Last week I started a new series of tip articles called “Pick One Thing”. The idea is that I will write about a different office task each week with the goal of helping you improve everything about that task. If we break down each part of the patient experience within your practice, you can eventually achieve excellence in all areas. This week, let’s look at the initial phone call from patients who want to schedule an appointment. We love technology that allows patients to schedule their appointment online, but the phone call is still the life blood of most optometric practices.
The basic headings in this series of articles will remain the same no matter what the topic is. We start with evaluating the task, which should involve talking to the staff involved as well as observing the action first hand. Ask your front desk staff who answer phones what is good and bad about your current methods. Ask them what could be improved. Hang out at the front desk or call center area and listen to the staff’s side of several phone conversations. Consider asking your telephone provider if they provide a voice recording service. This is why you hear so many businesses today answer the phone with an announcement that this call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes.
I’m not convinced that all the newest trends in telephone technology are actually improvements. The auto-attendant feature, for example, is a recorded message asking the caller to press buttons to direct his call to the correct person or department. Some ODs may think this is impressive, but when I call a company that has phone menus, I find it annoying. I think our patients do to. It is especially annoying if it eventually leads the caller to leave a voice mail. These phone features actually encourage voice mail and it becomes very easy for staff to simply not answer if they are busy. I prefer to have a live human staff member answer every call and either take care of the caller or transfer the call to someone who can. Of course, it is possible that all phone lines or VOIP trunks are being used, in which case a call may have to go to general voice mail. That should be a rare occurrence, however.
Review Your Resources
The office phone system and a computer workstation running office management software are the main equipment items needed for making appointments. The other major resource to evaluate is the number of employees who are trained and tasked to answer phones. In many offices, a protocol is set up for one or more staff members to be the first line for answering phones and if the call rings more than say, three times, a second staff group will pick up the call.
Review Your Financial Investment
Telephone communication is a very important factor in the patient experience. This is where first impressions are formed and they create a lasting impression. Invest in telephone hardware and software that will not create problems with dropped calls, forgotten holds and delays in action.
Review Your Process
Review every step of the typical appointment phone call with your staff to see if new items should be added and if there are some old aspects that can be dropped. The initial phone call is an important opportunity to obtain and share information for the upcoming visit, but it is also smart to keep an eye on making the call efficient.
Here are some possible items to cover, but obviously the needs will vary from one practice to another:
If you have more than one doctor, how are the choices offered? If there is a goal to get one doctor’s schedule busier, you may want to offer the first available appointment, rather than asking “which doctor do you want to see?”
Find out about insurance coverage for the patient, including vision plans and medical insurance.
Keep most insurance plan websites running in the background and the staff member can often check eligibility while still on the phone.
Don’t forget to take the insurance eligibility one step further and look at family members on the website and notify the caller if anyone else is eligible for an exam. Offer to schedule them also.
Remind the caller about any fees that will be due at the time of the visit. This would include co-pays, but it is also best to mention the contact lens evaluation fee over the phone to patients who wear contacts. This eliminates complaints at the front desk about it after the fact.
Encourage the caller to download and complete any history forms and other paperwork before the visit by logging on to your practice website.
Let the caller know that your office confirms appointments via email or text and obtain the address and mobile phone number.
The old trick used by receptionists to help them sound friendlier over the phone is to smile while speaking. The happiness is conveyed by voice alone even when the caller can’t see you. Some offices have small mirrors set up on the desk near the phones so staff members can see themselves while speaking and to remind them to smile.
Role play is another great training tool for staff who answer the phone. In a staff meeting, have one employee play the role of a patient calling and another employee act as the front desk staff. Practice asking tough questions and create some odd behavior. It is good practice because we really experience these issues every day.
Train staff members to sound friendly, be enthusiastic and convey excellent customer service.
Best wishes for continued success,
Neil B. Gailmard, OD, MBA, FAAO
Editor, Optometric Management Tip of the Week
Dr. Gailmard's new book, Practice Management in Optometry: A Blueprint for Success Based on the Optometric Management Tip of the Week, is now available on Amazon.