Dealing with difficult clients

Dr. Joanna Cates, clinical psychologist, writes for Vetsnet:

“It’s sadly not uncommon for veterinary staff to be on the receiving end of some pretty difficult behaviour from their clients – and I’m not talking about those of the animal variety. I mean the human ones!  Rude, grumpy, ungrateful – perhaps even aggressive. From time to time all vets know what it’s like to have to deal with clients whose social skills are less than ideal. When this is occasional then most vets, as with professionals in all walks of life, will take this sort of behaviour in their stride. But when this behaviour is more frequent it can start to wear vets down and can even affect their confidence.

Whilst I’m not a vet, as a clinical psychologist I’ve had some experience of helping people to manage both challenging behaviour in others and also their feelings in response to such behavior. So here are some ideas for managing those tricky interactions and for reducing any negative emotional impact they might otherwise have.


Listen to their grievance

When we feel we are being attacked it’s very normal to feel we want to attack back, to defend ourselves if nothing else. This is where the term being ‘defensive’ comes from, and it’s completely natural to feel like this when a client behaves in an aggressive way.

If you can though, try and hear them out and attempt to make sense of what the cause of their upset is. You may not agree with them but listening and then reflecting back to them what you understand their frustration to be can be immensely powerful. There is nothing that takes the wind out of a grumpy person’s sails quite like being listened to and, better still, understood.


Don’t take angry and rude behavior from clients personally

This can be hard as it’s natural to assume that if someone is being unpleasant it must be because of something we have done. As psychologists we call this unhelpful pattern of thinking ‘personalisation’.

But consider the possibility that there may be other things going on in their lives that are contributing to why they are acting this way. Maybe their mother is in hospital. Maybe their car has just spectacularly failed its MOT. Maybe, unfortunately for them, this is how they are with people generally.

From talking to veterinary colleagues you will know that even the most skilled and experienced vets have to deal with difficult clients now and then, so it’s not necessarily anything to do with you. Just do the best job you can and try not to let their behaviour affect your work.


Be mindful of your tendency to focus on the negative and to discount the positive

Imagine you’ve had a busy day and seen lots of satisfied clients but there was one in the middle of the day who was really aggressive and rude. Despite the fact that you are confident about the way in which you managed the care of their pet, I would bet that this is the person that you go home thinking about or, worse still, wakes you up in the middle of the night.

This tendency to focus on the negative over the positive is hard-wired into us by evolution. A well-known neuropsychologist called Rick Hanson has even described our minds as being “like velcro for negative experiences, but like teflon for positive ones.”

So, if and when you find yourself ruminating about clients who have been rude and ungrateful, maybe try consciously directing your attention to others you’ve had who have been more appreciative and pleasant. I’m sure you’ll find these outnumber the tricky ones – you could even make a quick tally as you consult, just to highlight the point.



Flashing a huge beaming smile at an angry client mid-rant may not be a sensible idea but if done sensitively, smiling can be a useful tool to have up your sleeve. There are a number of reasons why.

Research shows that smiling has a positive effect on us physiologically and that by activating the facial muscles involved in smiling our brains are stimulated to release neurotransmitters that actually makes us feel happier.

Smiling has also been shown to have a positive effect on those around us too – it is contagious. So smiling will have a positive effect on colleagues as well as clients too and therefore the general atmosphere in which you are working.


Share the load

If you feel that clients’ behaviour is really affecting your work and possibly even undermining your confidence then it is really important to talk about it. This could be either to colleagues in your practice or to a more anonymous helpline (Vetlife 0303 040 2551). It could also be with a partner or friends outside of work.  If discussing it within the practice though it’s important to stay professional and not just indulge in a gratuitous tirade.  Respect confidentiality and avoid names, and try to make it constructive by thinking of ways to manage this person if they are someone you will have ongoing contact with in the future.”

Dr Joanna Cates is a clinical psychologist with many years of experience working within NHS adult mental health services. Writing exclusively for VetsNet, she is also a self-professed animal lover and owner of two tearaway Parson Russell terriers.

4 thoughts on “Dealing with difficult clients”

  1. Hi,

    I am a recent veterinary graduate. I recently had a client that has complained about me and been very rude to me over the phone, she really liked me before she actually met me in person and was thankful for the care I was giving her cat. Then when she visited, she met me in person and realised I was young, she immediately changed and was demanding to speak to a senior vet and told me that I didn’t know what I was talking about even though the care that I was giving was exactly the same as what my boss would have been doing. I was extremely patient with her throughout the weekend and was very effective at communicating results to her and what they meant. I have always been told I am a good communicator and that this is a strong point of mine and clients have never raised issue before, however, this client in particular did not want to listen to me and has made life hell for me. She has raised a formal complaint to my boss about me because she felt the cat didn’t get adequate care out of hours even though the cat recovered over the weekend well and what I did was ‘textbook’ and under supervision from my boss. I took all of this very very personally and I’m struggling to deal with it. I can’t help but feel I’ve been stereotyped, it’s truly affected my confidence.

    1. Hi Alex
      I’m so sorry to hear this. It’s absolutely disgusting how members of the public treat us and how hugely it impacts our confidence, wellbeing, job satisfaction, faith in humanity…! You are NOT alone; I have shared exactly the same feelings and experiences, as have the majority of friends and colleagues in this profession. So firstly, it nothing to do with YOU – you are a great vet from your obviously thorough care. Secondly, the fact that you are known as a good communicator is a huge positive. Carry this strength with you throughout your career, and build on it. Thirdly, as you have not come across this negativity from clients previously it shows that 99.9% of people out there are fully confident in your abilities.

      BUT, there will always be clients who, no matter what you do or how you do it, will complain. This is nothing to do with you or your ability as a vet, but more often down to their own prejudices, prior experiences and personal problems. Also, complaints don’t often tally with mistakes. The worst mistakes I’ve made in practice have rarely resulted in owner complaints, but when I’ve done everything right and communicated brilliantly, low and behold the complaint arrives. There is no justice in this – but it is a grim fact of our profession. I would strongly recommend some resilience training to help you rationalise and deal with such instances, as regrettably this won’t be the last time you meet such disappointing behaviour from clients. I am talking from experience – I used to ruminate and carry complaints with me like a stone around my neck and it just dragged me down. I have now learned over the years how to ‘filter the feedback’. Take the confidence your boss has in you, and the positive experiences with other clients and use them to mentally cancel out this one bad-egg client.
      Some tips that help are:
      – talking to friends and colleagues who will share similar experiences and how they dealt with them
      – keeping a diary of positives; times when clients have thanked you and you had good experiences with cases. Refer back to this when people get you down
      – remind yourself that you did the best for the animal and focus on the outcome with the patient (even if their human is a pain, you’ve done a great job and the cat would say ‘thank you’ if it could!). This is NOTHING to do with your ability as a vet, and EVERYTHING to do with the pre-existing attitudes of the client.
      – take a look at the resilience pages under psychological support which has links to free blogs and recommendations for further CPD. You have to work at it, but this is the single biggest investment you can make to ensure you have a long, enjoyable, fulfilling veterinary career.
      – Vetlife are awesome to just talk these feeling through and be verbally encouraged in complete confidence. If you want to have a good rant or cry with someone who has been there, utterly empathises, is totally anonymous, and can give advice and support, just call 0303 040 2551 or there’s an email address via their website.
      I hope that helps

      Take care and let me know if there’s anything else I can help with.
      Best wishes

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