|Nancy Kent is president of Mindshare Creative, Santa Ana, Calif, and a consultant for CareCredit. She is the former president of Primelife, a marketing agency that specialized in creating uniquely effective marketing and training programs for companies with products or services targeting consumers age 40 and older.|
Tips for front office personnel
Mastering exceptional telephone skills requires commitment, thought, and training. And, as we learned in the first of this three-part series,1 it also requires having an understanding of what it costs to make the phone ring and the value of each and every caller. In this article, we will discuss how to answer the phone, the three key rules, and how to utilize active listening skills to turn more phone inquiries into excited, scheduled patients.
Before you even answer the phone, as a team you need to know:
- Who is your caller?
- Why would they be calling?
- What is your solution?
- What are the benefits of your solution?
It’s important that your entire team has the same answers to these questions and that you are consistent in the way you talk to prospective patients.
Let’s start by understanding who is calling—the prospective patient; the patient’s “third party,” which is typically the spouse; caregiver (or adult child); or an existing patient. If the caller is the one experiencing hearing loss, they may be fearful, resistant, and possibly even angry if they are calling at the insistence of a loved one. If the caller is the loved one or third party, they may be hesitant, fearful, and frustrated. Understanding both their physical and emotional needs will help your team better serve them when they initially call the practice.
The next thing to understand is why they are calling. We know they don’t want to buy a hearing instrument. They don’t want to have a consultation. They don’t want to spend $2,000 to $5,000. But they do want someone to help them solve a problem. For your team to do so, they have to understand what the problem is.
And it may be surprising to learn that hearing loss is not the problem they are calling to solve; it is the “cause” of the problem. The real problem is how that hearing loss is affecting their lives and relationships. It may be social isolation, fear of job loss, or the frustration of not being able to connect with grandchildren because conversations are too difficult. Before your team can even begin to solve the problem, they must use their communication skills to uncover the real issues.
Finally, your team must be able to clearly and consistently communicate the benefits of the solution you provide—which is enabling patients to hear the best they can, with or without the assistance of amplification.
The benefits are unbelievable because on a daily basis you significantly impact the quality of patients’ lives.
The Three Key Rules of Answering the Phone
#1 Answer each phone call by the second ring using a three-part greeting. When you answer the phone within two rings, it shows you are respectful of the caller’s time; it communicates that the call is important and your practice will respond quickly to their needs. Then, when you pick up the call, use the three-part greeting to set a positive tone for the conversation.
“Good morning, XYZ Hearing. This is Jane. How can I help you?”
Let’s break it down. The first part confirms the caller has reached the number they intended to dial. The second part begins forming a personal relationship. The third part communicates that your practice is ready—and able—to help them with their problem.
#2 Never immediately put a caller on hold without asking permission. In a busy practice, your team might be handling several lines, which may require you to place a call on hold. Always ask permission and give the caller a time frame of when they can expect you to return to the line. Research has shown that after only 17 seconds the caller will begin to get irritated. You might also want to give them the choice of having you call them back or being placed on hold.
Proven Tips and Techniques
#3 Always give your best “performance.” Even if it’s the 20th time you’ve answered the phone that morning, it is the first time that the patient has called. Be as helpful, courteous, and polite with the last caller as you are with the first.
Effective communication happens when the person listening not only hears, but also correctly interprets and understands, what the speaker is saying. So, after you’ve answered the phone, the next step is to effectively listen to the caller. Remember, listening is not hearing. As a hearing care professional, you know that hearing is the ability of the ear and brain to process sound waves into meaningful information. Listening is far more involved, requiring that you not only hear the words, but also listen for the message.
There are four types of listening styles: passive, competitive, distracted, and active.
- Passive listening is when we are interested in what the other person has to say, but we assume what we have heard, never asking questions or confirming what we believe the message to be. This type of listening style leads to misunderstandings.
- Competitive listening is used when we are more interested in our own thoughts and how we are going to respond than we are in what the other person is saying. When we use this listening style, we tend to miss a significant portion of the real “message” because we are distracted by our own desire to talk.
- Distracted listening is often found in a busy practice where we have the best intentions and want to listen, but there is too much going on in our environment or in our own minds that we are not concentrating on the other person. The problem with this style is that the other person can often figure out that we are not “engaged” and will become offended or frustrated.
- Active listening is the type of listening that leads to effective telephone skills and communication. With active listening, we are interested and we actively “confirm” the message before we react to it. Here is an example of how active listening sounds:
Office Staff (OS): “Good morning, XYZ Hearing. This is Pam. How can I help you?”
Caller: “Yes … good morning. My husband needs hearing aids and we were told the cost is $2,500, which is a lot of money for us to pay …”
OS: “May I ask who is calling, please?”
Caller: “Yes, this is Betty. My husband, Arnie, and I were in last week …”
OS: “Yes, I remember. It’s nice to talk with you again. Let me understand, are you concerned about the cost or are you concerned with how you are going to pay for the hearing aids Dr Jones recommended?”
Caller: “Well, Dr Jones explained why the hearing aids cost $2,500, and we do want Arnie to be able to hear in social situations. But we don’t think we can pay $2,500 all at once.”
OS: “I understand. Paying $2,500 in one large payment is difficult for many of our patients. That’s why Dr Jones offers CareCredit payment solutions—to help our patients get the best hearing health they can. Can I tell you a bit more about them?”
Without active listening skills, the team member may have assumed that the caller wanted cheaper hearing aids, which may have led the practice to offering a lower-priced, less effective hearing instrument. Instead, using active listening skills, the team member was able to identify the real “problem” and provide an appropriate solution.
There are four things you must do to actively listen to the caller. You must:
- Absorb the information being said. That means that you have to give the speaker 100% of your attention. And you cannot assume you know what they are trying to tell you.
- Show them you’re an active listener. Let the caller know you are listening by using small phrases such as “I see,” “yes,” or “I understand.”
- Ask clarifying questions. You cannot use your own personal filters or barriers to interpret what people are saying. The best way to clarify is using open-ended questions, which cannot be answered by “yes” or “no.” Open-ended questions typically start with “how,” “what,” “where,” “who,” and “which.” The other way to ask clarifying questions is to use the reflective technique, which means that you reflect back on to the speaker what you perceived their content and feelings to be. The formula is:
You feel (state feeling) because (state content)?
- Rephrase or restate what you heard, or the “message.” You can do this by using phrases such as “Let me see if I’m clear about what you’re saying …” or “What I’m hearing is …”
Using active listening skills makes the caller feel important and understood, which can significantly influence their decision on whether to schedule an appointment. In the final article in this three-part series, we will learn how to answer patients’ questions on cost and how to use the VIP Technique to turn callers into appointments.
- Kent N. Telephone skills 101: making a great first impression that results in more consultations. Hearing Review. 2008;15(9):16-18.
Correspondence can be addressed to HR at [email protected] or Nancy Kent at .