Secrets of Success: $omeone answer the phone!

Think every call made to your office seeking an appointment actually becomes an appointment? Think again. Yes, worthy/costly marketing strategies will attract calls to your office; however, all the marketing in the world will be for naught if prospective callers are not converted into patients. What? Why does this happen? One very simple reason is, receptionists not properly trained are asking every question except the one that closes the deal.

Today’s patients have certain expectations when they call a doctor’s office. Especially when searching for a new doctor. They expect efficiency and expediency, a knowledgeable staff, friendly attitude, outstanding customer service and a smile because, yes, callers can tell if their listener is smiling. And their first impressions start with that phone call. If it fails to impress, or misses an opportunity to provide what is expected, savvy callers will continue to shop. And as the doctor, moving from treatment room to treatment room, away from front desk activity, you may never know.

Sadly, training staff on phone etiquette is embarrassingly lacking especially when it comes to what to say, not say, prompted scripting (prepared scripts for common questions) and professional phone delivery (tone and attitude) etc. These skills are not recognized with as much seriousness as they should. Many doctors see “front desk experience in a medical office” on an applicant’s resume. Is the presumption, therefore, that they know how to properly and professionally handle the phones? Never take this for granted. Remember, assume is an acronym.

A more in depth discussion, to include role playing, should be a part of every applicant interview. This applies whether they are being hired for front or back office, since job sharing is typical in podiatry offices. Once hired, new staff members should be required to have phone desk training. Actual training. Training that involves covering all office activities, i.e., putting patients first, protocol/policy, HIPAA, a telephone voice, scripting, phone handling, podiatry conditions and terminology. Taught to recognize emergent, urgent, and routine conditions, professionalism, diffusing angry patients, screening calls, proper scheduling, time management, answering critical questions, etiquette, establishing rapport, and a basic understanding of what callers are looking for. The telephone is a practice’s lifeline and a careless or half-hearted “learn-as-you-go” teaching approach WILL certainly result in lost patients. And, to repeat the obvious; many of these new patients you will not even know you’ve lost. Trained employees work smarter.

Consider the patient who wants info about their insurance coverage. If you were to overhear how staff responds it might be surprising. When the caller asks, for example, “Does Dr. Pod accept my insurance?” and your staff answers with a simple, “no” the caller would likely thank them, hang up, and check with the office down the street. In fact, any time one hears, “Thanks for your information, I’ll get back to you,” you have pretty much lost that patient. We have all made that very decision/comment when we fail to get desired results. It is the kiss of goodbye.

How about the podiatric shopper who asks, “How much does your doctor charge for a pair of orthotics?” If your staff is in fact instructed to quote fees (or fee ranges) over the phone, they should stick to a pre-written script vs. “winging it”; a script that acknowledges the caller’s question and at the same time promptly moves the conversation towards the exceptional care they will receive. “Mrs. Jones, that is a good question; one I might even ask if I were in your shoes.” (If it is your policy, here is where you might offer an approximate/range fee, stating also that it would depend on the type of orthotic needed.) Continue without hesitation…“Now, besides our fees, Mrs. Jones, what else are you looking for in a podiatrist?” – a lead-in to highlighting the benefits of your practice. Reinforce their response with an inspiring, “Well, you have called the right place!” followed by advocating for the doctor and the practice.

It’s important for staff to maintain control of the conversation so they can focus on more positive information and close all appointment-seeking conversations with a defined proposal, “I have an opening tomorrow afternoon at 2pm. Is that convenient?” On each encounter, make every effort to be in control, not controlling. Polite, not demanding. Energetic, not hyper. Friendly, not friends.

Finally and from a litigious standpoint, it is critical that staff avoid answering questions dealing with or offering medical advice. I’ve heard it. I know it happens. This is perceived as practicing medicine for which they do not have a license. Their response to ANY medical question, therefore, should always be, “Mrs. Jones, that is a question that the doctor will have to answer for you…and (s)he can only do that after (s)he’s evaluated your condition”. Staff should then move immediately into offering an appointment. Of course, the seriousness of the complaint must be determined; emergencies require immediate care, suggest a suitable time for a routine visit. Do not diagnose!

Nine out of every ten offices have varying degrees of “operator error” regarding telephone skills and it comes with a great loss! Lost revenue, lost professional respect, and lost patients.

Hello, is anybody there? Still think “winging it” is a good idea?

Ms. Homisak, President of SOS Healthcare Management Solutions, has a Certificate in Human Resource Studies from Cornell University School of Industry and Labor Relations. She is the 2010 recipient of Podiatry Management’s Lifetime Achievement Award and inducted into the PM Hall of Fame. She has also recently been named as an Editorial Advisor for Podiatry Management Magazine and is recognized nationwide as a speaker, writer and expert in staff and human resource management.


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