Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The 20% that Suck Up The 80%. What to do with your "BAD" clients.

There is some archaic hidden law somewhere buried in the first veterinary business text book written that states that "20% of your clients comprise 80% of your ____ ."
This blank can be filled in with a multitude of phrases. These include;
  • business
  • heartache
  • stress
  • revenue stream,
  • etc..
Jekyll reminds Joe who is in charge.
It is not a concept that is unique to our industry. I am sure  that you could ask every other service industry and the same would apply.

My hairdresser, dermatologist, and salon friends would all agree. 80% of your clients walked into your life long ago as a customer, but you now consider them a friend. And then you have the 20% who cause you to walk on eggshells fearful at every interaction that the tongue will lash and the feelings will be hurt,,, again.

I suppose that some business savvy individuals have taken this fact and settled upon accepting it. No hard feelings, IF, there are no feelings involved. Some people cut whomever's hair is sitting in the seat and should they never see them again, well, that's OK. No gain, no loss. In veterinary medicine many a 'relief' vet has been born because of this. 

Every vet must decide where they fall on the business spectrum. The entire P&L sheet of every business has to have some loose guidelines to assist you when it comes to managing time, resources, and turnover. In many fields a one time client is perfectly acceptable. You may not be able to build a solid legacy on burning people, but if they are one trick ponies and your audience reach is large enough you can survive and pay your mortgage. If, however, your goal is a bit loftier you begin to scrutinize the relationships and draw some lines.

Dunkin. The Jarrettsville Vet 2015  rescue.
He never has the chips in his favor and he never lets it stop  his smile.

When I bought my practice 10 years ago we served a vast population of pet people across both geographical and ethical landscapes. It was a nice even pie shaped chart of family pets, breeders, rescue work, and clients who defaulted on paying their bill and were forgiven 12 months later to repeat the same year after year. The former practice owner was loved far and wide as a good friend to all. He also ran a business with minimal overhead and minimal stress. He chose to ignore a problem and most of the time they went away without his attention. He was tired, financially secure and had long ago determined that very little was worth his worry.

Ten years later I am still paying him back for buying his practice and I still have to clean house to be able to afford those checks I write to both him and the banks. I also lack the DNA sequence that allows me to tolerate the 20% "bad" clients.

Labels, oh, how we try to avoid them, and oh, how they are unavoidable. "Bad" clients are the source of their own veterinary doctorate discussion. The label I prescribe is never the exact label as another vet would prescribe. But, if you don't pay attention to your business your business will pay for them a thousand times over.

Not too many vets will allow a non paying client return visits. How can you pay your employees, or the bank if you do? We had to work very hard to avoid the secret walk-outs on the bill  that had been "dismissed and forgiven" in the past. I also had to have some tough conversations with some self described "long term clients" who never paid in the past and couldn't believe we were not running them a tab any longer.

Not too many vets will allow a client who can't pay sign over their treatable pet to us? Could I send that anemic kitten to the bank as payment for my note? She is after all "healthy and adorable!"

How about the guy who threatens, screams, and demands unrealistic exam walk-ins at his convenience, and then is a no show about 50% of the time? He is a jerk, he knows he is a jerk, he seems somewhat proud about being a jerk, and he will leave a trail of dismay, disgust and destruction a mile wide for the rest of the day. He is also a pet parent who obsesses over his dogs and cannot see his behavior costs his dogs the care they need and deserve. He is part of my left over 20%. He is one of my remaining "bad" clients. These people cost you, your time, your staff's ability to want to come back to work the next day and they need to be addressed or your business will pay for them.

The first 19% were fairly easy to eradicate;
  • Non-paying or cash only clients are marked with a special folder. In the past the only person who knew who wasn't paying was the bookkeeper who worked about three hours once a week. These clients would come in for an examination authorize all the care the pet needed and walk-out never to be heard from again,,, until the next time their pet was sick.  Putting your staff in the middle of payment debates is not fair, so we devised a plan to notify the staff, without embarrassing the client in advance. Special folder clients are provided an examination and a written estimate which requires a down payment for anything further. I can accept paying a vet for their time and expertise, but I am not going to be as silly as my predecessor and write off a shyster year after year when we allowed them to dig a debt they couldn't see out of. We either go into each case knowing we are doing it pro bono, or get some form of payment in advance. Expecting these clients to change their modus operandi is naive and leaves us feeling as the jaded ex-girlfriend every time.
  • Breeders/Hoarders/Abusers. (I know, I will pay for this bit of confession). Most of the breeders my clinic served before I bought it were hoarders and neglectful abusers. Their dogs were sick, diseased, parasite ridden, unvaccinated, puppy mill dogs. The Teacup pups were emaciated, bony, barely able to stand, matted and petrified. They never left their metal cages and therefore being in the clinic was tantamount to landing on Mars. The German Shepherds fetched a fine price on Craig's List but all had awful hips which were passed on to their offspring. I would cringe every time a GS pup from our breeder showed up at 6-9 months old with a "limp." We euthanized more adolescent dogs simply due to poor breeding than I care to ever recall. The breeders ran a business on a shoe string and their dogs bore the brunt of that business plan.
  • Fellow healthcare providers. What is the saying? "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Human healthcare professionals tend to guesstimate their pets ailments, downplay the repercussions, or they avoid the whole unnecessary vet visit all together until the at home plan results in a full blown disaster. For these clients I tried very hard to convert "self-reliant" into "healthcare partners". I provide accessibility and we walk through treatment plans (many of them started at home) together. It has created some strong friendships and excellent referrals from their friends.
  • Abusive, caustic, abrasive, soul-sucking jerks. Ugh, these people will drive you to the pink juice, and not the one that I prefer dry and dirty with extra olives. How do you work around people who destroy your ability to serve your clients with compassion, respect, and integrity? I promise that if you cannot separate yourself from the people who hurt and destroy you you won't be able to walk away from any service industry feeling as if you made a positive mark on the world we share with each other.

The last 1%
  • The last one percent are the people I have the hardest time parting ways with. They yank at the heart with their undeniable love for their pet(s), but they cannot care for them adequately. Some due to financial hardship, others due to mental duress. I am unable to turn away a client with a pet in need. I cannot make a solid business decision when I know I can help and they only lack the resources to provide payment. I have devised multiple options to help  with these cases. We have a wonderful rescue who will take ownership if we ask, or a third party billing agency when the credit cards are declined. 
  • I have other clients who are so emotionally bound to their pets that they are unable to face the reality of mortality. The gradual decline of a pet can lead to the decline of a client. There are clients who ask for services I do not, and cannot, provide. These include mass euthanasia's should the client die before their pets do, and fears about how the pet(s) will survive without them? Emotional attachments built on a foundation of unrealistic expectations are sticky difficult relationships to navigate. They can become toxic, dangerously intertwined and ultimately lead to someone asking you for services you cannot ethically, morally, or logistically manage. You can find yourself stuck in the rabbit hole trying to care for both the passionate and incapacitated. And, sometimes the lives you advocate for change from domestic to human. And, sometimes you don't know who your license serves?

There are a few "Dear John" letters waiting for me to write. Break-ups are always hard. They are especially painful when there are kids involved. I will miss the kids. A lot.

I am available (if you are nice and a good pet parent) at Jarrettsville Vet, in bucolic Jarrettsville Maryland.

If you are a pet lover please join me on Pawbly is a free pet loving place to share  and exchange information.

I am also on Twitter @FreePetAdvice. 


  1. Your are a wonderful veterinary! Sometimes I don't know how you can do what you do! I can't sleep at night from things I've read or have seen. Pets don't ask to be put in horrible situations, it's so sad!

  2. Good column - really makes me see the "other side" of veterinary care.