It’s crucial to understand that COVID-19 restrictions continued to exacerbate complaint situations in the early stages of 2021. However, restrictions themselves were rarely the cause of the complaint. As outlined by Nockolds Resolution in its latest annual report, COVID has established entrenched positions and ‘all or nothing’ mindsets that lead to:
What is important to understand, however, is the unique way that the lockdown has affected communication and brought about an additional pressure to the complaint process. Specifically, there were a number of cases which escalated and became increasingly contentious because of the time taken to respond. Wider COVID pressures also made complaint handling at a local level more complex – furloughed staff, team shift rotations and the fatigue within the practice team all compounded the complaint process. The impact, however, is an escalating complaint which may have been resolved far earlier and with less tension for all concerned. The balance comes in deciding how much time you can find to deal swiftly with grumbles or misunderstanding before they escalate into concerns.
Reflected in the data, the VCMS has identified how the most common scenarios referred to the VCMS ahead of the summer were:
Evidently, the difficulty of vet and pet owners meeting to discuss owner worries or dissatisfaction early has contributed to complaints escalating earlier and a greater number of clients contacting the VCMS to assist with their complaint.
Looking more closely at the nature of such complaints, there appears to be a theme linked to the level of owner engagement in decision making, and ability to fully consider the options available when this element of the consultation may be taking place at a distance or not face-to-face. This can arise in complaints where the owner believes they did not consent to all the treatment or veterinary care administered, and were not fully aware of the likely cost. Mediation reveals the practice did provide information and obtained consent, but there is a disparity of understanding and recollection.
In both cases, the challenges around effective communication do not help. Clients may feel they have to refer their complaint as they are unable to speak to someone in the practice or obtain a detailed response in the timescale they expect.
Of course, as an impartial third-party service, the VCMS recognises that misunderstanding occurs between two parties and works hard to diffuse the frustrations and focus on how the complaint can be resolved locally or in the most effective way. By approaching the complaint in a non-adversarial way which is both fair and transparent, mediation can start to bring down those barriers. This a two-way approach as there are, of course, instances where clients may not have clearly expressed their views during a consultation and this is responsible for the breakdown in communication.
With this in mind, it is worth reflecting on how we can apply the motto, ‘prevention is better than cure’ to complaints as well as animal care. Where we can make the time early on when first becoming aware of potential issues, it will often save the disproportionate amount of time needed to address an escalating complaint in the long term, and may also re-affirm the relationship with the client.