Marketing Insider: Phone etiquette

March 21, 2012

How’s your phone etiquette? Your team members can’t just answer the phone. They need to connect with the patient. Here’s how.

How’s your phone etiquette?

Your team members can’t just answer the phone. They need to connect with the patient. Here’s how.

Calling a new dentist for the first time can be, for many, an act of courage. This is especially the case when the caller is responding to, for example, a mailed invitation because then, in addition to the usual trepidation, there may be other concerns-such as ‘what’s the catch?’ An appreciation for the caller’s mindset and emotional state can go a long way preparing the Team for handling these calls appropriately.

A dental marketing consultant’s job essentially boils down to getting the phone to ring. I learned early in my career that what happens after the phone rings is every bit as important as getting it to ring in the first place. Until they find a way to actually deliver dentistry over the Internet, the telephone will continue to be the main gateway people use to learn about your practice. This means the front office team can literally make or break your marketing plan.

Show some enthusiasm

Another example of exuding enthusiasm among team members is to ask yourself how you would rather be greeted if you were to call your office.  Would you rather hear: “Dental office” or “Thank you for calling our dental office, this is Danny speaking.  How may I help you?”  While you can tell, just by the words, which is the preferable introduction, it’s how the words are spoken that really makes the difference.  

Specifically, project, enunciate and vary the tone of your speech.

In a 2007 survey commissioned by American Dental Marketing, 78% of dentists indicated their biggest dentistry marketing challenge is getting their team to properly field telephone inquiries from prospective patients (converting Web site visitors to patient appointments was second, and getting prospective patients to call at all came in third). But there are ways to improve your staff members’ phone etiquette, from changing the tone of their voice to thinking more about what they’re actually saying.

Visual gap

Professor Albert Mehrabian’s research at UCLA determined that three components comprise our communication:

  • The visual component (aka body language). The motion and expression of the face and body.

  • The vocal component. The tone, resonance and projection of the voice.

  • The verbal component. The actual words spoken.

When measured, the effect of each component on the believability of the message showed:

  • The visual component accounted for 55%

  • The vocal component contributed 38%

  • The verbal component contributed just 7%

These findings make it clear why telephone etiquette, combined with the appropriate choice of words, is essential in diminishing the telephone’s “visual gap” and enhancing the believability of the message (as well as that of the messenger).

Trigger pullers and tire kickers

In my writing and speaking about Internet-generated inquiries, I often make the distinction between trigger pullers and tire kickers. Trigger pullers are people who have already chosen to take action. Prospective patients usually fall into the category of tire kicker. Someone calling you for the first time needs to be treated differently than someone who is familiar, and comfortable, with the practice. The tire kicker likely knows nothing about you or your practice. As noted earlier, the challenge becomes even greater when the caller os responding to a special offer, because they may be even more skeptical.

In other words, a caller may ask, “How much does a crown cost?”  But what they’re thinking and feeling is: “Can I trust you?” and “Will you treat me better than my last dentist did?”  

Because today’s tire kicker is tomorrow’s trigger puller, the growth of your practice literally depends upon how carefully and professionally you treat these callers. You can, simply with the empathy, enthusiasm and technique you deliver, convey that yours is a dental practice unlike anything the caller has experienced in the past. But, for this to occur, we must be on guard against a mental trap.

Choose your
words carefully

It’s important for your team to really think about what they’re going to say when they take a patient phone call. For example, I attended a lecture where we were asked to indicate our preference between the following workshop titles…

  • Proposed Title I: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, and Dealing with Racism

  • Proposed Title II: Men and Women as Allies and Friends, and Celebrating Pluralism

Both titles promise the same thing, yet it’s obvious which is preferable. The brain hears all the words, but it also feels some of them. Some people will react negatively, perhaps without even knowing why, to the words ‘sexual’ ‘harassment’ and ‘racism’ because for them, these are emotionally charged words. So always choose your words carefully and, if a word can be misinterpreted, don’t use it.

Be careful how you label callers

The self-fulfilling prophesy trap refers to certain attitudes and beliefs that can cause what you least desire to come to pass. For example, some dental offices place a call tracking sheet near the telephone. There are boxes at the top of the sheet that the team member uses to identify the ‘kind of patient’ calling the office. One of these designations is often “Price Shopper.” If a caller asks how much a procedure costs, an X goes in the box marked ‘shopper.’ The team member understandably feels he is doing his or job by saving the practice a lot of time and aggravation by getting rid of the price shopper.

Unfortunately, neither the doctor nor team member realize that, when we label someone as undesirable, the quality of the communication changes. The call can become more of an interrogation to see if the caller is worthy of the practice than conveying to the caller the unique benefits of joining the practice. This is particularly unfortunate because, in all likelihood, the caller simply asked for the price because he did not know what else to ask.  

Make a connection

Now that we’re free of any prejudgments about who is calling us, the next step is to understand how to quickly and effectively connect with the caller. And by connect I mean convey empathy, exude enthusiasm and get the caller to agree.

To convey empathy, you must not only feel for another person; you must also let that person know how you feel. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

For example, if someone calls a dentist because his tooth hurts, would he rather hear: “What kind of insurance do you have?” or “I’m so sorry to hear you’re in pain. Can you come see us right away?”

Add some pep to your phone etiquette

The next way to connect with the caller is by exuding enthusiasm. Because we know most communication is visual, we understand the importance of making up for the loss of that visual component by emphasizing the only two components left to us on the telephone, namely, the verbal and vocal components. This means enunciating and selecting words that are clear, easy to understand and have the appropriate impact.   

I have my coaching subjects simulate a telephone conversation with their fellow teammates as observers. We then take turns evaluating each others’ performance. One of the most commonly cited observations is the caller seeming ‘flat’ during the simulation. Why? Being perceived as genuine and enthusiastic over the telephone actually requires us to exaggerate our communication a bit. Because this is unnatural, it’s also uncomfortable at first. As with most things, a little practice and positive feedback are all your team needs to exude enthusiasm over the telephone.

The questioning seat

The final key to connecting with callers is to get them to agree. This could mean agree to hear more about the practice, agree to make an appointment, agree to pay their bill on time, or any one of countless other desirable actions you want callers to take.

Perhaps the easiest way to accomplish this is to place yourself in the questioning seat. This is because whoever is asking the questions controls the call (note that, by control, I do not mean manipulate. People are best served when the expert is in control). A simple way to get and remain in the questioning seat is to answer any difficult question with another question.

For instance, if someone calls your practice and asks “How much do you charge for a crown?” You might answer, “I can help you with that. My name is [your name]. With whom am I speaking?” By that simple, but highly effective, sleight of word, you have just regained control of the conversation.

Master the art of communication

Part of succeeding in business (and life) entails being an effective communicator. Because so much communication is conducted over the telephone, those who master the art of telephone call etiquette are poised to excel.  

So, stay out of the self-fulfilling prophesy trap, exude empathy and enthusiasm, and practice your skills, and soon you and your entire team will be master telephone communicators.

Daniel Bobrow, MBA, is president of the American Dental Marketing Company, a dentistry marketing and patient communications consultancy. He is also Executive Director of Dentists’ Climb for a Cause™. Readers interested in learning more about integrated marketing and patient communication products, systems and services are invited to contact Mr. Bobrow at 312-455-9488 or DBobrow@AmericanDentalMarketing.com or visit AmericanDentalMarketing.com.