The #1 reason in business customers stop doing business with a particular company is because of an attitude of indifference by employees. Imagine, then, how influential that first contact with a potential patient can be. A less than positive first impression might cause a patient not to schedule an initial consultation with your vein practice and instead call one of your competitors.
Does the receptionist or appointment scheduler who answers your phones exude a positive attitude? If they don’t, service-oriented patients may choose to have their vein treatments performed elsewhere. Make sure that all staff who answer phones in your practice …
- Put a smile in their voices. Research has shown that smiling projects a more positive and enthusiastic tone into the speaking voice. The caller will have a much more pleasant experience if your receptionist and/or appointment scheduler staff seems upbeat and helpful on the phone or in person.
- Have your staff introduce themselves and use the patient’s name in conversation. Names go a long way in personalizing the conversation.
- Provide callers with a choice of consultation times. Experienced appointment schedulers offer new patients a choice when scheduling an initial consultation. For example, “You could come in at 10:30 a.m. or 2:30 p.m.; which is best for you?” This demonstrates your practice’s customer service orientation.
- Explain the purpose of the consultation. Assure the caller that the consultation does not obligate the patient to schedule a procedure. Explain that the consultation is an opportunity for the patient to determine if he or she feels comfortable with the physician and his or her recommendations for treatment of their varicose / spider veins.
- Be prepared to discuss fees. The receptionist or appointment scheduler should rehearse appropriate responses to fee inquiries so that she explains the policy in an understandable way. If your policy is to provide callers with a range of fees, make sure the receptionist has the list. If your policy precludes quoting fees, provide staff with a standard response to fee questions.
- Offer to send information to all prospective patients. Volunteering to send patient information materials or directing them to your web site, prior to the consultation, will demonstrate your commitment to patient education. It also allows staff to obtain the prospective patient’s address for your files and mailing list. Even prospective patients who do not schedule an appointment should be offered information. These people may call back at a later date to make an appointment or share the materials with friends and family members who are also interested in vein treatments.
- Gather key data from each caller. Every caller should be asked for his/her demographic information and about how he/she was referred to the practice. Regardless of whether or not the caller decides to schedule the appointment, the information can be entered into your practice database for future mailings, and to track how many callers turn into patients, and/or schedule procedures.
Handling Difficult Patients
You may not be aware of what is happening outside of your exam room when you are in a consultation or treatment, but while you’re focused on patient care, there may be drama unfolding within your office. Every day, receptionists and other staff demonstrate that it takes a talented person to effectively work at the front desk in a busy vein practice. The best and most experienced can sometimes get rattled, and it’s easy to see why. They are the front line of the office and often must deal with difficult patients.
Extreme examples of difficult patients are those who threaten staff, make inappropriate comments, or upset your other patients. In thinking about how to respond to challenging patients, keep in mind that few patients visiting a medical office are operating at 100 percent. When people are sick or in pain, small irritations, which might not otherwise faze them, are enough to trigger rude behavior.
One of the most common patient complaints is about waiting time. Obviously, practices should do all they can to maintain an efficient schedule. If the doctor is more than 15-20 minutes behind schedule, a staff member should notify the next patient(s) so waiting patients know what to expect. Give them the option to run an errand, go have a cup of coffee or reschedule their visit for another day. It’s not a good idea to leave patients sitting, waiting and wondering what’s happening.
When patients have a complaint, hear them out. An upset patient will more easily calm down if they believe someone is listening to them. I recommend getting an upset patient out of the reception area whenever possible. Try to avoid talking to an angry patient in the waiting room or at the front desk.
Train Staff Properly
Giving employees the authority to solve problems is fundamental to providing superior service. An annoyed patient’s feelings can escalate to full-blown anger when the patient has a problem for which no one has a solution. Staff should be able to say things like “I’ll check into this and call you this afternoon with a resolution” or “I’ll have this fixed by the time you leave.”
Staff members need to feel competent and confident to handle challenging situations, and this is where good training comes into play. Reinforce to your staff that your practice is providing a product — even though it’s health care — and that patients deserve respect. Other training options may include a short course in mediation skills, role-playing to show how to address an upset patient in a non-defensive way and instruction about what to do in a genuinely volatile situation.
Where do practices find employees who have the intuitive ability and diplomacy to manage difficult patients? Can these skills be learned? Possibly, but it’s easier to hire for these qualities from the beginning. Effectively handling demanding patients requires setting boundaries around what is and is not acceptable. This takes finesse and tact. Having the right demeanor for front-desk work is every bit as important as being able to operate the scheduling software. Practices should keep this in mind when interviewing for these positions.
Every practice may have a few patients who are downright abusive. At some point, it’s key to consider whether it’s worth it to continue seeing a patient who has such a negative impact on the office. It may be helpful to have a conversation with a disruptive patient to explain how his or her conduct is hurtful to staff. Otherwise, a formal discharge letter may be in order.
I would suggest that physicians periodically ask front-desk staff how they are doing and how they are managing the stress of the position. This type of conversation lets your staff know that you are interested in their well-being, that you appreciate the skill and grace required for the job, and that they are not alone at the front end of the office.
Every day, receptionists and other front-desk staff demonstrate that it takes a talented person to effectively work at the front desk in a busy vein practice. There are several methods to help ease frustrations and keep the front desk from becoming a problem and distraction to your practice.
- Staff should avoid becoming the target of a patient’s frustration. Eye contact, honest admissions about possible delays, detailed information and pleasant comments to end all encounters can help put the patient at ease.
- Waiting time is one of the most common complaints from patients. Staff should let patients know what to expect and give them the option to run errands or reschedule their visits for another day.
- Staff should be given the authority to solve problems. Staff need to feel confident and competent to handle difficult and challenging situations.
- Some patients are just too hard to handle. Consider whether these patients are worth the negative impact on the office.
- Physicians should take an active interest in the happenings of the front desk and let the staff know they are not alone at the front end of the office.
David Schmiege is the president and CEO of Vein Specialists of America Ltd., a practice management consulting and advisory firm. Please direct any questions you may have for Schmiege to 630-789-3636 or e-mail him at [email protected].