This section is part of the "Telephone Skills for the Eyecare Office" course.

How to handle the upset or angry caller

The upset caller is a person with frustration, irritation, annoyance, or anger resulting from something that your organization did or failed to do. This caller is different from the caller with anxiety solely due to a medical problem.
Your first task is to determine if the caller is calm and rational, or is the caller irate and irrational. This should be fairly obvious early on in the conversation.
If the caller is irate and irrational, you want to do what you can to move the person to a calm, rational state. You must be the person who is calm and under control. An angry caller can catch you off guard, especially if you are busy and/or in a stressful situation yourself. If you are not prepared to take the call, then do one of two things:
Communicate to the caller that the call is important, that you want to devote your full attention to it, and ask permission to call the person back. Give the person a time frame as to when you will be calling back. Be sure to keep to that time frame.
If you know that you will not be particularly helpful to the caller, communicate that you would like for a more knowledgeable person to call him/her back. Give the caller a time frame as to when you think the call may occur. Be sure to inform the staff member about the situation. Follow-up to make sure that the person was indeed called back.
If you are the person who will be handling the situation, take the following 4 steps:
1. Prepare: As stated earlier, you must be the person who stays cool, calm, and collected. Think of the other person as a good friend or a loved relative who is having a problem that you can help with. Speak with confidence about your ability to help the person. If you are not this person, then defer to another staff member.
2. Listen: This is a very important step. Let the person have his/her say in the matter without interruption. Be a good listener. Give an occasional “verbal nod”, such as “yes” or “I see”, to let the person know that you are listening. Take notes while the person is talking. After the person has talked, ask pertinent questions in order to gather all of the facts. Do not be accusatory. Do express concern and understanding.
3. Confirm: Another important step is to repeat back to the person what you understand about the situation. Ask the person if you have the facts correct. If not, ask for clarification until there is a mutual understanding of the situation.
4. Solve: The final step is to offer a solution to the problem. Be calm and confident, and use positive language. Be apologetic about the inconvenience to the person, even if you think that the person is partially at fault. If needed, arrange for a follow-up call on a specific day to make sure that the problem has been solved. Be sure to make the follow-up call.

Appointments and scheduling

When making appointments:
  • Don’t try to diagnose or treat over the phone. See the previous section on how to handle urgent and emergency situations.
  • Don’t bad-mouth the competition. This makes you seem petty and unprofessional.
  • Keep a log of patients who would like to move up in the schedule, for use when the schedule is particularly light. Be sure to keep some time open for emergencies.
  • Call to remind patients of appointment times. Some offices handle this with a reminder card in the mail or an automatic phone dialer. However, the most effective method is with a personal phone call.
The appointment making process:
Most medical offices have a computerized appointment and billing system even if they don’t have an EMR system.
  • Get the person’s name and phone number first. If you are disconnected you have the information to call back.
  • Determine the type of appointment needed and the preference for time of day and the day of the week. If your office has multiple doctors and/or multiple locations, you will need this preference also.
  • Get as much demographic information (address, phone, birth date, etc.) and insurance information as possible. If the patient is established (not new), confirm and update the information. It is a time saver for this information to be pre-printed onto the signature form when the patient arrives in the office.
  • This is a good time to begin educating the new patient as to insurance benefits if you are aware of them (and you should be). For example, a vision insurance plan may allow for one pair of new frames and lenses every two years.
  • Tell the patient what he/she will need to bring to the appointment, such as a medications list, insurance cards, and any referral letters.
  • Tell the patient how much time to expect to spend at the appointment.
  • Repeat the appointment information before you disconnect.
  • Be sure to thank the person for the appointment.
Are appointments running late or early? How about calling scheduled patients to come earlier or later if they prefer?

Telephone tips for the refractive surgery practice

As stated earlier, the telephone is the lifeblood of the medical practice, even more so for the refractive surgery practice. For many practices, a great deal of money is spent on marketing to get the patient to call the practice. At that point, due to ineffective, or even no telephone skills training, much of those marketing dollars is wasted. Every practice can learn from the telephone skills that apply to the refractive surgery practice. The following points have been gleaned from several refractive surgery consultants and coaches.
Point #1: There is a three-step process for the refractive surgery practice to convert a prospect into patient:
1. Marketing gets the prospect to contact the office. Marketing includes traditional outlets plus word-of-mouth. The first contact is almost always via the telephone.
2. It is the goal of the telephone staff member (counselor) to convince the prospect to make an appointment for a screening.
3. At the screening appointment, it is the goal of the medical staff members and the doctor to convince qualified prospects to schedule the procedure.
This seems fairly straightforward, but this is spelled out to emphasize that nothing happens unless you convert the telephone call to an appointment.
Point #2: The refractive surgery prospect wants to talk to a real person who can answer questions in a knowledgeable way. The caller does not want to invest time in an appointment unless he/she feels comfortable with the organization.
Consultants tell us that for many refractive surgery practices, 25 to 30 percent of incoming calls go to voicemail, or they are placed on hold for more than 3 minutes. This is the telephone equivalent of Death Valley.   Many of these calls will be lost before anyone on your staff gets to talk to the caller. This, of course, means that you may be throwing away 25% of your marketing budget if you don’t have enough trained people answering these calls during business hours. It is better for a person to answer the phone and ask permission to call back, rather than have the call go to voicemail or to be placed on hold.
Point #3: Never refer the caller to a website. In this age of the Internet, this advice seems counter-intuitive. It’s easy and “with-it” to say, “You can get more information on our website.” No matter how good you think your website is, the truth is that many people get lost and bewildered on websites. It is much better to answer questions “live”, over the telephone. Why do think successful retail sales companies have their phone numbers plastered all over the their websites? You do need to have a good website, and you will want to give the address if asked. If you have a chat feature on your website, make sure that it works. Do have your phone number prominently displayed on your website.
Point #4: Talk time matters. Consultants tell us that a conversation with a counselor that lasts at least 5 minutes will result in an appointment about 80% of the time. This makes sense. Short talk times mean that the counselor is not connecting with the caller, meaning questions are not coming up, let alone being answered.
Point #5: Always be ready to address the “big two” questions. These are (1) cost and (2) fear of pain. Sticker shock is addressed by your payment plan or other financial arrangements. Be sure your counselors have the details. Fear of pain is best addressed by a personal story. The counselor should be able to tell about the experience of a co-worker, a close friend, or a relative.
Point #6: Counselors should go easy on the terminology. Not all callers will be familiar with flaps and keratomes. Stay away from technical terms unless the caller brings them up.
Point #7: Always, always, always, ask the caller to make an appointment. When you think about it, this seems obvious, but studies have shown that too often this does not happen. Make a reminder phone call before the appointment. It is best if the same counselor makes this call. You are trying to build a relationship with the prospect.
Point #8: Ask the caller where he/she heard about your practice and keep track of this information. This will help you spend your advertising dollars more wisely. Wait until towards the end of the conversation. You don’t want to give the impression that you only care about marketing.
Point #9: Make follow-up calls. If your caller does not make an appointment, call him/her in a few days and ask if you can be of any further assistance. In order to make a follow-up call, you will need the callers phone number. You may have this from caller ID, but it is a good idea to ask for a phone number early in the conversation, in case you get disconnected. Be sure to ask to set up an appointment
Point # 10: Keep track of appointment no-shows and make a follow-up call. Ask if you can be of further assistance or address any concerns. Ask to set up the appointment again.