Telephone troubles: Avoid common communication pitfalls

October 1, 2009

To combat declining revenues during this recession, dermatology practices must pay close attention to customer service - everything from the reception area to staff interactions.

Key Points

One area many practices overlook is the impression they give to patients over the telephone. Poor execution of this vital tool can wreck your best efforts to improve the practice's market position.

Make sure your dermatology practice doesn't fall into the trap of failing to recognize the importance of the telephone.

Mistake No. 1 - No one answers the telephone. Make it a policy that phones are picked up by the third ring; turned on by 8 a.m. and off no sooner than 5 p.m.; and not turned off over the lunch hour.

If you have to put a patient on hold, ask permission - and wait to get it. Your existing and new patients use the telephone to reach you; don't overlook the basics.

Mistake No. 2 - Lackluster delivery. Research shows that tone of voice, not words, influences the majority of a customer's impression of a business or service they reach by telephone.

Teach your staff to use a soothing and caring manner on the telephone and to adjust the rate and volume of their speech to each patient's needs.

Mistake No. 3 - Poor body language. Body language can make a difference, even in telephone conversations. Instruct staff to sit with good posture and smile when speaking on the phone. Periodically record an employee's end of the telephone conversation and play it back to him or her.

Mistake No. 4 - Lack of eye contact. As with body language, it may sound odd to suggest eye contact as a factor in telephone conversations. Many people find that placing a mirror or even a photo of a loved one near their phone helps them focus more intently on the person on the other end of the line.

Mistake No. 5 - Bad manners. Chewing gum loudly, eating and not introducing one's self wouldn't be acceptable for your front desk or clinical staff, so why tolerate it when they are on the phone?

Everyone who answers incoming calls should state the practice's complete name without rushing or mumbling. They should follow with their name and ask how they can serve the patient; for example, "Good morning, Dermatology Associates. This is Julie. How may I help you today?"

Once the patient states his or her question(s), staff should ask for a name. Using the patient's name in the conversation or in the call transfer process adds a valued personal touch, and it proves that you're listening.

Telephone calls should close with a clear show of appreciation for the patient's business, with an acknowledgement that the patient had a choice. For example, instruct your staff to state, "Thank you for choosing Dermatology Associates, Mrs. Jones. Have a great day."

Mistake No. 6 - Multi-tasking. Forcing busy front desk staff to check in a constant stream of patients and handle incoming calls is a prescription for poor service for everyone.

Too much multitasking contributes to a distracted tone of voice, long hold times and a high abandonment rate. Segregate patient check-in duties from phone duties when possible.

Mistake No. 7 - Clutter. Messiness produces an unprofessional image when you see it. It happens over the phone when patients have to wade through a long menu to get to a live person. You also project an unprofessional image when your phones are answered in a noisy area.

Move phones into a quiet area that is private enough that patients in the reception area won't hear every word. Eliminate the phone menu during office hours, or at least make the "live operator" option first - not last - on the phone menu.

Mistake No. 8 - Negativity. Advise your staff to always respond to callers with a positive tone when asked questions they can't answer or requests they can't fulfill. Suggest effective replies such as, "That's a great question, Mrs. Jones. I don't know the answer; however, let me take your name and number and I'll find the answer for you."

Mistake No. 9 - Mishandling "moments of truth." Your staff may be defensive and unwilling to accept blame for things patients call to complain about. Appointments, billing statements and missed return calls are among the reasons that patients call to complain.

Train staff to acknowledge the patient's complaint by saying, "I'm sorry that we cannot get you in to see the doctor on the date you requested, Mrs. Jones. We clearly haven't been able to meet your expectations."

By acknowledging the patient's problem and expressing concern, your staff will at least satisfy the individual's need to get their complaint heard.

Mistake No. 10 - Amateurism. Stop putting your least-experienced, newest and lowest-paid employees on the telephone.

Move customer service aptitude high up on your list of qualities when hiring new staff members who will cover telephones. You can always teach someone how to collect co-payments, but you can't teach them how to smile.

In short, teaching your employees what to say on the telephone - and how to say it - will put you on the road to improving service. It might just become your practice's marketing edge.

Elizabeth Woodcock is the principal of Woodcock & Associates and a speaker and writer specializing in practice management. Visit her Web site at http://www.elizabethwoodcock.com/.