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I'm well aware that I must tread lightly when discussing office policies. What works for one office may not work for another - and there is definitely more than one approach that will be successful. Each practitioner must decide what is best for his or her practice. But change sparks business growth - so it is always good to be open-minded.
Deciding on office hours goes to the heart of marketing. And the decision should start with an overview of the current practice position - is it in a growth mode or is it currently as busy as the owner wants it to be? That basic premise should be reflected in many decisions about practice policies. The more the owner wants the practice to grow, the more patient friendly the policies should be. Marketing is defined as identifying and satisfying patient's wants and needs. Office polices can be chosen to cater to patient's wants and needs... or to the owners wants and needs. Sometimes, the policies are based on the receptionist's wants and needs. I'm not saying any of these is right or wrong, but I do think the owner should be in control of the decision... it should be a conscious decision.
So, let's look at office hours. If you are in a practice building mode, I would set a goal of having very convenient hours for the public. By definition, that may not be very convenient for you and your staff, but let's put aside all the problems that long hours bring for the moment. We'll get back to that.
Convenient hours to me would mean the office is
Yes, those hours would be difficult for many practices to achieve. It may not be possible to put hours like that into effect right away, due to a lack of available staff and due to the increased staff payroll costs. But let's not set our goals too low. It can be done, and practices that have found a way to serve the public in outstanding ways are rewarded with growth. Owners that want to grow bad enough are innovative enough to find a way to do amazing things. Let's not rationalize that convenient hours don't matter just because they are hard to achieve.
- open during all "normal" business hours, which would mean 9am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday.
- open during lunch times (lunch time is when working people can run errands).
- open during some additional hours such as at least two evenings per week and Saturdays until 1pm.
Let's look at office hours from the patient's point of view. The office with the hours listed above provides plenty of choices to callers who want appointments. A working parent can get an eye exam during the evening, when a spouse can care for a child, and without having to take time off work. A patient can pick up his contacts during a lunch hour. Another patient can drop in for a frame adjustment or repair, without having to remember that the office is closed on a certain day. And another patient can call on the phone and get a live staff member any time of the week. Those experiences convert to patient satisfaction, loyalty and referrals. Finding the office door locked - or reaching the telephone answering machine, leads to dissatisfaction.
Maybe the doctor does not want to work that hard. Maybe the doctor does not want to work evenings or Saturdays. To that I say fine - the doctor probably deserves the nice schedule and it is his or her decision to make. But practice growth will pay some price for it. That may be OK, in a mature practice, the price may be very small - and we get back to the growth mode decision. Of course, let's also be clear that longer office hours does not mean that doctor must be present all the time. Eyeglasses and contact lenses can be dispensed, lab work can be done and administrative tasks can be completed without a doctor - in fact, the slower pace of a day without appointments is a great time for everyone to catch up. Another approach for the doctor who is tired of working evenings and Saturdays is to hire an associate optometrist to staff those times, plus offer additional coverage during the normal work week.
I view the practice growth mode as a continuum - or as a scale. The more aggressive one wants to be in creating growth, the more the policies must cater to patient's needs.
Best wishes for continued success,
Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Editor, Optometric Management Tip of the Week
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Dr. Gailmard offers consulting services to eye care professionals through Prima Eye Group; information is available at www.primaeyegroup.com.
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