Things every dental practice receptionist needs to know: Sometimes it’s okay to break the rules

Every new patient starts out as a stranger. So we need to set aside the rule our parents taught us: it is okay – even wise – to talk to strangers.

How are new callers to your practice treated? Do they receive a warm, welcoming greeting and patient, empathetic service… or are they put on hold and made to feel as though they’re interrupting someone’s too-busy day?

Because we rarely get a second chance to make a first impression, our front line staff must be equipped, trained and coached to be a one-person welcoming committee. Consider these techniques:

1. Put a Smile in your Voice
One of our consultants told me that many years ago, as Supervisor of a Hotline Centre with a major insurance company, she had this little slogan affixed to every telephone handset. Corny as it may sound, a caller can tell when you are smiling. Good advice does not go out of style.

2. Perfect the Art of Listening
I frequently quote this line from the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: “Constantly talking isn’t necessarily communicating”. Listening carefully to your callers’ introductory words will guide the conversation and help you set a positive tone from the outset.

3. You’ve Got Mail!
An email should be treated like a phone call: respond immediately! Train your staff to consider incoming patient and prospect email as urgent. “Parking” for later action is a bad habit. Instead, surprise an emailer with immediate conversation. Q and A Volleyball is another bad habit. Offer your earliest appointment with your first response: “We could see you as early as Tuesday at 10:00 am. Could that work for you?”

4. Be Prepared with a Front Line FAQ
Good service providers are definitely friendly. As important, though, is knowledge and the ability to accurately answer Frequently Asked Questions. A caller’s first question is usually the deal breaker: How soon can you see me? Are you good with children? Can you direct-bill my insurance company? What’s the earliest/latest appointment possible?

Beyond the first questions, staff should be able to recognize common symptoms, ask relevant questions to fully understand the client’s issue, confidently explain basic procedures, describe your services, and discuss insurance details.

5. Aim to Book an Appointment On the Spot
Like the old saying goes… Strike while the iron is hot! Your goal should be to get an appointment scheduled. Offering an appointment date that falls within 5 days increases the chance of getting the caller to join your practice.

Then, make the data collection process foolproof by creating and using a checklist: name, address and phone number; email address including permission to use it; reason for call/services of interest; preferred appointment times. (Better yet, take advantage of the new patient booking feature built into ABELDent!)

It is good practice to have a back-up available to manage callers if reception is busy with patients. Always ask permission to put someone on hold and then check back quickly. If the caller cannot be immediately served, promise to call back and do so as soon as possible. Sitting on hold or waiting through transfers can feel like forever to a caller and lead to a hang-up.

Some people may advise that you ask the prospect how they found you. That is definitely good information to have, as it helps you measure and refine your marketing efforts. But do remember that this detail is for your benefit, not theirs. Respect that the caller’s time may be limited; you can always probe later.

When an appointment is scheduled, close the call by telling the caller that “the team is looking forward to meeting you”.

6. Keep Track of your Callers
If the caller is not ready to schedule right away, by offering an appointment you have opened the door to ask for their contact information and permission to stay in touch.

Maintain a database of these prospects. Converting your strangers into patients may require a few calls or emails, maybe even a heads-up when you are offering any specials to your patient base. We all need reminders – some more than others.

The key is to drive home the importance of genuinely welcoming callers, showing interest, offering an immediate appointment and building relationships. I can still hear the words of a wise supervisor from early in my career: “A ringing telephone is not interrupting your work. It is your work.”

Don’t be a stranger.

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