A Dissatisfied Client Tells Ten People

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In veterinary medicine, much of our business is based on word of mouth. I love that. I love my clients and their pets. So many of them are family and friends and friends of family and family of friends. And the “strangers” are people who love pets, and so I love them too.

I do not think everything we have been taught about word of mouth business is true. See if you agree from the client perspective. See if this applies to your unique industry or business as well.

A satisfied client tells four people. A dissatisfied client tells ten people. Or so they say.

So don’t torque them off. Or so they say.

Let’s think through this.

I believe that this model falls apart a bit if your veterinary team is doing a consistently excellent job, if pets are well cared for as are their people, if medicine is being practiced honestly and well.

Consider these possible situations:

1) A patient receives routine (albeit awesome and amazing) wellness care. Is your client really going to call four friends and say “You would not believe the care Max received today! He had his wellness exam and…well, that’s my whole story”? Probably not. But if a friend or family member asks if they know a good vet hospital in town, they will probably say how much they trust their vet.

2) A patient receives excellent non-routine care. Now they are calling friends. They have an exciting story of life-saving and compassion in which you are the hero.

3) A client leaves less than satisfied. Being a great team, you follow up and discover and fix the issue. If they tell others, you are still the good guy.

In my mind, if you are truly an excellent veterinary team providing consistently excellent care and discovering and fixing issues as they arise, that is the end of the story.

That may be shocking to hear after hearing for years and years that you should be scared to screw up because ten people will tell ten people and soon the whole world will hate you. So, no, don’t screw up, and if you do, own up and fix it, but do it because you are awesome, not because you are scared someone may say you are unawesome.

Which brings us to our final situation:

4) A dissatisfied client tells ten people.

Who do we have left? You have provided excellent routine and non-routine care. When you have not or the client has perceived that you have not, you have followed up and fixed the issue and restored a good relationship. What we have left are the clients you do not want.

In my professional life, I have personally only “fired” two clients, both for extreme, unrepentant rudeness to my teammates. I like and can work with almost anyone. When I call clients out on poor behavior (also very rare – maybe five times in my career), we can almost always come back around to a healthy working relationship.

One of the two clients I fired used a racial slur to address the person at the front desk. The other was very mean (not crabby – I love crabby, not rude – I can do rude, but MEAN) to another person at the front desk. I gave both a chance to apologize, and when they would not, asked them to find another veterinary team with which to work. Both situations were resolved well, I thought, as did they, I assume, as I did not hear from either of them again.

But what if these dissatisfied clients HAD decided to tell ten friends? What if Ms. Racial Slur or Mr. Meany Pants told ten friends with equally inappropriate habits not to come to our veterinary hospital and their friends told ten friends? Do you know what I think would happen? Eventually, everyone who enjoyed yelling racial slurs or other mean things at people who were trying to help them would know that they were NOT a good match for our hospital, nor us for them.

And then, everyone wins. Even Mr. Meany Pants.

11 thoughts on “A Dissatisfied Client Tells Ten People”

  1. Mel makes a great point. I had a mobile vet that I used for a few years. I sang her praises and posted her website on my FB page, and asked friends to share her site and recommend her as well….You figure each FB account has an average of 150 friends (statistics say), so that’s a whole lot of 10 people telling 10 people telling 10 more people. Social media is a great “word of mouth” device, and an easy way to get the word out about good and bad experiences, and a great way to easily get references about most anything from people you know and trust. Were it not for social media and/or FB, I’d never had read your article! I’m sure if my pupsters and I lived in Omaha, we’d use your services….due of course, to the positive word of mouth! 😉

  2. Thank you Liz! You are right-forget 4 and 10, we need to rethink the whole word of mouth concept-you can easily reach thousands anymore. I think it will still hold true that “the good guys will win” with word of mouth, even with the amplificaion the internet provides. You are SO awesome to say online how great your vet is!

  3. Dr. Finch, please consider the following. The three very bad experiences I had were with “front office” types – not with the vets in these offices – and your front staff can do every bit as much damage to your business as poor or “perceived poor” professional services delivery. And, yes, you betcha I told of my experiences to others in my social circle because I would not want any of them to have to go through what I went through. In the first case, many years ago, my little terrier was sickened almost to death by a vaccination gone bad, and was in-patient for a week at that clinic; payment arrangements were made directly with the vet and were being honored as arranged. Despite that, I got repeated calls at work from one of the staff constantly name-calling me “deadbeat” and telling me how if I couldn’t afford to pay all at once “even a small vet bill” (it was nearly $3,000) I “didn’t deserve to own a dog.” The second, also a few years back, a large-animal vet’s business manager, upon my making arrangements for my disabled mother’s 37-year-old rapidly failing pony to be euthanized, informed me that I could make a few bucks off said pony if I would send it, live, to the local “wild animal amusement park for meat.” The third? Just last year when the front office staff would not let me talk to the vet when, within five minutes of getting the phone message from the vet whose voice mail message was that my dog was probably terminally ill with late-stage renal failure and would I please call back immediately – no, the staffer told me the vet would not give any information on the phone and did I want to make another appointment but gee sorry first opening is in two WEEKS. This was apparently because, as the other vet in the clinic advised me later, the clinic vet partnership was splitting up and both sides including staff were “at war, too bad your dog was caught in the middle”. So, what was the personal fallout for me? Reverse badmouthing! By protesting (first episode – first vet clinic) that I WAS paying responsibly as arranged with the vet himself, the staffer spread my name to other area vet clinics as a “bad pay.” By replying to the “business manager” of the large-animal clinic that I thought his comment was insensitive and inappropriate and of course I would not send my mother’s beloved elderly pony to a place of heart-stopping terror for him! – again, my name was bandied around other clinics in the area this time as being “a b–tch”. And I am still hearing about the meltdown of that other clinic though at least that incident doesn’t seem to have cost ME yet another black eye. This is a small community and as it happens I knew personally some of the wider groups of people who knew the players who lost no time telling me of the front staff shenanigans and apparently I was not the only client these people maligned.

    Would I go back to any of those vets? Absolutely NOT. At my age I tend to think that staff behavior tends to reflect the professionalism of a clinic as a whole – and unprofessional staff behavior, in my opinion, might possibly mean a negative experience for my dog.

    So – yes, most vets do a good job and try very hard to save our pets. But IMO many vets aren’t also good businesspersons or supervisors leading to poorly trained, poorly supervised staff who sometimes take it upon themselves to show to clients the worst parts of what little character they have.BTW I am not talking about vet techs but bookkeepers, practice managers, receptionists, etc.

    • Hi Rox! Geez! I am SO SORRY to hear all you have been through with vet hospitals! I think what you say holds true too in most situations-if a business has treated customers poorly with no fixing it, they will not be protected, nor should they, from negative publicity.

      And, the people in the front are a reflection of the rest of the team, and usually your first and last contact. They are SUCH a vital part of pets’ healthcare and the care of their people! You said that better, but I wish you did not have the multiple examples that prove that!

      Please tell me you have found a vet team or teams to partner with!

  4. I’ve only had issues with one vet working in one of the clinics I take my pets to, and that was later cleared up. I do know that, while an honest mistake probably won’t get an angry mob sent your way (I say probably), bad business ethics will. There’s a coffee place near where I work that I used to love. Recently, though, I’ve noticed that they consistently double charge for anything I’ve ordered, and when it’s brought to their attention, they will rectify it, begrudgingly and rudely. After having this be a regular occurrence there and being treated like I’m the one who can’t run a register properly, I found another coffee place (which is actually closer to my jobs, so bonus). I also have let my coffee-loving friends and family know about my experience there, and have even warned some my regular and coffee-savvy customers to watch their receipts there, and to check out the polite and equally delectable coffee spot within walking distance.

  5. Hi Minneh! I am glad the vet issue was cleared up! You are right-an honest mistake will not get you the angry mob! Assuming the offender isn’t a monstor and the mob is reasonable 🙂 If the person and business can work through an issue, sometimes bonds can even be stronger.

    Great points on the parallels! Any business has to be good – or at least not double charge you and be jerks – to enjoy benefits of word of mouth marketing. Cuz it works both ways! Glad you found the new place, they will love having you spread the word.

  6. Having been employed in the veterinary field since 1977, I have seen my share of both sides of the reception desk being at fault, but in my opinion, it is the responsibility of the “private” side of the desk to take control of the situation, as the “public” side of the desk is often emotional, and at times can be quite irrational, but very rarely is the situation uncontrollable, if the right person is sitting at the desk. That person is the first contact at the clinic and should be able to set the tone for a meaningful and successful transaction, be it a simple med refill, to an extended emergency call; and they need to KNOW the difference. They are a VERY important part of the team. That being said, there are the certain clients that we all “know and love” that we would just as soon avoid… many years ago, i was employed by what was then the American Animal Hospital on 108th and Maple in omaha. Dr. had a man named Don Dooley from California came to the clinic for a day-long talk on practice management…one of the things i remember him saying that rung quite true was “10% of your clients cause 90% of your problems”. And went on to give an in-depth talk on how to deal with these clients. OVer the years since i’ve worked at different practices in Iowa, Montana, and Missouri, all mixed practices and since 2008 i have “retired” to a career in dog grooming. The faces are different in all these places but the main thread is the same, if you genuinely respect the client and treat their animal(dog, cat, canary, horse, or rat)with the same kindness you show your own pets….you will usually keep the client YOUR client.


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