Reading time 4:25
Communication has changed a lot in the past twenty years and continues to evolve. Text communications, e-mail and social media can all be overwhelming. But, right now, I would like to talk about an old standard- the phone. Though more and more of our patients are using alternative methods for communicating with our offices, the phone is still important and we can’t ignore it.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE PHONE CALL
The initial impression of your office may be the person who answers your phone. They are also the first line of communication with your patients for a variety of other reasons. As such, it is wise to review some basic rules for the phone. Most millennials and Gen Z’s prefer texting over talking. But when they are working for you, they need to be adept at both.
Be sure that your employees realize how important this interaction is to your practice. But even more important, show them your appreciation when they do it well. Dealing with the public and their unexpected demands is difficult. We all know that first-hand.
We have all had both good and bad experiences when dealing with patients on the phone. Sometimes it is a real battle to stay polite. But, the importance of representing your office well in all patient interactions cannot be stressed enough.
THE CHALLENGES OF PHONE CONVERSATIONS
When answering the phone, especially in a medical office, we need to remember that we’re dealing with many types of patients. Our patients are of different ages. They may not have English as a first language. Therefore, they may be difficult to understand or can require a lot of repetition of information. They may have hearing impairments. And let’s not forget- they all have different temperaments. Some are polite and kind, but others are abrasive, difficult or angry. To handle all these different needs requires a unique skill set. It can be a minefield if handled improperly.
It seems to me that the excessive number of unsolicited phone calls we all receive have given most people a short fuse on dealing with any phone calls. That is unfortunate for those of us who do have to conduct some necessary business on the phone. People can be rude, demanding and entitled, especially on the phone. But, that makes it even more critical to have the right person answering the call and representing our offices. We must also be certain our staff has the right kind of training and support.
BASIC GUIDELINES FOR PHONE CALLS
The following are some basic rules to consider when speaking on the phone. These guidelines are also applicable to leaving messages on an answering machine.
- When answering the phone, greet the caller warmly. Then give your name and the name of your practice. Follow this by asking how you can help the caller.
- Smile because it does make a difference in the sound of your voice. It makes it more pleasant, welcoming and friendly. I must admit I never believed this until I called my sister at work. My sister, Chris, hates talking on the phone. She views it as a distraction. I asked the person answering the phone to transfer me to my sister. I heard laughing as she said “This is me.” I didn’t recognize her voice! Her boss had instructed her to smile when she answered her phone. She usually sounds brisk and bothered. This time she sounded friendly and helpful. I couldn’t believe what a difference it made. It really does work!
- Speak slowly and clearly. Your volume shouldn’t be too loud or too soft. For your voice to be clear, it is helpful to not have the phone too close to your mouth.
- Your office staff is often required to make many calls to confirm appointments or let people know their glasses or contacts are in. No one likes these tasks. There is a tendency to rush through the calls just to get it done. The message is repeated over and over with each new phone call and becomes faster and less understandable as the calls go on. Remember though your staff has made this call many times, for the person currently on the phone, it is the first time they have heard it. Try and make it sound professional, friendly and fresh.
- Ask if it is alright to be put on hold, and listen to the answer before doing it. What’s the point of asking the question if you don’t care about the answer? Above all, be sure to thank them if they agree to be placed on hold. Some businesses give an option- like transferring them to a voice mail to leave a message and then calling them back as soon as possible. Consider what options work best for your office and patients.
- Evaluate what you have on your hold system. Is it music, educational or a long running commercial for your office? How would you feel about listening to it? If it’s music- is it too loud or abrasive? Sales oriented messages can be annoying, especially if they are repeated over and over. Be sure what the patient hears represents your practice well.
- When a patient is speaking, be an attentive listener. Take notes if needed. Try not to interrupt before they have finished what they are saying. Ask questions to clarify what they need. If the patient is rambling, then be polite. Try and guide them so you can find out what they need and then provide it.
- Don’t argue. Slang and profanity are not appropriate. Avoid too much technical jargon. Don’t chew, eat or drink while speaking on the phone. Instead of saying “I don’t know”, tell them that you will check on the answer and get back to them. And then, be sure and do it.
- Front desk personnel are good at taking down long strings of numbers. Dates of birth, social security numbers, phone numbers and insurance numbers are a few examples. Because they are so good at this task, they assume everyone else can do this too. Many people can’t. The numbers most commonly given to patients on the phone are the office phone number, office hours or appointment times. So give numbers in small groups with pauses in between. And remember, it is helpful to repeat the numbers as well.
- End the conversation with a positive and friendly closing like “I hope you have a good day”, “Thanks for calling” or “We look forward to seeing you.”. Other general information can be given as you conclude the conversation.
A FINAL WORD
Phone manners are important. Be sure that your patients, or potential patients, end the call feeling that they are important to your practice. Don’t miss the chance to make a great impression. Being successful on the phone often requires the combined efforts of a therapist and an actor. Just be aware of how you sound to the person on the other end of the phone. Treat them as you would like to be treated.
Leave your comments below on your feelings about effective phone communications. Do all your staff share in phone duties? What are your pet peeves about phone calls? What experiences have you personally had?