Curing Front Desk Syndrome


Six prescriptions to keep receptionists from feeling isolated.

Front Desk Syndrome is a phenomenon experienced by receptionists everywhere, whether they work in a veterinary practice, financial services company, or real-estate office. The symptoms: isolation and a general feeling that you're out of the loop.

Sometimes working "in the front" can feel like banishment to a far away and forgotten land. It's easy to feel out of touch with the everyday business of the practice—not to mention the social relationships that build among co-workers. In short, greeting clients and answering phones can be a lonely job.

And an isolated reception staff isn't good for anyone—the receptionist or the rest of the practice team. There's often no one more important to the practice's image and clients' satisfaction than the front-desk staff members. A receptionist is typically the first person a client talks to, and the last person a client sees as he or she leaves the practice.

If a receptionist is feeling cranky, depressed, lonely, or sullen, her attitude impacts clients' view of the whole practice. On the other hand, a happy, well-informed, able-to-answer-questions-and-help-clients-with-anything-they-need receptionist makes everyone look good.

Think your practice suffers from Front Desk Syndrome? Try these six proven prescriptions to help find a cure.

Prescription #1: One dose of attitude evaluation

One way to tell whether your practice has a case of Front Desk Syndrome is to notice the language your team uses. Do terms such as "in the back" and "in the front" pop up in your common daily jargon? When your technician tells a client to make an appointment does she say, "Talk to Lucy at the front," or "Talk to Lucy at the reception desk?"

Yes, the differences are subtle. But this terminology can indicate a barrier between the reception team and the rest of the staff.

A one-day dose: Try not referring to things or people as being "in the front" or "in the back" for one full day. Is it tough for your team?

Prescription #2: One dose interior design

The way the practice is arranged can also promote a "we work up here; they work back there" mentality. Does your practice have physical barriers between the receptionist desk and other areas? How does this configuration affect communication? If a firecracker were to go off in the back, would your front-desk staff members even notice? If not, how are they supposed to know when things start to fall behind?

"Often there are walls or doors, even entire hallways, between the treatment areas and the waiting room," says Pamela Stevenson, a consultant with Veterinary Results Management Inc. in Durham, N.C., "In fact, newer hospital designs tend to address this issue by developing more circular traffic flow patterns, with more open spaces."

Odds are, you can't rebuild your entire building to cure Front Desk Syndrome. But you can still look for simple ways to break down those architectural and design barriers. For example, consider re-arranging furniture or leaving hallway doors open to keep your service and technical teams in closer touch.

Prescription #3: Several doses cross-training, administered liberally

Another guaranteed cure for Front Desk Syndrome is to do away with the idea that certain people do certain jobs. Cross-training isn't just a great way to ensure you don't miss a beat if someone's out sick—it's a way to guarantee that everyone is knowledgeable about the inner workings of the practice and that no one gets exiled at the reception desk with no relief.

"Cross-training helps me answer questions better," says Jessica Janowski, a receptionist and patient care coordinator with Merrimack Veterinary Hospital in Merrimack, N.H. "My reception work makes me a better technician, and my technician work makes me a better receptionist."

At Merrimack, computer terminals in exam rooms let anyone check out clients or set up a follow-up appointment. This team effort to serve clients breaks down barriers and helps the entire practice run more smoothly, Janowski says.

For this prescription to work, however, the "everyone does everything" philosophy must become part of the practice culture, Stevenson says. One way to set the right expectation: When interviewing for a new receptionist, she suggests telling them they'll likely do more than answer phones and greet clients so you know whether they'll be a good fit for a broader job. "A lot of people want to work in a veterinary office because they want to be around animals, but that doesn't mean they actually want to touch the pets," she says.

After the new receptionist is hired, set aside the first 30 to 90 days as a special training time, and build in the cross-training, too, Stevenson advises. "The most successful practices train and cross-train employees before they work any hours in their department," she says. And while this may seem like an eternity when you're short-staffed, Stevenson says the short-term pain is worth the benefits of having a trained, competent, and confident staff member. Another benefit: You'll weed out ill-suited new hires sooner rather than later.

Is cross-training not part of your team's approach now? Talk about the potential benefits at your next team meeting. Or take a more informal approach; maybe you could make it a personal goal to learn one new skill that's outside of your normal job duties each month. Then you'll be more prepared to pitch in and help out when the opportunity arises.

Avoid adverse reactions: If Mrs. Smith, the practices' receptionist for the past 30 years, does a great job and has an allergy to cross-training, look for another treatment. You don't want to mess with success.

Prescription #4: One dose creative training, administered periodically

Of course, you can't do initial training and then figure you're good to go forever. You need to continue to grow to feel satisfied and to keep raising the bar. There are always new procedures to learn about, skills to update and refresh, or new equipment or medications to learn. And ideally, your team can find ways to make ongoing training interesting and interactive.

For example, says Stevenson, to refresh everyone's knowledge of equipment, hold an "equipment fair." Ask each team member to man a station where he or she learns about a particular item and then teaches his or her colleagues about it. A receptionist, for example, might be given a microscope, and then she'd teach her co-workers to make slides. A technician might be given the phone system, and she would explain how to transfer calls, put calls on hold, or use the public address system.

You could also hold game-show-style staff meetings, dividing everyone into teams to answer questions about the practice or about medical information. Interactive training builds rapport between team members, and the team approach helps make sure no one feels alone when the tough question comes.

Prescription #5: Make communication social and fun

While important and serious information must be conveyed at staff meetings, take time for fun, too. "Once a week we close the doors for a mandatory meeting," says Mary Banker, office administrator and receptionist at Sedgefield Animal Hospital in Greensboro, N.C. "Everyone brings a lunch, and we take the time to learn and visit with each other."

Twice a year the practice also shuts its doors so staff members can attend a retreat at the Banker home. (Banker's husband is the practice owner.) They cook out, socialize, and hear guest speakers, including the practice's business coach. "We're like a family, and that helps keep people from feeling so isolated," says Banker. "No one minds pitching in and helping out a friend."

Prescription #6: Smile often and reach out

Even if your hospital has built Fort Knox around the reception desk and doesn't believe in cross-training, take the initiative to be friendly and social. Your practice may suffer from Front Desk Syndrome, but you likely don't need a policy change or a management guru for a remedy.

Don't just sit and shyly eat lunch by yourself because you don't feel like part of the crowd. Get involved. Take breaks with your co-workers. Show interest in their jobs. Ask about what they do. Offer to help out now and then. Bring in treats. Show an interest in the people you spend your days with, even if they're all business.

Most important—smile! "The more you smile the more approachable you seem and that makes it easier for people to talk to you, get to know you, or ask you a question," says Janowski. "A smile and a friendly attitude go a long way when it comes to improving communication."

Take weight

The receptionist is the first person a client talks to and the last person a client sees before leaving. And the impression made in those moments affects clients' perception of the entire practice and the care your team provides.

Heather Kirkwood is a freelance writer in Overland Park, Kan. Send comments to:

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