Responding to On-Line Complaints (Part 1)

To start with, I don’t think anyone deserves to know my initial thoughts and responses to an on-line complaint. It’s not pretty. It’s not professional. It’s not classy. And it’s rarely safe for work.  But it would feel sooo satisfying to throw good judgement and respect for others to the wind. To just unload all the stress that has built up on a well deserving negative reviewer. But that would likely be disastrous for our reputation.

Let’s start with the self-evident facts. Every clinic and doctor will have negative reviews if they practice long enough. You can’t please everyone all the time. I don’t recommend that you aim for 100% positive reviews.  It’s likely to yield the opposite of what you intend or be an unattainable goal. Most people who see 100% positive reviews are leery that it’s faked, doctored or otherwise untrue. Even e-bay vendors that ship the same thing over and over again rarely get above 99% positive reviews, and they never even see the public face to face.

Not every review is going to be factually accurate or fair. People are grieving over fur family members; they have financial pressures and triggers that you don’t and shouldn’t know about. They are sensitive to smells, other client’s behaviors, impatient for delays (even if caused by emergencies), and often don’t understand some of the medical practices that are required for meeting the standard of care. When customers are unhappy, they are far more likely to post a review than if they are pleased or satisfied with our service.

So what to do?

I set a realistic target, and plan our practice towards it. Four stars or 80% is acceptable, 4.5 or 90% positive is the goal. I throw a virtual party when we get above that level.  And that all starts with my commitment to spend money, time, and training to ensure our staff are making people thrilled. It means that on average, everyone who walks through the door has a better experience than at past clinics, some have the best experience of their life, and we occasionally don’t live up to our standards and have to improve.

I make it a point to have our reception and management monitor our reviews. I have an independent service that sends a copy of all posted reviews to my e-mail.  I DO NOT have my associate doctors or supervising doctors monitor reviews, except in summary form.

Most of us take our work very seriously. Our vets want to provide the best medical care and client experience for everyone who walks in the door. And when our vets vet reads a negative review, they go into a funk. It’s almost like grieving their career choices.  They go through the stages of denial:

Anger- I didn’t do anything wrong! This review is unfair! They’re just crazy!

Depression- why do I do this? Why are my efforts to help unnoticed? Why can’t I just be appreciated?

and finally…Acceptance- ok, there might be something we can improve.

The managers and reception staff gather the facts regarding the client and complaint. I have our most experienced and best customer service team member call the client to understand their feedback. We do what we can to make that particular client’s experience better (or at least repair any damage we unwittingly caused). And that’s not easy.  It’s frustrating to spend time and money on something we’d prefer didn’t happen.

Only after we have a resolution or are at a clear impasse, do provide a summary and feedback for the vets and staff, at the end of a day. It gives all of us distance and time to see what we can glean for improvement.

We don’t ask a review to be removed unless it’s fake or damaging to others. It’s ok for clients to see them, to see how we handle and improve based on the reviews.  We have a review that complained about our large animal service. Good news! We improved by only being a small animal clinic! And we referred the client to a reputable large animal clinic nearby.

We try to see if there’s anything of value in a review. If they say: “it’s dirty”,”reception was rude”, “they did a terrible job and had to have another vet ‘fix’ it”,  or even “they just want money”, it hurts. But there has to be some reason they chose that complaint, rather than “terrible vet practice.” Finding out why they chose a particular thing to complain about is helpful.

When I was young, some kids would call me carrot top.  Why carrot top rather than four eyes, moron, or something else hurtful? It’s because my blazing red hair was the most obvious trait. If a client complains about your techs, congratulations! Whatever issues your reception had are not noticed, because your biggest obvious area for that client was your techs. There’s value in knowing what’s most obvious, even if there’s little wrong with it. What I’m suggesting is that vets look more at the why of a complaint first, rather than the ‘what.’

Our likely response is to gather our staff and go over the interactions. What was most noticeable? Could we have been rude? Was there a miscommunication we can avoid in the future? Do we need more Odoban in cleaning the lobby?  Did we offer options for charges and care?  Did we follow-up?  Even if our behavior is perfect, understanding why a client chose a particular thing to complain about can be helpful.

I’m not saying that every complaint has to be addressed. We’d drive ourselves crazy fixing everything. We’d also go broke, because the perfect experience is costly, and our clients won’t pay for latte machines, vets on standby for them, and free childcare facilities during visits. Make no mistake, you need to closely watch how much you spend on client experience above the goals you’ve set.

I am recommending that you should choose the level of feedback you feel comfortable with and work to ensure that you customer experience matches that. You should budget and track the time and money you spend on improving client experiences as well.

And when you feel depressed by negative feedback, reflect on your last emergency room visits. No matter how good an emergency room staff and management are, they will get negative feedback on a constant basis. That’s likely because the combination of stress, lack of knowledge, and urgency create an environment where negative feedback and opinions breed. God bless emergency clinic veterinarians for what they deal with each night and weekend.

If you want some additional advice, I recommend”Thanks for the Feedback” by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen. This book greatly improved my ability to give and receive feedback with others. I am still pretty horrible at it, but at least a couple days afterwards  I am able to focus on what was of value in on-line reviews and other potentially poor ways to communicate valuable feedback. Here’s the link if you’re interested. Thanks for the Feedback.

My next post will be on how and when to respond directly to an on-line complaint. I’ll also cover what you are legally allowed to put in that post. Client Confidentiality rules will be explained in scary, but simple detail.

And now, I need to cool down from our clinic’s last review.

Until next time, let’s get better together.





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