Phone Skills Can Make or Break a Practice

April 9, 2008

"If you can get our phones to ring more often, we'll be happy campers!" It's hard to estimate how many times I've heard that request in 20 years of healthcare marketing experience.

"If you can get our phones to ring more often, we'll be happy campers!" It’s hard to estimate how many times I've heard that request in 20 years of healthcare marketing experience.

"Get people to call us and we can take it from there." That's another one I've heard more times than we can count. But getting the phones to ring is only half the battle. If your staff isn't really skilled and well trained in phone communication skills, you're in for a world of hurt when you calculate the actual return on investment (ROI) from your marketing efforts.

And here comes the really important statistic—90% of healthcare practices fail at this critical business function. That's right. If you judge success or failure by the ability of your staff to make callers feel comfortable, welcome and cared about, then 90% failure may be a conservative estimate. And if you include sales skills and the ability to inspire and motivate prospective new patient callers to make and keep initial appointments, then we can probably increase the failure projection to 95%!

Here's another alarming fact. Poor phone skills result in annual lost revenues per practice ranging from the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars annually!

If you have a growing pain in the pit of your stomach as you read this, you're not alone. In fact, if you are like many practice owners and managers, you may already know that you have a weakness and vulnerability in this vital area. The real issue is what to do about it.

And if you are a referral-based practice and assume that this skill isn't that important because their physicians refer most of your patients to you—think again! Physicians and staff of practices who refer out their patients for specialty care rate phone skills of recipient practices extremely high on their list of important considerations in determining referral sources. And frankly, that shouldn't be surprising, since referring practices want—and increasingly expect—their patients to be treated as VIPs by the practices who are entrusted to treat those referred patients.

Phone Success1) The right person in the right job. In many medical practices, the front office staff with primary phone responsibilities is the lowest-paid, least tenured and often least experienced employees. In other practices, the phones are answered by staff that has been with the practice for a long time—often long enough to develop and ingrained bad phone habits.

A critical point: The folks who answer the phones in your practice are your front-line public relations representatives and the position should be staffed with this understanding firmly in mind. We're all familiar with the saying, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." Well, the people who answer your phones are making that vital first impression with your patients.

If you are unsure of the impression that your practice gives to callers, consider having a few friends "mystery shop" your phone staff. It's probably not a good idea for you to try mystery shopping your own staff. They will (or should) recognize your voice.

Bottom line: Staff this position based on verbal skills, listening skills and sales skills. Oh, and friendliness might be a good character trait to look for, as well. If you have to make a choice, sales experience and a friendly voice trump years of experience working in your profession.

2) Evaluate compensation and incentives. For those of you who feel like you just "can't find good people" to hire, you might ask yourself why the most successful practices seem to manage to attract those "un-findable" people to work for them. You may not always get what you pay for, but you definitely don't get what you don't pay for.

The most successful practice owners and managers refuse to compromise in their constant quest for top talent—and when they find the right person, they pay them what that level of talent demands.

Many practices will combine base salary for front office staff with an incentive bonus based on some type of win-win formula. For example, a talented front office employee may have a bonus opportunity tied to increased new patient volume (above a baseline number) matched against patient satisfaction survey scores.

3) Don't short staff (and overwhelm) your front office. You may think you are being cost-conscious and increasing profits by requiring massive multi-tasking from your front office staff. In fact, you are probably costing yourself many more thousands of dollars annually in lost business due to sub-par phone communications from over-tasked and overwhelmed employees.

If your front office staff burns out from exhaustion and/or frustration because they feel set up to fail with too many unrealistic competing priorities, you lose in many ways. You lose through poor phone communications, people left on hold for too long, abrupt, rushed conversations and lost business from prospective new patients who are turned off by what they experience when they call your office. You also lose potentially good, long-term employees who wise up sooner or later and figure out that there must be a better, less stressful job out there somewhere.

4) Script, train and retrain.

Many busy practices these days invest in message-on-hold programs in an effort to control the messages and perceptions of their customers. Yet many of these same practices don't provide any "message control" guidelines for their phone staff to use in their many live conversations with customers each day.

A phone script does not have to be a restrictive device to be resisted by staff that doesn't feel comfortable with someone else's words being put into their mouths. An effective script is more often a series of agreed-upon guidelines and "best answers" to frequently asked questions that can be anticipated by your practice. In fact, your front office staff should participate in the scripting process (along with key management) so that you get their best thinking and knowledge (after all, they are the ones on the front lines each day) and so that they buy into the value of using the script that they helped create.

Training staff on good scripting guidelines and protocols may also be required. Sometimes this training can be handled in-house, but it may be wise to consider a professional trainer for this important assignment.

Regardless of how you conduct your initial training, assume that periodic retraining would be essential, whether as a refresher for experienced staff or initial training for new hires—sometimes both. At a minimum, your scripting protocols and guidelines should be refreshed, updated and retrained at least twice a year.

Also, if you add or change a service or procedure in your practice, update your phone script to anticipate related questions and best answers. The same process should be applied if you add new providers, lose previous providers, add or relocate an office.

Lonnie Hirsch and Stewart Gandolf are the Founding Partners of Healthcare Success Strategies. Together, they have over 30 years experience as private practice marketing experts, having consulted on and created marketing campaigns for over 3,200 practices. Prior to founding HSS, which provides high level, personalized consulting to successful private practitioners who are serious about growing practice profits, Lonnie was president and Stewart was vice-president of marketing with the nation's largest private practice marketing firm. They invite comments at 888-679-0050 or info@healthcaresuccess.com.