The secret answers to better telephone skills

January 30, 2013
Jill Nesbitt
Issue 7

All your marketing dollars go to waste if your secretary isn’t well-trained to handle new patient phone calls. You may invest thousands in direct mail, website upgrades or tens of thousands in television commercials because you need new patients.

All your marketing dollars go to waste if your secretary isn’t well-trained to handle new patient phone calls. You may invest thousands in direct mail, website upgrades or tens of thousands in television commercials because you need new patients.

But all this time and money is a complete waste if your phone rings 10 times before it’s answered or the new patient is put on hold for several minutes. People assume that the customer service they receive on the phone is indicative of the quality of care of the dentist.

If you’re the dentist, spending your day at the chair, without the time to hang out at the front desk and listen to how they handle phone calls, how are you supposed to make sure new patient calls are handled properly? Here are a few ideas:

Provide training to new hire secretaries

Update your secretaries on new/existing treatment you offer

Listen in

Provide Training to New Hires

There are two sides to telephone training. The first is simply how to use the telephone professionally. The second is providing specific instructions on how you practice dentistry so your staff can answer questions correctly.

To learn how to use the telephone professionally, there are many resources. Katherine Eitel of Lioness Learning offers a nice package and I’ve seen some telephone training through the AADOM Fellowship program as well. You’re looking for something your staff can listen to that includes phrases to use (and those to avoid) as well as guidelines on placing callers on hold.

The second part of telephone training is writing down the most common questions that patients ask over the phone and then writing down the answers you want your secretary to give.

For example, new patients will call and ask, “Do you take my insurance?” If you’re a member of the caller’s insurance plan, that’s an easy question to answer. But, what if you aren’t a member? You certainly don’t want your secretary to answer, “No” and then listen as the new patient hangs up the phone! You want to write down a script (that eventually becomes second nature) to answer something like “Dr. Smith is out of network for Guardian insurance. However, you are welcome to come here with Guardian because we will submit your insurance for you – the only difference is that you may end up with some out of pocket expense. Would you like to schedule a visit?”

Dentists, you can delegate this project to your office manager. Simply ask her to write down the questions she gets asked over the telephone for one week. Then, ask her to also write down her answers. Next, she should turn this page into you so you can check to see if you want any changes.

Update Your Secretaries on New and Existing Treatment You Offer

Have you added or changed the treatment you offer in the last five years? Perhaps you’re confidently providing implants now or you’re starting to offer sleep apnea devices or your hygienists recently completed certificates to provide anesthetic? Did you think to sit down with your secretary team and let them know? The more you keep your secretaries informed of new procedures you’re offering, the better he or she can answer patient questions and schedule new appointments.

Meet with your secretary team and review all the procedures you’re offering in the practice every year. During this discussion, talk about any new treatment you can provide. Share with your team why you’re excited to offer this new procedure, how it helps patients and teach them some basics. Encourage the team to ask questions and understand what age or demographics of patients might be interested and help them to formulate answers to patient questions.

In a group, you might want to give each dentist this opportunity to meet with the secretary team. For example, if you have an oral surgeon that comes into your practice one day per week, schedule a lunch and a chance for your team to discuss procedures with the specialist. This specialist can share all the new procedures he or she has to offer and the secretary can more easily fill his or her schedule as well.

Listen In

You may be asking, “How am I supposed to listen in on the secretary’s calls when I’m working at the chair?” The answer is to record the calls. Most Yellow Pages directories automatically offer a service to record all phone calls if you place an ad in their book. I understand yellow pages marketing is on the way out, but if you still have even one book that works for you, then you can add this feature at no extra charge.

Personally, I use Yodle for both PPC and call recording – I’ll share more about them in a later article.

The way this works is that your patients will hear a pre-recorded message when they call your office. It may say something like, “This call may be recorded for quality purposes.” This message plays before your secretary picks up the phone. The secretary handles the call as usual. Then, you can log into the yellow pages website and see a list of all the incoming phone calls on that phone line. You can see the phone number used, the exact time of the call and often, a physical address. Most importantly, you can also click a play button beside each phone call to listen to the conversation.

My system is to listen to these calls at the end of each month. I like to make a few notes on the calls:

  • Compliments – This is a great opportunity to give specific praise to my secretaries. I praise in a staff meeting so everyone can hear me say what phrase I liked and congratulate staff on successfully scheduling new patients.

  • Corrections – Close, but not quite right. I do these in the staff meeting as well – I figure if one secretary has something wrong, others might also. This gives me the opportunity to make sure I’ve given the team accurate information.

  • Coaching – This is for big errors. Years ago, when my dentists were doing their first dental implants, I listened to a new patient phone call that needed serious coaching. The potential patient called and said she was interested in dental implants and wanted to compare her options between implants and dentures. Answering the patients very direct questions, my secretary shared a ballpark cost for dentures – and when the patient asked about the cost for implants, my very helpful team member said, “Well, an implant costs about $2500 and if you have 28 teeth, then that would be (tap, tap on her calculator) about $70,000.” Click!

If I had not listened in on these calls, I would never have known that my staff didn’t understand how implants worked with dentures. In this case, I always talk with the secretary privately to listen to the call together and then talk it through. In this case, my secretary had a great personality and we both agreed that this was a great opportunity to coach the entire team. I knew if she didn’t understand, most likely, no one else did, either. We still laugh about this staff meeting to this day!

Another major benefit to listening to these calls is to find out how long patients are being left on hold. In a busy practice, what can seem like just a few seconds to the secretary is in reality several minutes for the patient. I remember another time, again years ago (of course, we’re all perfect now), when I listened to a phone call when my secretary put a patient on hold. And left the patient there for minutes. Listening to the silence, I was furious! This was absolutely terrible customer service!

So, to make the point, I added ‘telephone coaching’ into our next secretary team meeting and started out the meeting with a very casual manner, “Just wanted to go through a little coaching on the phone with you all today. Let’s start by listening to this call.” And we all listened to a secretary say, “Thanks for calling Dr. Smith’s office, may I place you on hold for a minute?” And the patient say, “Sure!” And then we all sat in silence for seconds, then a minute, then another minute. After awhile, the secretaries were staring at each other uncomfortably, realizing my point without my having to say a word.

Before you invest in your next marketing program, why not work with your secretary team on their telephone skills? You may find that by spending time coaching your team or investing in call recording that every marketing venture provides a stronger return – thanks to your team’s telephone skills.

About the Author

Jill Nesbitt is a dental consultant and practicing office manager for a multi-specialty private dental group. Nesbitt has managed the practice for 14 years, has state-level quality training, and  coaches dental teams to improve the business-side of their practices.