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 By Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO, Editor August 27, 2008 - Tip #343 
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The Initial Phone Call

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An influence point analysis of your practice, as described in last week's tip, begins with making a list of all the ways your office interacts with patients. Once you have a list of these influence points you can analyze and redesign each one in order to make the total patient experience the best it can be. Using this tool will certainly reward you with practice growth based on increased word of mouth referrals.

The first influence point in most practices is the initial phone call to the office. It's important because it creates an initial perception of the practice. You never get a second chance to create a great first impression. When done well, the initial phone call is converted to an appointment, which is the core requirement for a successful practice!

Consider making the initial phone call a topic at your next staff meeting and asking your staff for their ideas about how to improve telephone interactions. What are the most challenging issues they face on the phone? Here are a few thoughts to get you started with this important moment of truth.
  • Start with the right people. You can train your staff to improve their phone techniques, but some individuals are just naturally friendly and outgoing. Those are the people you want to answer your phones. Realize that many people will have to answer the phone in your office; you may have your primary tier and then some backup people who take over when the primary people are busy or absent. They all should be trained and proficient.
  • Let the staff members who answer phones be natural and honest. Contrived scripts have a way of sounding that way to the caller, but choosing the right words is very important. Refer to Tip #290 for a list of preferred words to use.
  • Be warm, engaging and friendly and ask questions. Be interested in the caller more than your office. Are you having any eye problems now? Have you ever worn contact lenses? Even if you don't care much about the answers, asking questions shifts the discussion to the topic of most interest to the caller: himself. It demonstrates that you're interested in the caller and it's something the other eye care offices probably didn't do.
  • An oldie but goodie management tip is to train staff members to smile while they are speaking on the phone. While the smile obviously can't be seen by the caller, smiling changes your tone of voice and makes you sound friendlier. Some offices place a mirror near the phone at the front desk so the employee can see herself while speaking, which is a strong reminder to smile.
  • Be confident. Act like the practice is the best and the doctors and staff are very thorough. Refer to the doctor by name and praise his experience and reputation.
  • Discuss the whole practice, not just the elements of an eye exam. Talk about the optical dispensary, the contact lens department, the priority you place on staying on schedule and any other positive aspects.
  • Don't rush the conversation. Act like you have all the time in the world.
  • Ask for the appointment. When the timing seems right, just say "would you like to schedule an appointment? I have an opening tomorrow at 10am."
  • Answer questions directly without sending up a smokescreen. If the caller wants to know what the fee will be, tell her. Try to be exact, but quoting a range is acceptable.
  • Tell the caller anything they should know but may not think to ask. Review insurance and vision plan information. If you plan on asking for payment at the time of the appointment, I would tell them that in advance.
  • Don't act annoyed if the caller does not schedule an appointment. Refer the caller to the practice website for more information and say that you hope he will call back. Realize that some people are calling multiple offices to inquire about fees, insurance and services and they may not be willing to schedule an appointment until they've contacted every office. Your staff may not even realize that a person calling to set up an appointment now had called previously and spoke to someone at length.
  • Be sure to have enough staff and enough roll-over phone lines to handle the vast majority of calls properly.
  • Avoid automated phone menu systems. I think most consumers strongly dislike automated phone systems that require the caller to press one for this and press two for that. Some practice owners may think such systems are impressive, but truly impressive is an office that has pleasant and knowledgeable humans who answer the phone promptly.
  • Voice mail can be so overused that it becomes a convenient way for employees to avoid work. It is inconvenient to have to wait for a call back. My impression of an office that puts me into voice mail is that it is inadequately staffed and does not care about my needs. Voice mail should be a rarely used back up during business hours and a helpful tool after hours.
  • Review your office hours while considering phone interaction. Calling the office during standard business hours of 9 to 5 on weekdays and finding the office closed (due to lunch or half day or full day closings) is a turn-off.
  • Maybe it's just me but I think the message on hold strategy is getting old. The idea was novel 15 years ago but consumers have all heard them so much that I think they are now perceived as an annoyance. I think classical or jazz music with no commercial message is a more pleasant approach to occupying the hold time. Of course, hold time should always be kept to a minimum.
I will cover more influence points in future tips, so you'll have plenty of material for staff meetings!

Best wishes for continued success,

Read Past Tips Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Editor, Optometric Management Tip of the Week

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Send questions and comments to neil@gailmard.com.

Dr. Gailmard offers consulting services to eye care professionals through Prima Eye Group; information is available at www.primaeyegroup.com.
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