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How to Deal with Angry or Difficult Clients

The numbers are rolling in and a review of the statistics shows that COVID-19 has led to a spike in anger levels across the world. Even if you take COVID out of the equation, people are still angrier today than they were a decade ago.

You might have noticed this with the clients that come into your practice, where patients that you may have been seeing for years have, seemingly overnight, become aggressive or angry.

We’ve all experienced a client where, no matter what you do, you can’t seem to please them. But there are so many factors that might be influencing their attitude. Maybe they’ve tried a similar service in the past and not had results, or it could be that they’re in pain (either physical or emotional) which makes it more difficult for them to engage constructively. And all this is probably heightened by underlying COVID-related anxiety.

It’s a well-known fact that engaged clients are going to get the best results from their sessions, (and they’re also the ones that will help you grow your practice through word-of-mouth). This means that, as a healthcare practice owner, you need to equip yourself and your team to deal with angry clients proactively and make it easier for them to engage productively with their care plan.

So, what can you do if you find yourself dealing with a difficult client?

Set clear, realistic expectations

People respond better when they know what is expected of them, and what they can expect from you. So, the first step in developing a positive relationship is to set expectations of what you need from them in terms of participation, how they engage with the therapy, as well as practical considerations such as arriving five minutes early for an appointment and the payment procedure.

From your side, you need to communicate how you will help your client achieve their goals by developing a comprehensive, personalised treatment plan. Explain to them why you’re following this plan and clearly demonstrate how their involvement in the process is integral to its success.

Connect and collaborate with your clients

Healthcare is evolving where providers are no longer authoritarian figures who hand down a treatment protocol to be followed. Instead, clients want to be involved in the decision-making process and have input into how their health is managed. This importance of this has been highlighted by Thomas Cha, MD, MBA, assistant chief of surgery at the Orthopaedic Spine Center at Massachusetts General Hospital, and an instructor at Harvard Medical School, who found that “shared decision making did not just result in better patient experience ratings but also improved patient outcomes.”

If this is an unfamiliar approach for you, it can be helpful to think about the process as a partnership. You’re bringing your skills and experience to the party, and they’re bringing their understanding of their own body based on years of experience too.

To engage your clients in their healthcare journey, you might consider checking in with them between appointments, sending through encouragements, or sharing relevant content that might be helpful for their condition. Practice management software can help with this to some extent as you can set reminders to call clients or send reminder SMS according to a schedule.

Own your actions

You’re not always going to get things right, and that could lead to frustration and even anger on the part of the client. The good news is that this can be addressed (and often fixed) when you:

Ask for feedback

If you see a client regularly and you get feedback about their treatment experience, you have an opportunity to improve. A great way to do this is to send a patient satisfaction survey right after their appointment. See how to implement it here.

Change the way you do things

In essence, this comes down to collecting feedback and acting on it. A client who isn’t satisfied may choose to change providers, stop receiving care altogether, and they may even share their experience with friends and family, or online.

Be empathetic

Most clients who are angry are angry for a reason. Maybe they sat in the waiting room for 30 minutes waiting for you, and you didn’t even acknowledge the inconvenience. Or it could be that they are scared of the treatment and respond to that fear by lashing out. It might even be that they’ve had a similar therapy experience before that was ineffective or unpleasant.

According to Healthline, anger is a symptom of an underlying issue: “Many things can trigger anger, including stress, family problems, and financial issues. For some people, anger is caused by an underlying disorder, such as alcoholism or depression. Anger itself isn’t considered a disorder, but anger is a known symptom of several mental health conditions.”

Having empathy can go a long way to helping you stay calm and in control. And the best place to start is by asking questions before you react to a statement – take time to understand their issues, ask questions and seek to come to a resolution together. This communicates that you care and are actively committed to finding a solution.

Stay professional and avoid confrontation

This might not come naturally to you, but it’s essential to remain professional even if the relationship between you and a client deteriorates. Always seek to de-escalate the conversation and if you feel yourself becoming angry or emotional, ensure that there is someone who can step in to mediate the situation.

You can also equip your employees with phrases that can be used to acknowledge, but not provoke, a client’s anger. It helps to remember that anger is almost always a response to an underlying issue, and if you are prepared to address the issue with care and empathy, it will often defuse the confrontation. It can help to use non-confrontational phrases such as:

“I can see that you have been waiting a while for your appointment. I’m sorry for the delay and want to reassure you of our commitment to each client as sometimes unforeseen circumstances arise that are beyond our control.”

Or,

“I can see that you are finding the appointment stressful. I would like to find out more about your experience and see if there are any changes I can make to improve next time.”

Know when to walk away

We’re not talking about a client who is having a bad day (that happens to everyone), or someone that is apprehensive about your therapy (or feeling anxious in general). Unfortunately, sometimes, even if you’ve done your absolute best (and tried every trick in the book), you can’t satisfy a client. In cases like these, it may be impossible to resolve a situation with a client who is consistently rude, confrontational and antagonistic.

If you are not able to make progress in their treatment, or if they are abusive towards your staff members, you must feel comfortable with the idea of terminating the therapy. When this happens, you should communicate to your client in writing that you will no longer see them as a client due to a breakdown in the relationship. Keep the letter polite and concise, and offer to send through a copy of their treatment notes to their new provider when they send the contact information through.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When you know where a patient is coming from, it’s easier to respond with empathy, and you’ll have a much better chance of resolving the underlying issue. That’s why the six steps that we’ve outlined above are so powerful. By proactively equipping your client with information, involving them in the treatment plan, and taking feedback on board, you’ll be well-equipped to respond to a situation where they become angry. When dealing with an angry client it’s important to take a deep breath and try to be empathetic, remain professional and in control, and if the situation can’t be resolved in a way that works for both you and the client, then you need to be brave enough to walk away.

Why not create a short checklist and share this with your staff. That way, you can easily be reminded of how best to deal with these situations as and when they arise.

Checklist idea:

  1. Set expectations;
  2. Collaborate;
  3. Get feedback;
  4. Practice empathy;
  5. Stay calm;
  6. Walk away.

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