Are you talking to me? Intimidating clients in the veterinary practice

Posted on October 12, 2017 by Sam Morgan

Intimidating clients blog

Feeling intimidated by a client’s behaviour is thankfully not an everyday occurrence for most, however, according to figures from BVA’s Voice of the Veterinary Profession survey, it has happened to most veterinary teams. 85% of vets reported that either they or one of their veterinary team has experienced intimidating language or behaviour. It is also all too frequently those of us who are front of house and dealing with a vast number of clients, as a receptionist or veterinary nurse, that are likely to be the frequent recipients of this behaviour. When the veterinary surgeon does intervene the client immediately alters their behaviour and becomes the most angelic of individuals, leaving you feel completely at a loss.

Personal experiences

I have certainly had experience of this myself over repeat prescriptions, paying bills or treatment options for the pets. Someone shouting at you, invading your personal space or even worse trying to physically threaten you can be the most terrifying experience, especially if you are alone. Student veterinary nurses may find this experience particularly overwhelming if they haven’t had much face-to-face experience with clients.

One of the key ‘rules’ is not to take it personally, although I find this especially hard to remember. At the time when it is just you and that client, how can you not think ‘Why me? What did I do to deserve this?’ Our clients are sometimes fuelled by very emotive reasons such as concern about the welfare of their animal and also the thoughts or words of members of their family when something is happening to a beloved family pet.

We are governed by Codes of Conduct and the protocols of business that can sometimes make our actions appear distant and uncaring. Although ultimately animal welfare is our top priority, the professional attitude can make clients feel that we aren’t there to help them.

What can be done to help?

Firstly, it’s important for the practice to recognise it as a team problem. I think each team should meet and discuss any incidences and possible solutions. Just because you are the only one who is on reception does not mean you are the only one who needs to deal with unacceptable behaviour. Employers have a duty ‘so far as it is reasonably practicable’ to protect the health, safety and welfare of staff members under the 1974 Health and Safety at Work etc Act. This could include providing a clear message to clients that harassment and violence will not be tolerated. Clients should be made aware of what unacceptable behaviour means. The NHS has had a ‘zero tolerance’ attitude towards violence since 1999 and posters are clearly displayed to all users produced by the government led campaign. If all the team are together on this message it sends out clear signals to clients.

A team issue

If you are feeling intimidated by a client, try to not be alone with them and, if you are, ask them to leave. You can explain that they are upsetting both you and the other clients, and suggest they return when they have calmed down. If you see other team members facing difficult clients, do not leave them alone, but remain within sight so you can go and get more help or step in and support your colleague. It is so tempting not to get involved if you see or hear someone in difficulty, but this is a team issue and we all need to look out for each other.

Lastly, I think it’s important to always discuss with your colleagues any difficult situation you have encountered with a client and how you handled the situation. This can include what did you do well, what could you have done better and what was the outcome. Try to think about what you have learnt and, if you can, use it when you next encounter a difficult client and learn from each other.

Sam Morgan

Written by Sam Morgan

Cert Ed DipAVN (Medical & Surgical) RVN

Sam qualified as an RVN in 1999 and has since completed the Advanced Veterinary Nursing Diploma. Sam has worked in both first opinion and referral practice and now is a director at Abbeydale Vetlink Veterinary Training, which delivers the Diploma in Veterinary Nursing.


Sam has been on BVNA for 7 years and President between 2015-2017, she is currently Senior Vice-President.