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Should Your Veterinary Clinic Charge Late Fees?

Charging late or no-show clients may be good or bad for business.

“Ms. Smith, you and Fluffy were 15 minutes late, so we’ve added a $25 late fee to your bill.” It may sound funny, but some veterinary clinics are cracking down on lateness and no-show clients with fines and fees.

I took my dog to a new veterinarian last week, and when I was making the appointment they mentioned they charge a fee to any client who shows up late, or not at all, without notifying the staff. “All we ask is that you communicate with us,” they explained. I appreciated that effort to soften the policy by waiving the fine if you call.

I made sure to allow plenty of time to make it to the clinic, and I got stressed out when I missed the turn-off and had to circle around. I rushed to the sign-in sheet, on which you had to write an arrival time and your appointment time. I had made it in the nick of time.

It didn’t bother me at all that this veterinary clinic charges a late fee: I figured that this hard-nosed policy would help to keep the office running efficiently and to eliminate long wait times for everyone. However, after sitting in the waiting area for 25 minutes, I started to feel irritated. “If they’re going to charge a late fee to clients, we should get a discount for their being late,” I half-joked to my husband. The double standard did feel a little unfair, even though I understand unpredictability is the nature of the business.

So, should your veterinary clinic charge a late fee? If so, how can you do it without annoying your customers? Here are four graceful ways to handle late clients and no shows at your clinic:

  1. Put your late and no-show policy in writing. Late and no-show fees seem to be becoming more common as veterinary clinics struggle to deal with staffing shortages and employee burnout. By posting your late and no-show policy on your website and in your clinic, and telling clients about it when they book an appointment, you can make sure they know ahead of time that they need to be on time. Put the policy in friendly or neutral language so it doesn’t sound like clients are being scolded.
  2. Explain the benefit to the client. When letting clients know about your policy, giving a reason may help you to ruffle any feathers. For example, “This helps us to offer urgent care for sick pets and to reduce wait times for everyone.”
  3. Give a little grace at first. Life happens, and even the most conscientious among us may arrive late to a veterinary appointment due to traffic, a work snafu or (as has happened to me) an epic struggle getting a cat into a carrier. Consider offering regular clients one “freebie” and increasing penalties for each instance of lateness or failure to show up. For example, one Michigan vet clinic starts out with a $25 no-show fee for the first instance, and requires a $59 prepayment of the exam fee for the next appointment. If the client misses that one, they forfeit the $59. If it happens a third time, they lose the $59 and get booted from the clinic for a year. These increasingly harsh penalties can help to prevent chronic offenders from messing up your schedule and costing you money, without penalizing a great client too harshly for one misstep.
  4. Explain the reason for a wait. If you charge a late fee to clients who don’t show up on time, try to head off any annoyance they may feel about the double standard when they have to wait. One way to do that is to nicely explain why they’re waiting. For example, our veterinary clinic was apparently dealing with an emergency while we sat in the waiting area, which we knew only because my husband overheard a staff member mention the situation. You can easily quell annoyance by offering a reason for the wait: “A vet tech will be with you in about 15 minutes because we’re taking care of an emergency case right now.”

Late and no-show fees may improve your customer service overall by reducing wait times for all clients and keeping your practice running smoothly. But it’s important to handle the issue with poise so clients don’t get prickly or feel singled out.