Article Date: 4/1/2008

Improve The Tone of Your Practice Phone
practice management

Improve The Tone of Your Practice Phone

How to optimize your primary means of patient communication.

BY JOHN R. SCIBAL O.D., Morehead City, N.C.

Most practice-management experts agree that the telephone is a practitioner's most important piece of office equipment. This is because it's usually the first contact new patients have with your office and the primary means of communication with your established patients. Your phone is an extension of your office philosophy, and as a result, you should accept nothing but the best from those who use it.

In most cases, a good first impression on the phone results in a scheduled appointment. A negative impression, however, results in the potential patient calling elsewhere and an opportunity to help that patient lost forever. Also, consider that many an existing patient has walked away from an office due to what they perceived as rude or apathetic phone treatment.

Here are two tips to ensure your phone enables you to retain and attract new patients:

Hire one person

In most practices, answering the phone is supposed to be the responsibility of the front-desk receptionist. In reality, however, the activities of the day often dictate who picks up the receiver. Add to this fact that many O.D.s often provide minimal training to their staff regarding the message they want to convey about their practice to current and potential patients, and it's no surprise that many O.D.s are losing current patients and missing out on attracting new ones.

One way to rectify this problem: Hire and train one person for patient communications. During the interview process for this person, look for someone who has telephone sales experience and a gregarious personality. You want an interviewee who engages you in conversation and has a friendly tone and demeanor, not someone who simply answers your questions about her past jobs.

Once you hire this person, train her in the various features of your phone system, such as call forwarding, answering machine messages and setting up voicemail. Also, create scripts for her to answer commonly asked patient questions, such as, "how much is an eye exam," or "if my contacts feel fine, why do I need an exam?"

Teaching proper phone technique to just one or two people makes it easier to monitor quality control of your incoming calls and improves accountability for what current and potential patients hear on the phone. For instance, how many times has a patient said to you: "someone told me it costs this much," and you were never able to determine who that "someone" was?

If you operate a large practice (eight or more staff members), I recommend using an automated greeting that enables callers to go to a specific person's extension. For example: "Thank you for calling ABC Eye Care. If you know your party's extension, please dial it now, otherwise dial zero for the operator." Don't make your greeting too long or offer too many choices or extensions; callers want to talk to a "real" person as quickly as possible, and the patient-communications person can easily direct any calls to the correct party as needed.

Isolation is a good thing

Establish a communications center where the patient-communications hire will work, and seclude it from the front desk. In other words, move this person out of sight from patients and your other staff members, so they can't interrupt her. Aside from the phone, this area should contain a computer to look up and schedule appointments. The remote work area still allows this person to perform other duties that don't require direct-patient contact: calling in orders, notifying patients when their eyeglasses are ready, designing newsletters or handling your company Web site activity.

I have found that isolating the patient communications person offers many advantages. For instance, by being away from the chaos surrounding the front desk or other high-traffic areas, your patient-communications person can fully concentrate on phone conversations, and your front-desk personnel can attend to patients in the office without being interrupted by the phone.

With just a modest amount of training and a secluded patient-communications area in your practice, the right phone person can put you light years ahead of your competition when it comes to retaining and recruiting patients. For instance, assuming an average patient generates $250 in revenue to your office, converting one additional patient per day will result in $61,250.00 in gross-revenue per year. Can you afford NOT to have a full-time patient-communications person? I can tell you that since making these changes a year ago, the recapture rate for those patients who had been pre-appointed has doubled, resulting in an additional thirty exams per month. OM

Dr. Scibal practices in Moorehead City, N.C. You can e-mail him at

Optometric Management, Issue: April 2008