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Continuing with our analysis of the major influence points in your practice, let's consider the initial greeting received by a typical patient who visits your office. This is obviously a very important interaction because it sets the tone for the visit. Handle this well and the patient relaxes and feels confident in your practice. Handle it poorly and you may have to spend the rest of the visit trying to overcome a bad initial impression.
The front desk greeting procedure can easily change over time so it's a good idea to monitor what is really happening in your office lately. Observe the interaction from the patient's point of view, especially during busy times and when you are short on staff. Are you sending a message that really represents your practice the way you want?
Here are a few issues that I've seen that can make or break the front desk experience.
Is there anyone at the front desk? It is extremely common in eye care offices today for no one to be staffing the front desk at any given moment. In my view, there should always be a staff person present to greet anyone who walks in. I recognize there are legitimate reasons why a receptionist may have to leave the desk, (getting a file, using the rest room, checking on something in the lab, walking a patient to an exam room, and so on), but if we work on it, the lapses can be prevented. From the patient's point of view, walking into an empty office is not pleasant. Should you sit down? What if you sit down and someone else walks in and stands at the desk and then gets taken in sooner? You start to think no one cares about you within about 20 seconds.
Are you understaffed? Many practices that I observe are trying to get by with too little. The goal is to hold down expenses, which is fine, but if you are trying to provide excellent service (did you really mean that when you wrote your mission statement?), cutting costs works against your goals. This is why practices that don't charge high enough fees can't provide great service. These practices become mediocre. Consider that there are many days when you don't have the staff numbers you need to due to call-offs, vacations and usual days off. The odds are good that you are understaffed.
No sign in sheets. There are still many offices that use a sign-in sheet at the front desk. I understand that the list works well for the staff, but this is not about what's best for the staff. We're analyzing how patients feel - and they generally don't like signing in. If I'm a patient, I don't really want my name sitting there for every other person who comes in to see. I'm not concerned with HIPAA; I just want to create a great impression. Sign-in sheets are a great excuse for staff to not have to be present and to not communicate with patients.
No glass panels. These were popular in medical offices in the 60s but they give a negative impression. Sliding doors with clear or translucent glass, or with a hole for talking through, present a closed-off feeling and a feeling that the staff should not be disturbed. It is exactly opposite of the image I want to project. If sound is a problem, see if those activities can be performed somewhere else.
Immediate acknowledgement is key. Train your staff to acknowledge patients who approach the front desk immediately. Even if the receptionist is on the phone or with another patient, she can make eye contact with the new comer and say "I'll be right with you." If the receptionist is speaking to another staff member when a patient walks up, the discussion should stop and the receptionist should greet the patient. If the staff person can't speak because it would be rude or an interruption, eye contact along with a smile and a nod is sufficient. A good receptionist is an expert at multitasking.
Smile! The entire communication changes if the staff member smiles. Some people smile easily and frequently and some don't. If you have an employee who does not smile very often, talk about how important it is. It is trainable and it makes a world of difference.
Use the name if you know it. I am amazed at how well my staff knows the names of patients, but they don't always take advantage of that by using the name. The sound of one's own name has special power, and calling a person by name makes him feel important. Relationships are built by using a person's name. Of course, people with an appointment are pretty easy because the staff has a list of those names and they know what time it is! But don't use the wrong name and pronounce it properly. Work on details like when to use Mr., Mrs., and Miss., and when to use first names. I would not use first names for people older than you unless asked to do so.
What to say. Decide what the greeting should be and train all staff to say it properly, but start with a greeting like good morning or hello, Mrs. Smith. Welcome to our office is nice. Introducing one's self is always courteous - simply "my name is Jill" works fine. Inform the patient of what to expect at the visit, such as waiting time, and describe any forms that need to be completed. "Please make yourself comfortable" sounds much better than "take a seat".
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.