Seems obvious, right?   Just answer the phone, then book the appointment.  After all, THEY called YOU.  But today’s reality is it hardly ever works that way.  Today’s patient is strapped for time, may have little understanding of how his medical insurance actually works, and is likely frustrated at the need to use it in the first place.  If one phone obstacle occurs – like a long hold time, an uninformed receptionist, or scheduling difficulty – a patient will often hang up and try the next physician on their list.  Luckily there are lots of ways to improve the telephone experience. 

Answering, Greeting, and Gathering Initial Information

  • Clearly answer the phone with a greeting, the practice name, your name and an offer to help.  Example “Hello!  This is Dr. Smith’s office.  My name is Melissa.  How can I help you today?” 
  • The next step is to listen, genuinely listen.  Give the patient time to explain why she is calling.  When the other line rings, pay attention to the person you’re actually speaking with and don’t let the other line distract you.
  • Have pen and paper on hand – take notes!  Asking the caller to constantly repeat information she has already provided is rude, irritating and probably frustrating for her.

Being Nice Matters a Whole Lot! 

  • Refer to callers as “Mr., Ms., or Mrs.” until they ask you to use their first name. 
  • Be sure to speak in the present tense.  “What IS your last name?”, not “What was your last name?”
  • If you weren’t able to write down a caller’s name and you’ve forgotten it, ask him to spell his name rather than telling them you forgot.  Callers know people don’t forget things that are important to them!
  • Use the caller’s name as much as possible.  “Thank you, Mrs. Patel”.  “May I place you on hold, Mr. Alexander?”  “We’ll see you in September, Ms. Nguyen.”  Use the word PLEASE.  “Can you please check for me?”, rather than “Can you go check?”
  • Say THANK YOU, not thanks.  And then say thank you as many times as you can!
  • Use the word MAY instead of can.  It sounds so much more polite.
  • Use positive words like sure, absolutely, my pleasure, yes ma’am, and yes sir. 

Gathering Insurance and Financial Information

  • Ask “Who is the patient?” Don’t ask “What’s the patient’s name?”  It feels more human. 
  • When gathering birthday information, ask for his (her or your) birthday, not “the patient’s DOB”. Again, much more human.
  • Be sure the person answering the phone at your office has a working understanding of how insurance claims are processed at your office.  In your office you may have a dedicated person who handles insurance claims. If this is the case, make sure the person answering the phone knows who that person is and warmly transfers those calls to that person. Extra training will have a big payoff here. 
  • Have a set protocol in place for financial questions.  The front office staff should be able to talk through general pricing, deductibles, co-insurance, etc.  If financing is an option, they should be able to explain this.  Pre-determine a person who can answer more complicated financial and insurance questions and make sure the front office staff knows who that person is.
  • In addition, have a pre-determined person who can respond to clinical questions.  Have a protocol set up to include a list of words which indicate a situation is normal, urgent, and emergency. 
  • If a caller mentions a new job (perhaps changing an appointment because of work) be sure to ask about new insurance information, and don’t forget to congratulate him on the new job!
  • Never ask a caller if his address is an apartment – but you can ask for a suite or unit number. 

Scheduling the Appointment

  • Make every possible effort to schedule the appointment when initially on the phone with the caller.  If you have to call her back, chances of scheduling are greatly reduced. 
  • Always ask the caller what date and time she is thinking about BEFORE telling her what you have available.
  • After agreeing on a date and time for the appointment, repeat it back at least once politely. “Mrs. Ryan, we look forward to seeing you on January 10 at 9:00am at our office located at 1234 Green Avenue.  Have a great day!”
  • Never tell the caller the doctor is on vacation, or out of the office.  Only say the doctor doesn’t have availability at a certain time. 

Holding and Transferring

  • Limit hold time!  The longer a caller is on hold, the more likely she is  to hang up and never call again.
  • Always be sure to have the caller’s phone number before transferring a call.
  • If a call is dropped during transfer, ALWAYS call back immediately and apologize for the error.
  • When transferring a call, be sure the caller knows who he will be talking to next.
  • Make “warm” transfers whenever possible.  Place the caller on hold,  locate the person that can best help them AND make sure that person is available to take a call right then.  Pick up the call, letting the caller know you’ve located the person who can help, provide the name, and then make the transfer. 

Implementing these phone tips and tricks is certain to make a big difference in the patient experience over the phone.  For the easy ones, implement right away.  This includes giving the caller the name of who they are being transferred to, using Mr./Ms., and using present tense.  For the ones that will take some practice, select one per day or week to implement.  These include warm transfers and using the patient’s name during the call.  They aren’t hard.  They just take a little practice to become habit.