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Issue: 60 - Dec 16, 2013
Dealing With an Angry Client? Turn Down the H.E.A.T.
By: Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ & AJ Debiasse
Dr. Phil Zeltzman1

Lumpy, Ms. Ira’s beloved 6 year old intact toy poodle, spent the day at your hospital for a lipoma removal and a neuter. Unfortunately, for some unexplainable reason, you did not neuter Lumpy under the same anesthesia. Now Ms. Ira is irate and venting at the front desk. Oops…

We've all been there. A client is upset after being on hold “forever,” or because someone forgot to clip their evil pet’s nails while under anesthesia, or because somebody forgot to dispense medications, or because someone neglected to order their dog food, or because there is a mistake on their invoice…

How do you diffuse a sticky situation with an irate owner? Well, if it is your last day on the job, you may be tempted to unleash the fury of the past few decades on this one client and be on your way. But if you are among the rest of us, value your job and want to resolve the situation, there's hope in the H.E.A.T. of the moment.  This slick acronym was designed by John Hartley, a coach for a hotel corporation in Florida.  Let’s look at the 4 steps of the HEAT system.

H stands for “Hear them out.” Clients, angry or not, want to feel that they are being heard. Listen, actually listen to the client’s concerns. Give them reassurance that they are being heard by simple head nods and verbal acknowledgements such as “OK,” “I understand” or “uh huh.” Take notes if you have to, and do anything that will give the client a glimmer of hope that their demands will be met.

E is for “Empathize.” A feeling is not right or wrong, it just is. Remember, this isn't a dish washer or a cell phone the client is becoming upset about. This is about their furry family member. Use a soothing tone and acknowledge how difficult the situation may be for them.

A stands for “Ask questions.” Make sure you understand exactly what the problem is. A solution can't be developed if the problem is not clarified. For example, if you continue to discuss the invoice, when the client is not upset about the cost, but confused about the procedure in general, a resolution can never be reached.

And T is for “Take responsibility”. This may be the toughest step for many employees who have not been empowered to make mini-executive decisions.  Staff members should be allowed to take initiatives to help the client find a solution.

Give out your name and a business card, set a deadline, and follow up. Reassure them that you will work together until the problem has been resolved, or until a solution has been found, or until a compromise has been reached. It is important for them to know that they are not alone and that you are willing and capable of helping them.

That doesn’t mean you can always give the client everything (s)he demands, including a full refund of a $1,000 bill. It does mean committing to doing everything you can to find a solution, and to avoid a similar incident in the future.

So next time you have to deal with a difficult client, keep your cool, don’t take things personally, and turn down the H.E.A.T.

Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a traveling, board-certified surgeon in Allentown, PA. His website is He is the co-author of “Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound” (

AJ Debiasse, a technician in Stroudsburg, PA, contributed to this article.