Advertising, costly training programs, direct mailers and websites loaded with glowing patient testimonials and unparalleled services are helpful to illustrate patient confidence and highlight the expected experience at a practice, yet all those tools overlook the most important and effective tool in the office: the phone.
Yes, the phone.
Most practices have enough leads coming in and among their patient base, but the office simply isn’t executing when it comes to handling phone calls.
According to my company’s data, an average of 67 percent of patient calls to a dental office never reach someone who can help. Additionally, half of all inbound calls are appointment opportunities, yet only 1 in 5 new patient callers ever reaches a live person. This upsetting and costly statistic is incredibly avoidable.
Here are four steps that front offices should employ on every patient call.
Step 1: Make a connection
The key is to get callers quickly connected within 30 seconds of initiating the call. Important: Connected doesn’t mean office manager Julie picking up the phone and announcing, “This is Julie with 123 Dental, can I place you on a brief hold?” then abandoning the caller in a phone-tree black hole. Connected doesn’t mean receptionist Amanda transferring the caller to the intended party before checking if that person is even available to take the call. And connected doesn’t mean sending the mother of a precious 5-year-old child—who’s screaming in the background because of a severe toothache —to voicemail.
Connected means ensuring every caller speaks with someone who can help with his or her needs. The quicker a patient is connected, the less likely he or she will call a different practice.
Step 2: Offer immediate help
Realistically, most front offices will not be fully equipped to efficiently handle every single patient call every time the phone rings. At times, phones will ring off the hooks, the front desk will be understaffed, patients will be waiting past their scheduled appointment time, and there will always be at least one ongoing emergency. That’s just the daily office atmosphere—chaotic and buzzing with distractions and pressing items. It’s easy for a front office to feel overwhelmed and let phone calls fall to the back burner. It’s easy to forget that at the other end of the phone’s constant ringing is also a live, actual person … and a potential patient.
All hope is not lost, though. If the phone handler finds herself unable to connect a patient to his or her intended party—let’s say the dental assistant who administered the patient’s X-ray the previous day—there’s one simple question that seems to do the trick 99.99 percent of the time:
“I’m sorry, but she’s out at lunch at the moment. However, is there anything I can help you with? Can I look into this for you so you don’t have to wait until she returns?”
The patient should be serviced right then and there on the call. More than likely, the question has an easy answer and the caller’s concerns can be quickly resolved. If possible, don’t make the individual have to call back.
Moreover, when the phone handler doesn’t know the answer, or the caller needs further clarification, offer to take a live message. Have him or her assure the caller the message will reach whom it’s intended for. The only time a caller should be sent to voicemail is at the caller’s request.
Executing all of the above builds respect and rapport with your patient base.
Step 3: Shepherd the caller in
If a patient is discussing or asking appointment-related questions on the call, the front office should book the appointment! Have them extend the invitation for the caller to come into the practice and meet with a doctor. According to our company research, 90 percent of the time, the patient will say yes and book an appointment.
A common reason for not committing to an appointment is because the caller is unsure of what he or she needs. Receptionists should explain that your team will make each patient feel as comfortable as possible during the visit with open dialogue—assuring you’ll provide your best recommendations for the services the patient needs.
Once the patient agrees to visit for an appointment, the “whittle-and-shepherd” technique should be executed. This technique entails phone handlers offering the caller two different appointment dates and times:
“OK, Ben, thanks for that information. We have some availability for your cleaning on Wednesday or Thursday this week. When works better for you: morning or afternoon? Afternoon works better for you? Would you prefer 2:15 or 3:45?”
Patients are more likely to set firm, booked appointments through the whittle-and-shepherd technique. It also proves they’re more likely to show up for the appointment. Shepherding and securing the potential patient to set a firm appointment typically means the caller will feel more confident in you and your practice’s offerings.
Additionally, it shows the team respects the time the patient is sacrificing to visit the practice. In return, the patient will likely show mutual appreciation.
Step 4: Set expectations early on
Dentists work on teeth all day long, but patients sure as heck don’t have their teeth worked on every day. Tens of millions of Americans admit they have anxiety surrounding visiting the dentist. It can be a scary experience for a variety of reasons. Don’t lose touch with that reality! The team should subside hesitations by communicating the expectations to the patient over the phone, including the who, what and when before arriving to the office.
Phone handlers should:
• Tell patients the office location with recognizable nearby landmarks and the intersection, as well as the building’s appearance.
• Tell patients the best and easiest place to park.
• Let patients know the expected wait time.
• Explain which documents and materials are necessary for the appointment and what paperwork to expect.
These four steps will help increase your patients’ respect and confidence in the practice, and the number of booked appointments. Give patients a top-notch experience every time they call in. Because they are calling.