Telephone tips: Meeting client expectations

Telephone tips: Meeting client expectations

In the June 2003 edition of DVM Newsmagazine ("Revenues Down? It's Not the Economy, Doctor!"), we disclosed the surprising findings of our clandestine client calls to veterinary practices, in response to concerns of falling revenues and transactions.

Since that time, we have gum-shoed many more practices to discover how employees are responding to incoming telephone calls. We wanted to know if veterinary hospitals are losing clients before they even see them. By anonymously calling the practice as a potential client with problems and questions, we were able to assess staff expertise, courtesy and composure.

Bad manners We discovered a lot of room for improvement. It did not seem to matter whether an employee had 10 weeks of experience or 10 years. Our findings ran the gamut from subtle errors in basic courtesy, including the employee's failure to identify herself, to outright flubs such as providing the caller with completely incorrect information.

In this article, we discuss additional tips for improving employee phone response. Since each incoming call is a potential new appointment, let's increase the odds in your favor. Three additional appointments, at an average transaction fee of $100, translate to an additional $15,600 of annual income, more than enough to pay for a staff training session or two.

Effective training should fulfill several objectives:

  • Pick up in less than three rings.
  • Courteous response to all incoming calls.
  • A quick grasp of the issue.
  • An efficient response, without too much technical detail, but enough to demonstrate knowledge and availability of expertise through professional staff.
  • Quick judgment about the urgency of the matter. Should the patient be seen immediately?
  • Good judgment to know when to say, "That's a good question. Let me find out for you," rather than giving incorrect information.
  • Ability to eliminate any personal biases or opinions in response to client questions, but only giving the information and facts required.
  • Minimize client wait-time on hold.
  • Be able to fill the appointment schedule during the more difficult times of day to schedule.
  • Be able to obtain a caller name and phone number as often as possible.
  • Take accurate messages for return call-back.
  • The ability to turn each potential client call into a follow-up action.
  • Scheduled call-back.
  • Additional information to be mailed.
  • Efficiently handle calls by effective management of long-winded queries for information.

Table 1. Phone Prompts
Dedicated line Obviously, the preceding list of objectives is long and only touches the surface of everything that must be accomplished in a relatively short period of time. For this reason, one of the most effective actions you can take is to find a private area for phone answerers during the busiest call-times of the day, typically from 8 to 10 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. Dedicated telephone receptionists at these peak times increase the probability of a courteous, non-hurried and focused response. Electronic appointment book scheduling capability streamlines the process even more, and almost becomes a necessity when telephone receptionists are making appointments at a remote location from the front desk.

Use every employee meeting as an opportunity for a brief five-minute refresher of good skills through role-playing exercises. Sit two employees back-to-back with one playing the hospital operator and the other employee playing the part of potential client or phone shopper. Ask employees to keep a list of phone-in questions and client contacts that occurred since the last meeting that were a challenge to handle. During these practice sessions, staff members, at all levels of experience will come up with great ideas to improve response technique and information based on real-life calls.

On occasion, the chief of staff should give input. When issues arise as to the appropriate response to a medically- or surgically-based question, the chief of staff should be the ultimate authority in deciding how that response will be made in the future.

Table 2.
Be careful of getting too technical or scientific. Oftentimes, the best response is one that acknowledges the validity of the client's question and confirms the expertise of the professional staff in dealing with the query through a formal appointment. For example, a client calls asking about Lyme disease transmission from pets to humans. Rather than launching into a detailed scientific discussion about the risks and disease vectors, a simple response can be made such as:

"Lyme disease is a problem for both pets and humans in our community. We recommend an annual physical examination which includes a discussion of risk factors for your pet and family. We have an appointment available tomorrow at 3 p.m. with Dr. S or the following week at 2 p.m. with Dr. Y. Could I set you up for one time or the other? The doctor will be glad to discuss all of your questions at that time."