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The Personality of Your Practice

Occasionally someone will ask me if there is any one constant in the characteristics of successful eye care practices, and the answer is always a resounding “yes.”

It doesn’t matter if the practice is large or small, in an urban or rural setting, new building or old. The answer is always a caring, well-trained staff. When most doctors think of staff training, they think of the meetings held by their frame and lens providers, usually over lunch. When we think of staff training it begins much earlier, usually at the time of hiring.

This personality is shaped from the top down, and, like it or not, the responsibility for maintaining or reshaping it belongs to the doctor. Unfortunately, the amount of training in optometric practices seems to be going down. A recent survey found that the amount of practices which conduct absolutely no training at all rose from 17% in 2009 to 33% in 2011. Yet at the same time, managed care plans are forcing doctors to spend virtually all their time in the exam rooms. More and more of a patient’s perception of your practice is formed by your staff.

Have you ever noticed how the doctors who bring most of their staff to the annual state optometric conference seem to be among the most successful practices in their state? Did you ever consider that perhaps it’s one of the reasons they are so successful? We believe it goes much further than enhancing the staff skills from the training at these conferences. The doctors who share their goals with their staffs and make it a group effort to attain them also have the staffs with the least amount of turnover. It costs doctors absolutely nothing to thank staff members for their efforts at the end of each day, and to frequently remind them how important they are to your practice. The more invested in your practice employees’ feel, the longer they will remain your employees. Let’s take a look at some of the important steps in forming your practice personality.

  • Hiring Employees – there are countless opinions, books, and consultants out there who will tell you who you should hire, some of them even offering personality tests which claim to predict who the best hire will be for your staff. All of these have differing values to the doctor interviewing prospects, and all of them achieve varying amounts of success. Much depends upon the specific position you are trying to fill. For example, a people-oriented personality would generally be more important for a dispenser than an insurance clerk. If there is one overriding value we advise doctors to look for, it is to find people who care about others. You can train a person who is caring for any skill, but you can never train a skilled person to care.

  • Managing Staff – first, have an updated office manual. As one former client put it, “If a rule is not written down, it doesn’t exist.” Make sure each employee signs a copy of the manual stating they have read it and understand it; and each employee has a copy of the manual. The advantage here is two-fold: first, an employee understands what their job entails and what is expected out of them. Secondly, in case you have to fire an employee you have specific duties in writing – and understood by the employee - that the employee has failed to perform. Here are some other important tips to consider:

    • If at all possible, hire an office manager. With managed care forcing doctors to live in their exam rooms, an office manager oversees staff and ensures that the practice goals are met. It also removes the doctor from the direct managing of the staff. The larger the practice, the more important this is. In small practices, the manager may function as a float in all areas of the practice. We once saw a four doctor practice with three locations and over twenty-five employees try to function without an office manager. It was not a pretty sight…

    • Assign a trainer for each department to train new employees. This staff member ensures the continuity of training remains the same.

    • Staff Bonuses. We believe in sharing success in the growth of the practice with the staff. The doctor should set the monthly goals based on an increase from year-to-year. It often is meeting monthly goals for dispensary income, or new contact lens fits, sun wear sales, or, in MD practices, an increase in patient capture rates. After the first year the goals will have to be re-evaluated, but they should always be incremental goals as you continue to raise the bar. Never should the staff consider it a part of their base pay. Even though one department such as the dispensary might seem responsible for generating financial growth, we believe in sharing the bonus money equally among the staff. It’s a team effort, from the person setting the appointment to the insurance clerk ensuring you actually get paid!

    • Have weekly staff meetings. Review the events of the past week and recognize what went exceptionally right and what could use improvement. Always try to raise the level of patient care and professionalism. Solicit suggestions from the staff on improving the practice. When starting with a client we always make it a point to meet separately with each staff member for 5-10 minutes to get their impression of the practice. You would be amazed how many excellent suggestions they can make. When we ask why they have not told the doctor, their response it usually “I was never asked for my opinion.” Remember your staff sees what works and what doesn’t work in your practice long before you do. Remind everyone of why they are there and your goals for the practice. And always, always, always thank your staff for their work at the end of the day. I can’t tell you how many staff members have approached me and said, “No one has ever told me that before. It makes the absolute worst day seem ok.” No one likes being taken for granted.

    • Hire a mystery shopper. You don’t have to spend for a professional to do this. Pick a friend whose judgment and standards are similar to your own and who is not known in your practice. Give them a checklist for them to grade their treatment in all areas of your practice from making an appointment to checking out. Treat it as a learning experience for everyone involved.

Successful businesses large and small realize that their customers will receive the best service only when their employees feel values and cared for. It‘s easy for doctors to fall into the trap of thinking that their work is more important and that the practice revolves around the exam room. But if the employee setting the appointments does not make the patent feel welcome, the practice has two strikes against it before the patient sets foot in your door.

Get to know your staff, their families and interests. Find out about their personal goals and ambitions, and encourage their continuing education in their job field.

Empower your staff to make the small decisions that arise every day while you’re in the exam room, and hold them accountable. An empowered employee will show more initiative and creativity. The staff knows far better than you what little glitches interrupt patient flow on a daily basis.

So, what’s the personality of your practice?

Cliff Capriola, Practice Management Consultant

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