The Top Ten Countdown
The professional office (doctors , lawyers, architects, etc.) spends thousands of dollars annually on promotion. There is money spent on advertising, professional training, attractive facilities, even attractive landscaping. Yet some offices spend little or nothing on telephone skills training for the staff. This is curious, because the telephone is the lifeblood of the professional office. If is very common for a patient to make a decision to go to a competitor based upon one telephone conversation (or lack of a conversation). Most of the time, ineffective telephone management is not intentional; it’s just that the staff has not been properly trained.
Let’s take a look at how answering the phone should not be done. We have all been on the wrong end of a frustrating telephone encounter. This top ten countdown may not match yours exactly, but I’m sure these would make your list.
#10: “Hello, this is Mary at Dr. Blinder’s office. What can we do for ya today, sugar?”
#9: “Dr. Blinder’s office.”
#8 “This is Mary.”
#6: “Hello, this is the office of Dr. Seymour Cash. Please hold.” Cue nauseating elevator music.
#5: “Please hold.” Cue advertisement for your Lasik payment options.
#4: “Please hold.” Followed shortly by a dial tone.
#3: Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring………
#2: “Hello, you have reached the automated answering system from hell. Your call is important to us, that’s why we are torturing you. If you are calling from a touch tone phone, press one. Habla espanol, pulse dos. Our system has changed, so listen carefully to your options. For an alphabetical listing of employees, press three…” You get the idea. Of course, before you reach someone who can help you, you get a dial tone and you have to start all over again.
#1: Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Ring. Go to #2.
These problems suggest their own solution, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. What follows is a compilation of solutions and tips from telephone and sales professionals, and from 40+ years of experience in customer service. Encounters with patients and customers are rarely neutral; they are either positive or negative. With best practices for the telephone, we want to tip the scale permanently and decisively to the positive side. We don’t want to just meet expectations; we want to exceed expectations.
The idea is to build trust with your patients, starting with telephone practices. You want to leave the impression that your office is caring, attentive, and helpful. You want to avoid misunderstandings and bad feelings. When you lay them out, these concepts seem obvious, don’t they? However, it is surprising how much improvement can be made, even within a staff that thinks it is doing “just fine” with telephone practices.
Don’t try to fix everything immediately. There are many, many useful concepts and tips in this discussion. There is no way that you will remember all of them. While reading through this course, note the two or three pointers that seem most important to you and start implementing them. Come back to the course periodically and select some more ideas that you can work on. If you are a trainer or a supervisor, be sure to go easy on the criticism and encourage what is being done correctly.
Answering the telephone
We use the telephone so much in our modern society that much of our phone interaction is emotional rather than intellectual. Think about what happens to you emotionally when someone or something answers your phone call. We all prefer someone familiar and friendly to be on the other end. Aren’t there some businesses that you hate to call because you have had a negative emotional response to a previous phone call? Many times, the first few seconds of the conversation set a positive or a negative tone for the rest of the encounter. We call these positive triggers and negative triggers. Obviously, from our end of the phone, we want to produce positive triggers and to avoid negative triggers. We encountered some of the negative triggers in our top ten count-down.
Negative triggers that we want to avoid (not necessarily in order of importance):
1. The phone rings and rings and rings: Is anybody home? The phone should be answered in three rings or less. If the call is going to an automated system, then the greeting should occur by the fourth ring. If you are responsible for answering the phone, but you are too busy, then a backup plan is needed, such as more phone answering help, or an answering system.
2. The phone call goes to an answering system: Yes, I just mentioned that the answering system can be part of a backup plan. The point is that it is a backup plan. It is much better for the phone to be answered by a real, live person. If you use an automated system, keep the greeting as short as possible and keep the “tree” of choices as short as possible. Always give the caller the option of leaving a message.
3. “Please hold:” No one likes to be put on hold, so avoid this if possible. Never, ever, put someone on hold without asking permission and waiting for a response. Have you ever been asked if you would hold, and then you were put on hold before you could give a response? This technique is very irritating. If the person does not want to hold, then ask if you can take a number and call back. Then be sure and call back in a timely manner.
4. The greeting that is too abrupt: Avoid short greetings like “hello”, “this is Nancy”, and “Dr. Smith’s office”. You should always identify yourself and your place of business.
5. The greeting that is too long: “Good morning, you have reached Dr. Smith’s office, this is Nancy, would you be interested in purchasing a pair of glasses at half price today?
6. The tone of the greeting is inappropriate: Try to avoid using the mechanical voice, the irritated voice, and the sweet as syrup voice. Your tone should be friendly and helpful.
7. The greeting that is stale: Don’t keep saying the same old greeting month after month until it turns into a #6. Change it up every once in awhile. Here are two possibilities. “Thank you for calling Dr. Bradley’s office, this is Wilma.” “Dr. Bradley’s office, Wilma speaking, may I help you.”
8. The greeting that is disgusting: Do not chew gum when answering the phone and do not eat when answering the phone.
Develop and use positive triggers when using the telephone
Being heard and being understood by the person on the other end of the line are basic positive triggers that almost everyone can improve on. Here are some tips to help you:
- Use breath control to project your voice and to maintain a positive tone of voice. Before you pick up the phone, take a deep breath. Answer the phone at the “top” of the breath. You will have more energy in voice as you exhale when talking.
- Smile when you answer the phone. Even though facial clues don’t come through over the phone, a smile will set your mood and the smile will come through your tone of voice.
- Speak clearly and slow down. Slow down especially when you are reciting numbers. Use correct pronunciations and use good enunciation. Pronunciation has to do with the way a word or term sounds. For example, the word “hors d'oeuvres" is pronounced “or derv”. Enunciation refers to how clearly you speak. If you sound like you have marbles (gum, food) in your mouth when you talk, then you will not be well understood. Vary the tone of your voice when you speak.
- Do not use slang. Do use non-technical language. Those who work in very specialized fields such as medicine sometimes forget that not everyone knows the lingo.
- Speak directly into the mouthpiece of the phone, with the mouthpiece about an inch away from your mouth. Do not cradle the phone on your shoulder. A hands free headset is the answer for the person who answers the phone often and needs to have both hands free to type.
- Speaking to a hard-of-hearing person can be tricky. Sometime you almost have to shout into the phone, but you don’t want to sound like you are yelling at the person. In this situation it is helpful to stand up and talk. This helps you to project your voice into the phone.
- Speaking of standing up when you talk on the phone, use this technique to your advantage. In fact, I bet you already use it and you may not realize it. Many people just can’t sit down when they take an important or particularly stressful phone call. Standing up helps you breathe better, it helps you to project your voice, and it gives your voice more authority.
Get the person’s name early on in the conversation and use the name often in the conversation. This is a very important positive trigger that is used to great advantage by the best sales people. Everyone wants to be recognized and to be remembered.
- Always keep a notepad at hand when answering the phone. Write the person’s name on the notepad if you don’t have the name in front of you on a computer screen. There is nothing worse than forgetting the name in the middle of the conversation and then getting it wrong.
- If you are unfamiliar with the name, have the person spell it for you. Most people are happy for you to get their name spelled correctly.
- The question of familiarity can be a trick one. In other words, do you call a person by their first name, or do you use Mr., Mrs., or Miss? If you have age information, it is very helpful. Most younger people, and some older folks, don’t like to be addressed formally, but many folks older than 60 prefer a formal address from people who are of a younger generation. When in doubt, start out with Mr., Mrs., or Miss., especially if you know that the person is older than you are.
Avoid using negative terminology. Stay away from “we can’t”, “we won’t”, “that won’t work”, etc. Instead, offer a positive alternative. For example, if the appointment schedule is full on Tuesday, don’t say “We can’t make an appointment for you Tuesday.”, but rather say “The appointment schedule is full on Tuesday, but I can offer you an appointment on Wednesday.”
Never say, “That’s not my job.” or, “That’s not my department.” These statements make it seem like your organization does not function as a team. Better to say, “I will connect you with someone who can help you with that.”
Avoid using the term “OK”. Use positive words instead, such as “good”, “better”, and “best”.
Don’t be demanding or bossy. It is better to suggest. Instead of saying, “I want you to come in for appointment this Friday”, say, “may I suggest an appointment this Friday?”
Always use a friendly tone and never use an angry tone. It you find yourself getting angry during a phone conversation, call the person back after you have had time to compose yourself. Keep a good sense of humor. If you make a mistake, be apologetic and make light of the situation if appropriate.
Be a good listener and keep the caller informed
- Let the caller talk and “get it all out”. Caller frustration often results from the feeling that he/she has not been given the opportunity to say everything that needs to be said. Try to avoid interruption during this phase of the conversation.
- Use “verbal nods” to let the person know that you are engaged in the conversation. Examples are “yes”, “I see”, and “I see what you mean”.
- Ask questions of the caller to clarify points, but try not to interrupt. Wait for a pause in the conversation.
- Take notes during the conversation, so that you don’t have to ask again for information that the caller has already given. Having to ask again for information gives the impression that you have not been paying attention.
- If you are engaged in a task with the caller on the line, such as scheduling an appointment, avoid long periods of silence (dead air). Give the caller a play-by-play without going overboard. For example, “The appointment screen is coming up now. Let’s see what times we have available.”