Doctor, Call Your Office

As a healthcare management consultant I spend a lot of time making and returning phone calls to a lot of offices. What I hear…your patients hear; and I’ve got to tell you, some of it is NOT pretty. Making an effort to improve efficiency, offering the latest/best treatments and building relationships with patients are all critical components of a successful practice…and equally important is your patients’ first phone experience with your office. Now, understand – what I am about to reveal is not a reflection of EVERY office I phone-connect with; however, of the first ten calls I made yesterday, SIX sent up red flags. Six out of ten! Following is a peek into just one morning of my recent phone call attempts. Look at them from a customer/patient perspective.

#1:  People that know me, know I am pro-automation and there is no question that automated attendants (“press one for ___, press two for ___”) have their place in a busy office. It is extremely helpful to give the patient who wants to bypass the receptionist and speak to the billing department that option. It is also equally efficient to relieve an overburdened receptionist from sorting through every incoming call by re-routing those calls and freeing up their time to accomplish other duties. However, be careful of turning a positive into a negative. Typically, patients will listen to 2 or 3 options if it means a direct connection to the proper individual. Now, put them through a menu of TEN options. Hmmm, not happy. Impatience, irritation, frustration or worse…a hang up? Think about it. Are all ten options really necessary? Must patients sit through multiple selections that do not apply to them? Three of the calls I placed yesterday subjected me to a long menu and NONE of them addressed my reason for calling! In the end, I went with “Press #5 if you want to make an appointment” just to reach a human. (By the way, shouldn’t that have been #1?) So, while automation is time saving and at times, appropriate, customer service is also providing warm, personal, HELPFUL human contact. We all agree, it’s nice to be treated nice.

#2: Answering the phone with a mouthful of sour grapes is unacceptable. Patients can tell when someone is smiling and when they are not. An upbeat staff reflects a positive attitude of the entire practice, top down. This phone call is the first impression of you and your office! Answering the phone with a proper greeting is critical. My second call, no joke, was answered: “Doctor’s office” and nothing more. Whose office did I reach? An MD? Cardiologist? Dentist?  Did I misdial? Hmmm, no warm fuzzy feeling here. It was not informative, welcoming or professional. As a reminder try placing a smile button next to every phone in your office and have staff reflect on it prior to answering every call (every potential new patient). “Good morning, Dr. Pod’s Office, Sue speaking, may I help you?” is a great opening! Why not include "How can I make your day better?” As a patient I’m already smiling. You had me at “Hello!”

#3: “May I help you” – if you say it, (and you should) how about making good on that offer? I spent more time than was necessary trying to drag words out of one of the receptionists I spoke with. “Hi, my name is Lynn Homisak and I’m calling to speak with Miss deCall.” Crickets. “Is she available? Can you connect me?” “No.” “Oh, can I leave a message?” “She doesn’t take messages.” “She doesn’t TAKE messages?” “Email only; she only answers emails.” Getting information was like trying to pull teeth. After a few more related questions and one word responses, I accepted defeat. Hung up. FYI…I did email Miss deCall. No reply. No surprise.

#4: One ring to the next office immediately activated their voice mail system. (I am always aware of the time zone differences with offices I call, so let me note the time of my call was 3:30pm on a weekday.) Voice mail: Thank you for calling Tick Tock Podiatry. Our office is currently closed. Our office hours are Monday through Friday 8am to 5pm. Please stay on the line and our answering service will help you.” (Waiting patiently…still waiting…turning impatient) At last, “Hello, Tick Tock Podiatry’s answering service. The office is closed, may I help you?” Me: “The office is closed? What time do you have?” Operator: “3:35 Ma’am.” Me: “The message said hours were until 5:00. Are they really gone?” Operator: “Yes, I’m sorry Ma’am, they are. May I take a message?” Me: “No, I’ll call back, thank you.” My call was important enough that I will likely make another attempt but the whole experience did not sit well. The bigger question is will a new patient hitting that same roadblock call back, or simply call another podiatry office that actually keeps posted hours?

I hope this mini exposé resonates. 20-30% of potential new patients are lost on the first phone call to your practice. This is generally the result of staff not properly trained, failing to “close the deal”, careless office policy, or just lousy attitude. Doctors, I repeat, receptionists are often a patients’ first encounter with your practice, they represent your practice. Are you aware of how each phone call is handled? For more insight, consider having someone you know call your office as a new patient. Was your staff helpful? Was the call positive? Friendly? Could you hear them smile? Were they successful at making that appointment? Sound a little shifty? It’s not, if you do this not with the intent to “catch them”; rather, to educate and improve their skills.

Whether blessed or cursed by technology; Email, Texting, Skype, Voice Mail, Answering Service, Facebook, Twitter, etc. have made their way into many of our practices. And yet, the phone still remains the KEY communication link. Do not neglect the critical importance of this tool and the skills of the staff person that picks up! Can you hear me now?