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How to provide excellent phone service

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Contemporary OB/GYN Journal, Vol 67 No 02, Volume 67, Issue 02

Take steps to ensure a positive first and lasting impression.

Medical care is the ultimate customer service profession; however, physicians or medical systems, rather than the patient, engineer the business. Physicians and administrators often ignore one of the most critical pieces of customer service–related technology in the office—the phone.

The 2 pieces of technology that probably affect every person seen within an office are the electronic health record (EHR) and the phone. The EHR is often the biggest issue for the provider, whereas telephone and poor service are often the most prominent issue for the patient and should rank high on the list of priorities for most practices. A Press Ganey report from 2011 stated that difficulties with ease of appointment scheduling, assistance from staff, and promptness of return phone calls lead to patient frustration.1 More recently, a 2021 Press Ganey report showed that 84% of patients report that the difficulty in contacting an office is the No. 1 reason for not booking an appointment.2

Stopping the loss of 1 or 2 patients due to phone service will pay for infrastructure upgrades. Addressing the telephone system and providing exemplary service, the first impression for most patients, will allow a practice to stand out and be remarkable.

Take a test run

For starters, a physician should call their own office on the general line or have a friend or relative call and simulate making an appointment. Observe the following:

  • How many rings were there before the call was answered?
  • Was there a busy signal?
  • Are calls answered during lunch hours?
  • Is there a phone tree (automated routing service) or live call answering?
  • How long is the list of phone tree options, and how long does it take to get to the last item?
  • When a live person is reached, does the person answering provide their name?
  • Is the caller placed on hold?
  • Does the call go to voice mail? If a message is left, how long does it take for it to be returned?
  • Is there an early option in a phone tree for a hospital or referring provider?

This secret shopping technique should be used for multiple areas in a practice, such as billing and collections and front office check-in, and is an exceedingly simple means to assess phone service.

Structuring the basics

Understanding call volume is key to providing optimal phone service. Having a central phone line with multiple lines that rollover to provide relief from a volume that prevents busy signals is imperative. The proper number of phone lines can be calculated as follows3:

  • 1 to 99 calls per day: 1 main line and 2 rollover lines
  • 100 to 199 calls per day: 1 main line and 3 rollover lines
  • 1 extra rollover line for every 100 calls per day

Larger practices should invest in a private branch exchange system, which allows switching calls between office users on local lines and sharing external phone lines. They also may want to consider a phone call recording system to assess customer service and make improvements. These systems must provide adequate security, with encryption, use of robust passwords, and third-party Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act agreements.

Automated response

Creating an initial phone tree for large or busy offices might increase efficiency for the patient and office personnel, yet phone trees have a horrible reputation because of businesses that use them to reduce personnel and costs. To callers, phone trees seem impersonal and inefficient. Most offices that use a phone tree should have only 3 or 4 options: (1) referring providers, (2) scheduling, (3) billing department, and (4) other or stay on the line. Remember, the phone tree should mainly assist the caller in accessing the proper live person most quickly. The response should not transfer to a voice mail.

Creating a phone team

Members of a phone team should show enthusiasm for the practice’s mission, empathy for callers, and patience and professionalism under difficult customer service conditions. Day-to-day emotions cannot be controlled, but attitudes with phone service are entirely manageable. Personnel that use the phone often should be coached to smile when making calls. Smiling changes the tone of voice to be more friendly and empathic. Hence, the call center mantra of “smile then dial.”

A team member should answer the call in 3 or 4 rings to prevent patient-initiated hang-ups. Before placing a caller on hold, personnel should ask permission to do so. A system with call parking avoids accidental hang-ups and can be set to notify when someone is left on hold too long.

Personnel should have headsets that free users’ hands to input information into computer systems, provide a clearer voice into calls, and prevent work-related neck injury. Using call parking with a recall feature will help avoid accidental hang-ups and unintentional errors when transferring patient calls.

Offering guidance for challenging scenarios will help your team. Examples of scenarios include the following:

New patients desire

New patients desire kindness, qualified practice, and prompt appointments. The answering team should provide warmth and empathy, reflecting the practice mission, as they work toward booking the patient and collecting demographics. They should ask for
the caller’s name and number in case of disconnection.

Existing patients who are rescheduling with suboptimal reasons

Team members should understand that rescheduling can be costly to a practice as the slots become non–revenue generating. They should advise the caller of the need to adhere to a prescribed treatment plan, express the provider’s concern and investment in the patient’s care and treatment, and point out the difficulty of finding an opening in the busy schedule.

Patients who are upset

The caller’s concerns must be listened to and acknowledged without interruption. If the situation is especially problematic, the team should tell the patient the concern will be researched and called back later in the day. This allows the patient to decompress and reset while the practice thoroughly investigates concerns and make changes when possible.

Summary

The interactions between technology, staff, and service bridge how patients evaluate their care. The phone is often the most overlooked piece of technology in a practice. Improving phone service will improve patient satisfaction, avoid financial loss from patient frustration, and enhance care.

References

  1. Whaley MP. The 2011 Press Ganey pulse report: medical practices must personalize their interactions with every patient. Manage My Practice. February 7, 2012. Accessed January 6, 2022. https://managemypractice.com/the-2011-press-ganey-pulse-report-medical-practices-must-personalize-their-interactions-with-every-patient/
  2. Press Ganey. Consumer experience trends in healthcare 2021. Accessed January 6, 2022. https://www.pressganey.com/sites/default/files/2021-11/Press%20Ganey%20Consumer%20Trends%20Report%202021.pdf
  3. Peller S. Own the Phone: Proven Ways of Handling Calls, Securing Appointments, and Growing Your Healthcare Practice. American Association for Physician Leadership; 2015.