, confident and compassionate – the “3Cs” of crisis communication.
    • Acknowledge the reviewer, and take ownership of the problem.
    • Show you are taking action to solve the grievance.
  • Respond on the same platform on which the attack is taking place, or your response may be overlooked. This might mean responding in the same format as well – if, for example, the complaint is posted on YouTube, responding on YouTube will require a video response. It doesn’t have to be “slick” and, in fact, an over-produced video can work against you. Look right into a smartphone camera and talk as if you were sitting across the living room from the people you’re trying to reach.
  • In most cases, your best approach is to take the conversation offline. Respond with a compassionate, confident, credible message, and ask the complainant to call or email privately to discuss the problem. If that is not possible, remember to remain professional and focus on the 3Cs: Be credible, confident and compassionate.

Examples of good responses

Thanks for your feedback, [name]. We were disappointed to read your comments and want to apologize for your negative experience. It has always been our priority to provide top-quality care for pets and excellent customer service to their owners. That being said, no staff is perfect and we are always looking for ways to improve! We take your comments seriously and invite you to contact us directly if there is anything in particular we can do to remedy the situation. Thanks for taking the time to review us. We value your input.

Thank you for your review. Please accept our sincere apologies for your experience at our hospital that did not meet your expectations. Based on what you've stated in your review, we did not meet our own expectations for the level of client service we strive to provide.

We welcome the opportunity to speak with you and determine if we can implement any changes for improvement. Please call us and speak with either myself or the veterinarian you saw during your visit.

We take our online reviews seriously, as everyone at our clinic is very passionate about what we do and we truly care about the well-being of each of our patients. Also, providing you with great customer service is very important to us.

I am sorry that [pet's name]'s need for diagnostic tests did not get communicated as clearly as it could have been. I understand how frustrating it must have been to feel that your questions were not answered. I would like to make sure that we do get the questions you have answered, as [pet's name]'s well-being is our top priority; so I will be in contact within the next 24 hours. We will be sure to review this case with our staff to see how we may better communicate and provide better customer service in the future. I do want to apologize for any additional stress the visit may have caused, as I'm sure you're worried about your pet.

Please let me know if you have any further questions, and I'll be in contact soon. Thank you for taking the time to express your thoughts.

These Template Responses to Online Veterinary Reviews, available only for use by AVMA members, offer additional examples, as well as customizable responses you can use for more positive reviews.

Some important don'ts of responding

  • Never attack the attacker. This will only reflect negatively on your practice. Remain professional, and remember to focus on delivering messages that will resonate with clients and prospective clients. When someone is behaving as a troll on social media or review sites, it usually becomes obvious to visitors – particularly when a business responds appropriately but the attacker continues to attack.
    • Showing post and comment readers that you care can go a long way in turning critics into fans.
  • Don't share confidential information about your client, your staff, or yourself – even if it is relevant to the comments your client is posting online. Address the details of the complaint privately if possible; let them know you would like the opportunity to speak with them personally.
  • Don't delete comments or posts unless they clearly violate your posted community guidelines, or this could further inflame the situation.
  • Avoid point-for-point arguments with critics. They often become never-ending and consume your time and effort in a futile argument. Make your points using the 3Cs, and move on. Don’t insist on getting in the last word.
    • Follow the “rule of 3” – never make a third reply because a third reply is an argument, not an answer. Take it offline instead of posting a third reply.
  • Never offer a discount to counter a negative review. This serves as positive reinforcement for negative reviews, and you may start getting false negative reviews to force you to provide discounted services.
  • Don't write your own positive reviews – either to generate more reviews or to counter negative ones. It’s not only wrong, but it’s likely to get you “called out” and damage your reputation.
  • Don't solicit positive reviews on review sites or offer incentives for positive reviews – this is also likely to be detected, and gives a bad impression. Announce your presence on the review sites, but do not solicit reviews. Yelp for Business Owners offers advice on getting reviews.
A note about Yelp reviews
Until a Yelp user has reviewed a certain number of businesses on Yelp, their reviews of your practice may not be immediately visible. Therefore, soliciting Yelp reviews from clients who don’t regularly use the site will be of initially limited value to your practice if you’re trying to increase your reviews

And yes, there are instances when there is little to no value in responding to a campaign of negative comments. Make your statement, politely correct misinformation, and then monitor but stay out of the conversation unless you need to provide further clarification or correction.

Not sure whether or how to respond? Our social media response flowchart, customized for use specifically by veterinary clinics, can help you determine the proper response for a given situation.

Feed a fever Starve the trolls

True internet trolls are a breed apart, and thrive on inciting strong emotional responses (usually anger) to their inflammatory remarks. Some trolls select their targets randomly; others are solicited (“trolls for hire”); and others evolve from unsatisfied customers/clients. The latter is the only type of concern; the former two are not worth your time or effort. Don’t feed these trolls by giving them the emotional responses they seek; when starved of these responses, they quickly leave in search of easier prey.

The unhappy-client-turned-troll variety can usually be prevented by employing the methods we’ve presented throughout our reputation management guide. However, if the damage is done, you may be facing a short run of trolling, or you may be at risk of a cyberattack; the difference between the two is primarily based on the intensity and severity of the action. With the troll version, provide one clarifying message that conveys the 3Cs (confident, competent, and compassionate) and leave it at that. When dealing with a cyberattack, additional efforts are indicated.

Not sure whether someone is a troll or falls into another category? This flowchart might help.

What if you messed up?

We’re human, and we make mistakes. To err is human; but if you’re looking for forgiveness, it can be harder to come by on social media. In general, forgiveness is awarded in response to a quickly offered and sincere apology and a message about the actions you’re taking to remedy the situation and prevent it from happening again.

If you anticipate a complaint against your license, follow your usual protocol for notifying your liability insurance carrier and legal counsel. Effective and compassionate communications are critical in these circumstances, and programs such as the frank program can help train you and your staff to effectively communicate when mistakes have been made.

If a communication mistake was made, respond using the 3Cs and be sure to include a statement that you are putting measures in place to prevent it from happening again. Acknowledge the complainant’s concerns and their frustration/anger/fear, and respond with a human, compassionate voice. Formal, “legal-speak” responses add fuel to the fires of outrage, and should be avoided. Apologize, but also make amends.

Examples of good responses

We truly apologize for missing this and have reviewed our internal checks and balances to make sure it will not happen again.

We truly wish we could have communicated with you more effectively when this incident occurred. We are more than happy to discuss this further with you if you so desire. You are welcome to contact the hospital and speak with either myself or the veterinarian who took care of your pet.

We are truly sorry for the miscommunication that occurred in our recommendations for your pet’s care.

We truly value the trust you place in us to care for your beloved pet and hope that we can address any unresolved concerns you may have. Thank you for taking time to share your thoughts.

We have taken your feedback very seriously and understand that we were ineffective in communicating both our level of concern for you and your pet, and the conclusions of all of our findings and research. We truly hope that you will accept our apologies for failing to help you as you needed us to throughout this tragic experience.

Refer to the Template Responses to Online Veterinary Reviews, available only for use by AVMA members, for more sample responses to both negative and positive reviews.


What about Twitter? Because of the short lifespan of a tweet, crises on Twitter tend to burn hot and flame out quickly. But because Twitter moves so quickly, a crisis can get out of control quite quickly there. The principles of responding on Twitter are the same as those elsewhere, but with a limited character count. If you’re unable to convey the 3Cs in a single, 140-character response, you can use a series of tweets strung together. Or you can use a Tweet to link to a longer response at your website or elsewhere.

Pinterest, Instagram and other platforms

The principles of responding are the same, regardless of the platform. But your response must be made in the format determined by the platform: images on Pinterest and Instagram, for example, and videos on YouTube. Remember that an image can be as simple as a visual screen capture of text on your computer; if necessary, you can simply type your response in a Word processing tool, format the text for some visual impact, and post a screen capture of that message.

How AVMA can help

Flowchart: Veterinary practice social media response assessment – This flowchart can help you determine whether and how to respond to online criticism of your veterinary clinic.

Templates for responding to online reviews of veterinary clinics – Whether your latest clinic review is negative or positive, you can use these customizable responses as examples when responding to online reviews of your veterinary clinic.

Social media guidelines template – This customizable template helps you plan in advance for how you and your staff should respond to negative criticism.

24/7 Cyberbullying hotline – AVMA members who are facing an immediate cyberbullying situation have access to a 24/7 hotline staffed by crisis management experts from Bernstein Crisis Management. As an AVMA member, you receive up to 30 minutes of free consultation and advice. You also qualify for significant discounts if you want additional consultation.

This resource was developed with the assistance of Bernstein Crisis Management.