Hone your phone skills
Whether you answer the phone twice a day or twice a minute, these tips will help you handle a range of calls with finesse and keep conflict with clients to a minimum.
On a tough day, that phone sitting on the corner of your desk with its cord coiled may look like a snake about to strike. Then it rings. You take a deep breath. Then you smile, lift the phone from its cradle, and say, "Thank you for calling ABC Animal Clinic. This is Amy. How may I help you?"
A phone call is typically a client's first contact with the veterinary practice, so you bear the brunt of making that critical first impression a great one. And you carry the weight of establishing goodwill and fueling strong client relationships. That's a big responsibility! But with the right training, you'll be able to handle the trickiest phone calls with confidence.
First things first
Likely you're past this point, but the ideal situation is to get an orientation that covers your hospital's mission, policies, and procedures before you ever pick up the phone. In fact, some practices offer up to a week of one-on-one training before a new team member works at the reception desk. It's also a good idea to review the training manual with an experienced co-worker.
Scripting for success
Ideally, you'll train under a mentor who knows the practice protocols inside and out and can answer your questions. "Whether your practice offers formal training or not, look for a role model to emulate," suggests Sharon DeNayer, a Firstline Editorial Advisory Board member and the practice manager at Windsor Veterinary Clinic in Windsor, Colo. "This approach will give you the best perspective on what your employer expects," she says.
As you move out of the initial training period, your mentor provides a security blanket by reinforcing the information you learned during orientation. Your mentor can also give you background information about clients' and pets' preferences and their histories with the practice. Plus, he or she should be able to give practice owners an objective ongoing assessment of your skills.
If your practice doesn't offer a training program, talk to your supervisor about implementing one, DeNayer says. And be prepared to explain the benefits of the program.
Tackling the basics
Ready to answer the phone? First, remember that you need to be organized, project warmth, and use a pleasant voice. Work to correct any potentially annoying speech habits, such as constantly repeating "ya know" or "like."
Second, recognize that clients deserve to be treated as if their call is the most important of the day. To help achieve this, smile before answering each line. Don't believe this makes a difference? Try smiling while saying a simple phrase or greeting. Your tone is altered thanks to the use of your facial muscles. In other words, people can hear the smile in your voice. And a pleasant greeting makes for a much nicer first, or even 90th, impression.
It also helps to rehearse a standardized greeting. For example, when you answer the phone, you should thank the caller for calling, identify yourself and the practice, and ask how you can help the caller. When everyone in the office answers the phone the same way, you establish continuity. Never give a harried greeting, and learn to sound pleasant even if you secretly feel annoyed. The key is to make it clear that you're pleased to hear from clients.
The next step: Be a good listener. "As you talk with the caller, visualize him or her. Speak with the person, not at the phone. Listen politely to what the other person is saying. Don't interrupt," suggest Patsy J. Fulton, Ph.D., and Joanna D. Hanks in their book Procedures for the Office Professional (South-Western Educational Publishing, 1999).
Virtually every caller wants some kind of help, so be prepared to respond to problems or requests quickly and with sincerity, empathy, honesty, and respect. If you don't, you'll likely hear about it from clients—or your boss. Make sure to track any negative client feedback and address any problems to avoid future complaints.
Close the call by thanking the client for calling—no matter what. In other words, it doesn't matter whether the caller was nice or irate.
Scripting for success
One way to polish your phone conversations is to use a phone script. Scripts standardize your responses to common questions, which can reduce miscommunication. And this approach can help fill any knowledge gaps. For example, you may not know all the particulars about your vaccination protocols, but a simple script can provide the information on demand. Carefully written scripts also can help you find the right words to convince a client to make an appointment or try a new product.
What are the disadvantages? To ensure consistency, you'll need a script for every situation—from the cost of spaying a ferret to euthanizing the family pet. And if you feel you must stick strictly to the script, there's little room for flexibility, and you risk alienating the client by delaying the answer to a question.
"Scripts can be useful tools," says DeNayer. "However, I find that staff members feel most comfortable when they're using their own words."
If you have an automated phone system with voice mail, that also could be a useful tool. A phone system can cut the total number of calls you answer and empower clients by allowing them to leave a message with the veterinarian. It also helps prevent lost messages.
On the downside, you could frustrate clients if it's too hard to get through to a live person. Doctors may get buried calling back clients you could've helped. And clients who call may feel that your practice seems more impersonal.
In the end, you and your manager must decide which systems and scripted exchanges—if any—work for your practice. As you discuss the issue, think about your clientele. Do they prefer a more professional demeanor, or is everyone on a first-name basis? What kind of image does your practice owner want to present to your community? Work with your manager to tailor your phone skills so they match the practice's image, as this first impression needs to meld seamlessly with the rest of a client's experience.
Regardless of what degree of formality you choose, the right preparation should take the fear out of phone calls. And when you're armed with solid phone skills you'll become an even stronger player in your practice's growth.
Hold off on the hold button
No client wants to be placed on hold-but sometimes you have no choice. Use this advice from salary.com to perfect your hold etiquette. When you must place clients on hold, ask their permission first. If they answer yes, say thank you and place them on hold. If the answer is no, explain why you need a moment to prepare for the call. For example, "I'll be able to help you better if I can pull Fluffy's chart."
Got the munchies?
Career-intelligence.com suggests waiting for your break to chow down-even if it's just a stick of gum. Just imagine how you would feel if you called your doctor'ss office and heard the receptionist crunching, smacking, or slurping on the other end of the line.
Lori Roke Stine is a freelance writer based in Lehighton, Pa. Please send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.