Optometric Management Tip # 439   -   Wednesday, July 14, 2010
The Call Center Concept

Last week's tip covered the idea of using a dedicated appointment manager in your practice to keep appointment slots filled.  That strategy dovetails very well with another concept that some practices are starting to adopt: the call center.  A call center can improve customer service and improve efficiency at the front desk.

What is it?
A call center is an office workspace that is separate from the front desk area, dedicated to receiving incoming telephone calls and placing outgoing calls.  Staff members are assigned to work the call center and take the majority of the telephone burden off the front desk staff, allowing them to concentrate on patients in the office and other business office tasks.  The main employee in the call center could be an appointment manager as described in Tip # 438.

The call center staff should be well trained as telephone specialists.  Customer service orientation, strong communication skills and a pleasant attitude are very important.  They manage the appointment schedule, answer questions about services and fees, check to see if optical products are ready to pick up, take messages and route calls to other staff members as needed.  Scripts may be supplied to this staff as needed to improve patient communications.

Call center personnel can also place outgoing calls for appointment confirmations, recall follow-ups, product satisfaction checks, and many other functions.  Additional administrative tasks can be assigned to fill in downtime as needed, such as insurance billing, accounts receivable follow-up, and data entry.

When does it make sense?
A call center makes sense for a practice that is growing faster than its office space and staff size allows.  If you feel like you need more front desk staff but have no place to put them, consider this concept.  It could work well for you if customer service seems to suffer because the front desk staff is always too busy and patients line up to check in and checkout.

Many offices have some adjacent unused space that is not practical for patient care, but could be well utilized for administrative functions.  This space may be on a second floor, a basement, or a back office area that is not finished as nicely as your public spaces.  I would invest in some sprucing up of the area to make it suitable for staff to work.  Make sure it is neat, clean and comfortable and well lit.  You'll need desks or work counters and bookshelves

Satellite offices
Practices with multiple locations can put the call center concept to very good work by having a centralized staff to handle all incoming calls and to manage appointments for all the offices.  Be sure to monitor customer service closely in these situations, since a remote call center staff may not be as knowledgeable about another office location and checking on the status of eyewear and contact lenses may be more challenging.  But generally, the concept works very well.

Incoming call backup plan
Of course, a single staff call center member (or even several) can all be on calls when another phone line rings.  The staff can manage this by asking if a caller can hold briefly.  There should be a policy for handling multiple calls at once, such as the front desk will pick up if a call reaches four rings.

Beware of automated systems
Automated phone answering and menu routing systems are becoming quite common in businesses today, but I don't know any caller who likes them.  I prefer to have adequate human staff who provide a warm and welcoming response.  Having said that, a call center may be able to use some automation if it is well-managed and hold times are kept brief.  There are some excellent automated voice systems for appointment confirmations and text and email systems work well for this also.  Just look at the process from the patient's point of view and be sure to provide the personal touch whenever possible.

Best wishes for continued success,

Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Chief Optometric Editor, Optometric Management