CONTINUING EDUCATION, 1 CE Credit – $9.99, 1 Hour, General Knowledge, Level 1, Release date: October 2007, Expiration date: October 31, 2012

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Professional Telephone Skills

Some experts claim that a client begins to form a first impression in as little as four seconds after meeting a new person. 

LIKEWISE, LONG BEFORE a patient ever walks through your door, she has begun to form an impression about you, your doctor, and your practice. And contrary to what you may think, that impression is forming before your phone is even answered. Answer it too soon and a caller may assume that your practice is unpopular – that your staff was sitting around just hoping the phone would ring. Let it ring too many times and the caller may think you are not interested in her business at all. She has already begun to dial the next practice listed in the Yellow Pages.

Traditionally, conventional wisdom said the “correct” time to answer a business phone is immediately following the third ring. In this multi-tasking, short-staffed, time crunching society we live in, answering the phone between the second ring and the end of the third ring is perfectly acceptable. Answering by using the Four Courtesies will create a professional, welcoming impression. The Four Courtesies include:

  1. Greeting

  2. Identify the Organization

  3. Identify Yourself

  4. Offer to Help

After reading that, it may seem too much, but with a bit of practice your staff members will be able to fluidly deliver a Four Courtesies greeting in less than three seconds. For example: “Good morning, Max Optics, this is Andrea, how may I help you?”

If you want to know what to stress as you deal with patients over the phone, simply ask yourself what you expect when you call a business. A recent, informal survey of Eye Care Professionals I conducted at the last Vision Expo East yielded the following responses: courtesy, friendliness, professionalism, competence, knowledge, promptness, preparedness, enthusiasm, confidence, sincerity, and a seriousness of purpose. So if you want to create a positive first impression, stress those attributes and characteristics in all the people who staff your phones.

By taking phone etiquette seriously your business should experience more referrals, repeat business, and an enhanced practice image. But what would improving phone skills do for you personally? By improving your telephone skills you might decrease your stress levels, increase respect and confidence, improve efficiency, and increase your job security and job satisfaction.

Did you ever wonder where all your callers have gone…why some people quit calling and coming to your practice? One study rates the following as the reasons why people no longer pick up that phone and call:

1%- Die
3% - Move Away
5% - Develop Other Loyalties
9% - Lost to Competitors
14% - Product Dissatisfaction
68% - A Feeling of Indifference by Staff Members

As you can clearly see, “Indifference” outranks all of the other reasons – combined - by more than two-to-one. What is indifference? Indifference in a staff member is best described as not caring one way or the other. Remember: Patients don’t really care how much you know; they want to know how much you really care. Patients will readily forgive incompetence and mistakes; they will rarely forgive someone who just doesn’t care. Therefore, your most important tool over the phone is your positive attitude.

Your attitude toward your patients is reflected over the phone (and despite what you think, you cannot always mask your true feelings). Your attitude affects your callers and is clearly reflected in your tone of voice. You are 100% in control of your attitude over the phone.

One of the critical characteristics for phone success is preparedness. Do you ever have to scramble for something? Can you answer most questions within a few seconds? Here are some of the “tools” that will help raise your level of preparedness:

Pens and Pencils
Message Pads
Phone Directories
Price Lists/Fee Schedule
Appointment Book
Frame Facts

With everything we have discovered, perhaps the A.S.K. Theory might be your best chance for telephone success. A.S.K. stands for Attitude…Skill…and Knowledge.

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen R. Covey writes about the dynamics of communication, and breaks it down as follows: 60% visual, 30% vocal, and 10% verbal. On the phone, we lose all of the visual cues, so the dynamics of telephone communication are 82% vocal (the tone and quality of your voice) and only 18% verbal (the actual words you use).

There are seven things you can do to improve vocal aspect of your phone skills. 1) Research. Ask a trusted friend or co-worker if you have any annoying habits. 2) Warm up. Take care of your voice. 3) Call your own voice mail and record a message for yourself. Assess and analyze. 4) Put a smile in your voice. Patients can “see” a smile over the phone, just as they can sense disgust or a roll of the eyes. 5) Practice. 6) Strive to create rapport with your caller by “mirroring” in terms of tone, rate, pitch, and volume. 7) Use positive, as opposed to negative, phrasing. For example, instead of saying to a patient, “Don’t be late for your appointment,” why not try, “Please be on time.” What a difference! See the box below for a few more examples.
Instead of this… Why not this…
You have to… Will you please?
I’ll try to send that to you today. I will send that to you today.
What do you want me to do about your problem? How may I assist you?
I’ll call you back as soon as possible. I’ll call you back by…(be specific).
She’s not here. Call back… May I take a message for you?
It’s company policy! Most times we…
That’s impossible. Here’s what we can do…
I don’t know. Let me find out. I will call you…
I’ll have Mrs. Williams call you. I’ll give Mrs. Williams the message.
I’m sorry you had to hold. Thank you for holding.
Who is this? Who may I say is calling?
I am only the front desk receptionist. I am the front desk receptionist.

 And here are a few phrases you should avoid at all costs:

  • She’s at the doctor’s office. (It’s no one’s business)

  • He is on vacation. (They’re on the way to burglarize his house)

  • He’s in the bathroom. (Really?)

  • He’s in the bathroom…and he took the paper. (This could take some time)

  • She’s no longer with us. (May she rest in peace)

  • She’s tied up right now. (Is there video available?)

  • He’s out to lunch (I knew he wasn’t playing with a full deck!)

With challenging callers there are a few tips that might help. For example, to get a “rambler” to get to the point, interject with their name. If you have an overly inquisitive caller or someone who asks inappropriate questions, say “I only discuss business during business hours.” Do not answer silly, stupid, or obvious questions with sarcasm or humor; instead, give a straight, short answer. For example, once I answered my phone with the Four Courtesies (“Good afternoon, Max Optics, this is Anthony, how may I help you?”) The caller said, “Is this Max Optics?” I said, “Yes sir.” He said, “Is Anthony there?” I said, “This is he.” Simple; to the point.

Finally, in closing the call, consider the following five suggestions:

  1. Thank them for calling.

  2. Summarize the action you plan to take.

  3. Say “goodbye,” not “bye, bye,” or “okay.”

  4. Avoid terms of endearment. (Honey, sweetie, dear, etc.)

  5. Let them hang up first.

Anthony Record

Anthony Record, RDO


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