Telephone tips: Meeting client expectations


Dr. Marsha L. Heinke offers a lesson in phone etiquette to ensure your staff doesn't shut the door on clients even before they walk in.

In the June 2003 edition of DVM Newsmagazine ("Revenues Down? It's Not the Economy, Doctor!"), we disclosed the surprising findings of our clandestine client calls to veterinary practices, in response to concerns of falling revenues and transactions.

Since that time, we have gum-shoed many more practices to discover how employees are responding to incoming telephone calls. We wanted to know if veterinary hospitals are losing clients before they even see them. By anonymously calling the practice as a potential client with problems and questions, we were able to assess staff expertise, courtesy and composure.

Bad manners

We discovered a lot of room for improvement. It did not seem to matter whether an employee had 10 weeks of experience or 10 years. Our findings ran the gamut from subtle errors in basic courtesy, including the employee's failure to identify herself, to outright flubs such as providing the caller with completely incorrect information.

In this article, we discuss additional tips for improving employee phone response. Since each incoming call is a potential new appointment, let's increase the odds in your favor. Three additional appointments, at an average transaction fee of $100, translate to an additional $15,600 of annual income, more than enough to pay for a staff training session or two.

Effective training should fulfill several objectives:

  • Pick up in less than three rings.

  • Courteous response to all incoming calls.

  • A quick grasp of the issue.

  • An efficient response, without too much technical detail, but enough to demonstrate knowledge and availability of expertise through professional staff.

  • Quick judgment about the urgency of the matter. Should the patient be seen immediately?

  • Good judgment to know when to say, "That's a good question. Let me find out for you," rather than giving incorrect information.

  • Ability to eliminate any personal biases or opinions in response to client questions, but only giving the information and facts required.

  • Minimize client wait-time on hold.

  • Be able to fill the appointment schedule during the more difficult times of day to schedule.

  • Be able to obtain a caller name and phone number as often as possible.

  • Take accurate messages for return call-back.

  • The ability to turn each potential client call into a follow-up action.

  • Scheduled call-back.

  • Additional information to be mailed.

  • Efficiently handle calls by effective management of long-winded queries for information.

Dedicated line

Obviously, the preceding list of objectives is long and only touches the surface of everything that must be accomplished in a relatively short period of time. For this reason, one of the most effective actions you can take is to find a private area for phone answerers during the busiest call-times of the day, typically from 8 to 10 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. Dedicated telephone receptionists at these peak times increase the probability of a courteous, non-hurried and focused response. Electronic appointment book scheduling capability streamlines the process even more, and almost becomes a necessity when telephone receptionists are making appointments at a remote location from the front desk.

Table 1. Phone Prompts

Use every employee meeting as an opportunity for a brief five-minute refresher of good skills through role-playing exercises. Sit two employees back-to-back with one playing the hospital operator and the other employee playing the part of potential client or phone shopper. Ask employees to keep a list of phone-in questions and client contacts that occurred since the last meeting that were a challenge to handle. During these practice sessions, staff members, at all levels of experience will come up with great ideas to improve response technique and information based on real-life calls.

On occasion, the chief of staff should give input. When issues arise as to the appropriate response to a medically- or surgically-based question, the chief of staff should be the ultimate authority in deciding how that response will be made in the future.

Be careful of getting too technical or scientific. Oftentimes, the best response is one that acknowledges the validity of the client's question and confirms the expertise of the professional staff in dealing with the query through a formal appointment. For example, a client calls asking about Lyme disease transmission from pets to humans. Rather than launching into a detailed scientific discussion about the risks and disease vectors, a simple response can be made such as:

Table 2.

"Lyme disease is a problem for both pets and humans in our community. We recommend an annual physical examination which includes a discussion of risk factors for your pet and family. We have an appointment available tomorrow at 3 p.m. with Dr. S or the following week at 2 p.m. with Dr. Y. Could I set you up for one time or the other? The doctor will be glad to discuss all of your questions at that time."

Perhaps your hospital maintains an up-to-date and comprehensive Web site with peer reviewed scientific information, such as that which can be gained through a subscription with Novartis-sponsored VetSuite. Enhance your hospital's image and professional expertise with phrases such as:

"Great. We have you scheduled for an appointment at 2 p.m. tomorrow. Are you familiar with our location? Good. If you would like additional information before your appointment tomorrow, you can find an article on Lyme disease on our Web site."

Friendly reminder

Everyone needs a reminder from time to time of how to make courteous responses to incoming calls. Accompanying this article, we have included two bullet-pointed cue cards that can be posted at each phone station in your veterinary practice where incoming calls will be answered. Please modify these to suit your practice needs (Tables 1 and 2, p. 28).

Every employee should carry a small pad of paper and pen in a smock pocket. Such a good habit results in improved communication and follow-through. In veterinary practices, many backup phone answerers are ambulatory, dealing with patient treatment, post-surgery callbacks, animal prep or appointment hours.

Make it a habit to keep pen and paper right where you can easily jot down any information the client gives you. A starting point is to jot down the caller's name as soon as he or she gives it to you. Particularly with existing clients who announce who they are at the initiation of the call, it is important to be able to close the call with a personalized response such as: "We look forward to seeing Buckwheat tomorrow at 5 p.m., Ms. Schmidt."

Especially with the volume of interruptions that occur in a busy veterinary practice, the habit of jotting down brief notes at the point of telephone call-ins will reduce the probability of lost information, appointments not logged into the schedule when the appointment book is not close at hand, or an essential doctor callback to an important client.

No matter how efficient your phone answering skills, from time to time, you will need to put a client on hold. Invest in phone systems that cue you when an individual has been on hold longer than 30 or 45 seconds.

If you note that you cannot easily get back to a caller on hold, ask whether you can take a phone number and give a call back: "I have a client on the other line right now. Rather than making you wait, may I call you back as soon as I am finished?" Or give the client an option: "I will need to leave you on hold for several minutes while I find that information. Would you like to hold or would you rather I call you back?"

When returning to a client on hold, apologize for the wait and reintroduce yourself to the caller:

"I am sorry to make you wait. This is Lisa. How may I help you?" By giving your name, you may be able to reduce the probability of a caller being irate about the length of time on hold, or when calling with a complaint.

One last piece of advice on the hold button use: In a veterinary hospital setting, it is possible that the caller perceives a pet emergency problem. Do not immediately put callers on hold without politely asking whether an emergency exists. Even if the hold time is five seconds, it will seem an eternity to the panicked caller. Use a phrase such as:

"Do you have an emergency situation, or may I place you on hold for a moment?"

Many good training videos, manuals and seminars are available to improve your hospital's staff phone-answering skills. Try the AAHA Bookstore catalog, as a good starting point for a library of resource materials. The soft-bound book available from the American Veterinary Medical Association, Telephone Courtesy, is an excellent resource, with good role playing exercises outlined.

Most of all, keep a sharp ear tuned to what you hear when you call your own practice. Assess the phone-answering skills on an ongoing basis by asking your drug vendors, accountant and other partners in practice to alert you if any problems are noted when they call your hospital.

Suggested Reading.

Since 1990, Dr. Marsha L. Heinke, DVM, EA, CPA, CVPM, DABFA has served as a consultant and accountant with the firm of Owen E. McCafferty, CPA, Inc. This year she founded Marsha L. Heinke, CPA, Inc. and can be reached at (440) 926-3800 or via e-mail at

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