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Dealing with difficult clients
  1. Christine Magrath

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Christine Magrath is a VDS training consultant

Having to deal with a difficult client can affect the way you feel at the end of the day. But, what do we mean by ‘difficult’ client? For some of us, it is the client who is extremely angry or in floods of tears, while for others it may be the client who asks to see another vet or won’t agree to a recommended procedure.

The good news is that it doesn’t matter what the difficulty is, because we can use a range of communication skills to overcome these tricky situations.

We are all able to learn how to use these skills and communicate more effectively during difficult encounters with clients – you don’t have to have an assertive personality to deal with difficult clients.

The following tips will equip you for your next difficult encounter.

Use ‘open’ and ‘closed’ questions

Research has shown that asking as many open questions as possible (ie, ones that require a more detailed response), before moving to closed questions (ie, ones that can be answered by a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’), encourages the client to tell their story in a more complete fashion. However, if we don’t use open and closed questions correctly then these conversations can quite quickly go horribly wrong. Try to avoid:

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  • Moving too quickly to asking closed questions during a consultation, as this might result in bypassing the client’s perspective and not eliciting all the information we need;

  • Interrupting the client before they have finished answering a closed question, as this can limit the information that is obtained;

  • Not using open questions later in the consultation when additional topics are raised. This can often leave the client feeling short-changed if they haven’t been able to express all their expectations, ideas, feelings and concerns, and also leave us without all the relevant facts and clinical information.

Hear what the client is telling you

Listening is not only important at the start of the consultation to understand what the client has come to see us about, but is also important throughout the consultation, helping us to build rapport and pick up on cues.

It’s possible to give the impression we are listening, but fail to really register what the client has said. This can come back to bite us. Show the client you have heard them by:

  • Repeating or summarising what they have said;

  • Picking up on cues and acknowledging them. Sometimes it may be better to park a cue and come back to it later rather than trying to address it straight away, as this allows us to carefully explore the issue and properly address the client’s concerns. If we answer prematurely and hurriedly then this could lead to a dissatisfying outcome for the client.

Ensure the client understands

A breakdown in communication can be the result of a lack of understanding between both parties. Try the following strategies to ensure the client has understood what you have said:

  • Make sure you have the client’s starting point and/or prior knowledge regarding a case, as this will help you tailor your explanation. It’s important not to patronise them by telling them things they already know;

  • Reduce the use of jargon, but when you have to use technical words make sure you explain what these terms mean;

  • Pace your delivery so the client has time to digest what you are telling them;

  • Either demonstrate or use written handouts or diagrams to show the client what you want them to do;

  • Check with the client that they have understood a piece of information before moving on;

  • Tailor your information to the ideas, concerns and expectations of the client;

  • Provide opportunities for the client to contribute to the discussion through the use of open questions.

Sometimes we overwhelm clients with a lot of information. To check their understanding, you could try asking them to summarise the information back to you; for example, ‘I appreciate I have given you lots of information; just to ensure I have explained it thoroughly, perhaps you could recap for me what you need to do between now and your next appointment?’

By adjusting the way we communicate with our clients and allowing for more interactive discussions, we can hopefully avoid situations of frustration which can result in difficult encounters.

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