Most practices would love to definitively say they are highly skilled at turning first-time telephone inquiries into new patient appointments. How satisfying would it be for a practice to confidently say it turns 60-70-80-90 percent of such calls into revenue-producing patients? While some practices obviously are better than others at getting prospective patients to commit to an appointment over the telephone, even top-notch practices would probably admit to letting far too many telephone first-contacts slip away.
Practices that convert a good percentage of first-time callers into patients likely invest a significant amount of time and resources into properly training staff to master the components required to identify and meet the needs of first-time callers and get them to request that elusive initial appointment. It is essential that practices know if their staff is being properly trained in conversion techniques and components and is effectively executing that training “live” on the phone.
Since 2009, BSM Consulting and Allergan have conducted a telephone mystery shopping program for practices across the country (see the May/June issue of Modern Aesthetics® for more on this program). As of the end of October 2013, the program's comprehensive database includes nearly 1,350 “shopped” practices and more than 7,550 completed surveys. One of the primary goals of the mystery shopping program is to determine how effective practices are at converting firsttime callers into patients. So, how are these practices doing? Unfortunately, nearly 45 percent of callers (surveyors) indicate that they would not have made an appointment with the practice to which the call was placed. That's not good news.
WINNING CALL COMPONENTS
In assessing the components of a winning call, the data show that staff members still struggle to execute on several conversion basics. This article explains the importance of these components, reveals how practices are doing in each area, and provides suggestions to help staff members improve.
Create a good first impression. A prompt, personal response to a telephone inquiry puts the practice in immediate good favor with potential customers. Therefore, a better first impression is possible when the phone is answered within one to two rings and is answered live versus an automated system. Fortunately, the mystery-shopping database reports that 85 percent of practices answer the phone within the first two rings. Unfortunately, however, 20 percent of practices still use an automated system. To be competitive and take full advantage of the opportunity to create a positive first impression, be sure staff members answer the phone live within the first two rings.
Establish rapport. The process of establishing rapport with inquiring callers is essential to conversion and begins when staff members ask who they are speaking to. This allows the nature of the interaction to shift from a question-and-answer session to more of a conversation. While it may seem customary that a practice would have all of its team members answer the phone with the practice name and the staff member's name, the database indicates that only 73 percent of practices answer with a proper greeting. Furthermore, in the book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” Dale Carnegie suggests that one of the six ways to make people like you is to “Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” Despite this observation made nearly 80 years ago, less than 20 percent of staff actually took the time to ask callers their name and repeat it back at least once at some point during the conversation. By taking a genuine interest in the caller, the staff member differentiates the practice.
Engage the caller. Successful engagement of the caller allows staff members to gather more information about patients and better understand their needs and desired outcome. Most patients ask about price at the onset of the call because they don't know what else to ask. Therefore, it's important for staff to always answer a question with a question in order to engage the potential patient and understand his or her needs. When a caller asks, “How much do you charge for ____?” staff should ask a question before responding to the patient's question. For example, asking “Have you had the treatment/procedure before?” or, “What area were you considering?” helps in gathering more information so that the employee can better serve the caller.
Offer Credentials. In today's competitive environment, it is important that patients understand why they should make their decision based on more than just a low price. Each practice needs to carefully consider its value proposition and understand why and how it is different from competitors. One of the resounding themes from the surveys is that there is a lack of “credentialing” of the providers and/or practice. Basically, staff members continue to miss the opportunity to articulate the “why”—why a patient should choose their practice over another. Script two to three talking points that staff members can routinely convey to patients to help them understand why they should choose the practice. Examples include the provider's years of experience, the staff member's own personal experience with a certain treatment/procedure, or relaying a general sense of patient satisfaction. Whatever credentialing occurs, the goal is to demonstrate confidence in the provider and ensure patients that they are in “good hands.”
Educate. An acceptable assumption of a prospective caller is that the practice representative on the phone be able to answer basic questions about a procedure/treatment. Unfortunately, the database suggests that this is not always the case. While the expectation is not that a lay staff member be able to diagnosis or make recommendations over the telephone, staff members should have a basic understanding of all practice treatments and procedures and be able to respond to general, frequently asked questions. That said, the statistics suggest that staff members often cannot thoroughly answer general questions. Callers often received one word answers to their questions rather than a thorough explanation.
For example, when prospective callers asked what was involved with a specific treatment or procedure, the staff in the database scored a 2.75 on a 5-point scale in relation to how well the question was answered. When responding to the possibility of side effects, the responses were scored at just over 2.5 out of 5. When staff members responded to the immediacy of results, they scored 2.5 out of 5. When asked about cost, responses were rated a 2.75 out of a 5.
There is still an opportunity for staff members to more proactively educate prospective patients and take the time to answer basic questions about procedures/treatments.
Master the Art of Closing the Deal. Surprisingly, a significant number of staff never invited potential patients to make an appointment with the practice. Once the patient stops asking questions, the call promptly ends and the prospective patient is lost. While it cannot be assumed that all patients are ready to make an appointment, it is critically important that staff members not lose the potential opportunity to “close” the caller at some point in the future. If an attempt to schedule the appointment is declined by the caller, the staff member should respect the decision-making process of the potential patient and add, “We understand this is a big decision. I would love to add you to our email list so you can receive future communications from our office regarding special events and promotions. May I get your email address?” Capturing the caller's email ensures that the practice's name continues to be top of mind when the patient is ready to make a future appointment.
Based on areas of opportunity identified in the mystery shopping data, the suggestions in this article can serve as a compass for providing staff members with the training, skills, and knowledge they need to master the art (and science) of leading telephone conversations that result in a sustainable increase in new-patient appointments. When heeded, these tips will give the telephone team the confidence to perform at the top of its game and, ultimately, help the practice build and sustain a conversion rate worth boasting about.
Launa Hankins is a management consultant with the Allergan Practice Consulting Group of Allergan, Inc., a specialty pharmaceutical company based in Irvine, CA. Ms. Hankins consults with dermatology and plastic surgery practices in areas of financial analysis, practice valuations, human resource issues, internal and external marketing, leadership training and team building, and more.