Managing High-Maintenance Clients

Credit: Arnd Bronkhorst Photography

You have been called out to look at Mouse and Apollo, both owned by Ms. Helen Sittles. She has been a client of the practice for 10 years and has had you out exclusively for the past five. You know from experience that she prefers her horses to be handled in a “Parelli-friendly” fashion, and that she always has a list of questions about their behavior and management written out to ask you during the appointment. 

Whether it’s a novice horse owner who is committed to providing his or her horse with the best care possible or an industry old-timer who has run his or her own barn for 40 years, high-maintenance clients come in all shapes, sizes and knowledge levels. What they have in common is time and energy. How can you work with these clients in a way that doesn’t throw a wrench into your day and mood?

Tools You Can Use

Book appropriately

This might seem obvious, but it is a key to success. If your schedule doesn’t allow enough time for the appointment, the odds decrease significantly that it will go well for either of you. Ensure that you have a system for flagging these clients in your appointment booking and medical record software; this will increase the likelihood that extra time is allotted. While allowing a bit of extra time in your day might seem like throwing in the towel, what it does is provide you the opportunity to have a positive interaction with the client that leaves both of you satisfied, and fosters your ability to be in a calm and unhurried frame of mind for the appointment.

Negotiate an agenda

Ensuring that both of you have a clear understanding of why you’re on the farm and what needs to be accomplished in the visit is a great way to start the appointment off on the right foot. Research in companion animal medicine has demonstrated that if client concerns are not investigated at the start of the appointment, the odds increase by four times that a new concern will arise at the end of the appointment.1 Ensure from the outset that you know what horses need to be seen, what needs doing and whether supplies for the barn are needed. This will help you plan your time accordingly and increase your efficiency.

Take a nonjudgmental stance

It can be difficult not to judge our clients—whether we judge them on their behavior, the cleanliness of their barns or the way they pay (or don’t pay) for veterinary care, it’s human nature to judge the way of forming strong relationships that will benefit both you and your clients. Instead, try to be curious about their experiences and perspectives, and strive to use empathy when interacting with clients.


Empathy is a key communication and relationship skill. It begins with a cognitive appreciation or understanding of another’s experience or feelings. The next component of empathy is a verbal or nonverbal communication of that appreciation or understanding to the other person.2 Research in companion animal medicine found that only 7% of appointments contained an empathy statement.3 Empathy statements are opportunities for the veterinarian to demonstrate care and concern for the client, as well as an understanding of his or her position. The benefit of this when working with a high-maintenance client is that it provides a better understanding of the client and will facilitate effective and clear communication.


When working with a high-maintenance client, there are a number of ways to use a summary to facilitate the interaction. Providing a summary of the information the client has shared with you will reassure the client that you have heard his or her concerns and hopefully eliminate the need to repeat any questions. This will allow you to move the appointment forward. Summaries are also helpful to use after you have shared information, such as after the physical examination or describing a disease process; it provides the client with a clear picture of what you’ve said. Finally, reviewing what transpired during your visit at the end of an appointment reminds the client of all the work that was done and the ideas that were batted back and forth, and is a great transition into “see you next time.”

Praise the client

Praising clients for the care that they give to horses is a great way to steer their passion in a direction that you support and might serve to help shape future behavior. It is also an excellent means of strengthening your relationship, which could pave the way for better interactions going forward.


1. Dysart, L.M.; Coe, J.B.; Adams, C.L. Analysis of solicitation of client concerns in companion animal practice. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2011; 238(12):1609-1615.

2. Silverman, J. Skills for communicating with patients. 3rd Oxford: Radcliffe Pub, 2013.

3. Shaw, J.R.; Adams, C.L.; Bonnett, B.N., et al. Use of the roter interaction analysis system to analyze veterinarian-client-patient communication in companion animal practice. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2004; 225(2):222-229.

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