Most vets realise the value of social media for marketing their services, but many have reservations about the possible downside of this type of direct engagement with the public. In particular, vets are often put off interactive online activity like Facebook because of their fear of negative comments by disgruntled pet owners. Is this a genuine concern, and if it does happen, how should vets deal with it?
I’ve just had my first experience of a “grumpy customer” on Facebook and I learned a few lessons during the exchange. I’d be interested to hear what other pet owners out there feel about the way I handled it. For the sake of confidentiality, I’ve changed some of the details.
It happened on a Sunday evening: an email notification arrived alerting me to a new posting on my Facebook page: “You refused to treat a sick kitten: shame on you!”. I responded immediately, by logging on to Facebook and telling the poster that I knew nothing about the situation: we are a four vet practice and it’s impossible for any one of us to know about all events happening in our clinic. The reply came back at once: “You turned a friend away because they had no money. It’s cruel to turn away a sick, dying animal”.
I responded again, explaining that our practice had a fair policy to all sick animals, prioritising their welfare, but that in order to respond properly to the comments, I would need to find out more about the specifics of the situation from the practice during office hours. I also said that it was inappropriate to discuss confidential issues in a public forum like Facebook, and I asked the person to send a private Facebook message if they wanted to discuss it further. The person responded by reposting the public allegation that it was cruel for me to turn away a sick kitten.
I then did what I had been tempted to do from the start: I used the Facebook “nuclear” option to delete the postings and block the person making the posts. This is the first time that I’ve ever blocked someone: I like the idea of Facebook being an open forum, with as little “censorship” as possible.
I followed up the situation the following day by checking our practice records. It turned out that a long-standing bad debtor – someone who had had several hundreds of pounds written off previously because of a refusal or inability to pay – had turned up with an unwell kitten, and no money. The vet on duty examined the animal and gave advice on first aid, but refused to admit the animal for intensive investigations and treatment without some money being paid in advance. The client had no money at all with them. They were advised to seek help at a local charity clinic, or to borrow a nominal sum of money to allow us to commence treatment. We had heard no more from them until the Facebook posts, which apparently originated from one of their friends.
At the moment, it seems that my actions in deleting the posts and blocking the user have resolved the issue of having an unwanted public argument about a private matter. Facebook provides enough control for Facebook Page administrators to allow unwelcome content to be easily removed and for unwanted posters to be rapidly blocked. The automatic email alerts that are sent to notify administrators about new posts mean that as long as someone is watching incoming emails, inflammatory posts like this are unlikely to be missed.
I do have some questions. Was I right to delete the posts? Or should I have left them there, as evidence of my willingness to interact online, dealing with complaints as well as compliments?
To me, the key issue here is vets’ professional obligation to maintain confidentiality. It is not possible to deal effectively with a complaint without discussing the precise detail of the accusations, and these are often private. Even if it had been the kitten owner posting, rather than one of their friends, it would still be inappropriate. Holding a contentious discussion of this type on Facebook is like having a similar type of discussion in a busy waiting room. Suggesting that the poster sends you a Facebook Message instead is the online equivalent of asking a client into a quiet room to discuss the issue in private. This seems like a more appropriate way of dealing with an emotional situation where facts may be disputed on both sides and tempers may flare.
Meanwhile, I hope that the sick kitten is doing OK. How far should vets go to help people who don’t wish, or aren’t able, to make any financial contribution to the costs of treatment? And should people with “no money” be allowed to keep pets at all? Perhaps that’s a subject for another blog……