59 – Answering the Phone

Hi and welcome, or welcome back. You are listening to the Perio Hygienist Podcast, a podcast for my professional colleagues and anyone else who cares to listen. My name is Dr. Ben Young and I am a periodontist in private practice in San Antonio, Texas. This is episode 59 and the title is Answering the Phone. 

Recently, one of my employees chose to find other employment.  

This happens.  

Probably the greatest constant in life is change  

and its corollary,  

that the change will not be predictable – at least not accurately.  

We can say we know there will be turnover and the like, but when it happens can still be a surprise. 

Well, I am old enough to understand that these turnovers will occur through anyone’s career, assuming they themselves stick around long enough.  

In many ways this is an opportunity to improve the practice because now we will have fresh eyes, and even if they don’t know that much specifically about the particular practice they have been hired into, they still cause a lot of training to occur. At least this should happen. It is an opportunity for a bonding of the team to occur – assuming all the training is not delegated away – in other words – because the dentist or dentists along with dental hygienists – take on active roles. 

I expect to learn new things in the process, but more than the idea that I will learn from them, which I do hope to do, and want to be open to the possibility, the really solid opportunity comes in having to teach someone new the aspects of the practice that have been on cruise control for a long time up to now. 

Now I’m going to talk about teaching someone to answer the phone – and use this as an example of the many skills vital to every dental office. 

I am picking answering the phone for two reasons. First, it seems simple because we all do it routinely, and have done so since childhood. And Second, people are often clueless – because they have not been trained and no expectations have been placed on them – on how to answer a phone representing a business, not themselves.  

How different is this?  

To say it is crucial to the business is to understate things a lot – and the problem really is, we don’t know what we lose when calls are answered poorly.  

Do we tell the one’s we are training this? Not a good idea because it just adds pressure to an already nervous individual – and it will come across poorly in the exchanges with callers on the phone.  

The training method, must therefore be slow and checked frequently. Others at the front office should be involved in the training and support as well. So this is an excellent team training exercise.  

Here is a tip to practitioners. Long ago, in a galaxy far far away I would answer the phone at my office – when no one was around.  

I no longer do this.  

If someone needs to talk with me, my cell phone is on the message and they are welcome to call.  

If they call and my phone does not recognize the number, it will put them into voice mail.  

It is my responsibility to make sure my voicemail is not full.  

If people do not leave a message, then I will not return the call. 

Another more efficient way for a patient to contact me is to message me. That is more immediate and I respond to all messages I receive. You can do this with me, by the way, any time. My cell number is (210) 415-4077.  

There is no reason for the doctor to answer the phone in my opinion, and one of the duties of the front office is to screen my calls.  

But enough about that. Let’s talk about answering the phone. 

Assume you do not know who the person is, unless the phone number that shows up is familiar – but even if it is familiar, it is smart not to assume it is the person you expect. They might have given the phone to a family member or friend. For this reason, establish a manner of answering the phone and do not stray too far from it.  

Speak slowly and clearly.  

Also, expect the person on the other end to not have heard your name, but give it anyway.  

Why not just say hello?  

Because you are representing a business. People who just get hello can be confused as to whether or not they have dialed the correct number. Saying hello only will usually result in the other person asking if they have dialed the right number.  

“Is this Dr. Schmedlap’s office?”  

This is the wrong message to send. Not giving a good greeting to the call is implying that the caller is not important, and that we are not prepared for the call and this will imply that our practice is not well run. It might mean to the callers that people this particular office won’t see us on time or wash their hands between patients – they are free to speculate because we have not answered the phone well.  

Does this makes sense?  

If it doesn’t then perhaps you have hired the wrong person. 

Which brings up another strong recommendation. No gum chewing in the office. Things that will mess with clear speech are accentuated on the phone. 

Another reason to speak slowly and clearly when answering the phone has to do with the unknown age of the individual on the other end of the line.  

Being a shy person is not an excuse when answering the phone. Practice answering pretend phone calls until you are comfortable with the procedure. 

When someone in the front is answering the phone, all other voices around them should lower. Answering the phone is more important than others discussing what they did on the weekend.  

“Hello, This is Dr. Bucky Schmedlap’s office, Ben speaking. How may I help you?” 

[go over this with different voices and tones] 

That’s the greeting. 

What’s next? 

The answer is not answering questions.  

It’s asking them, beginning with the correct name and spelling. Everyone should have pen a paper minimally in front of them when answering phones in order to take notes. Supervisors should be able to see this happening.  

Also get the call back number.  

Then – even if they have already told you the reasons for their call, you repeat their reason in your own words.  

If you find this is not a patient calling but marketing, then end the call politely and quickly. This podcast is not about handling those kinds of calls.  

Keep in mind, success is not whether or not patients schedule, but whether or not the right patients schedule and feel good for having done so.  

In addition, it is success if whoever was on the other end of the line, at least felt respected and honestly helped. Every time we are of service to people, whether or not they appoint, we are promoting the practice. This individual on the phone may not need our services but they might think of us for others in their lives who might.  

The bottom line is that phone skills are critical and actually just an extension of the friendly personality we need if we are to serve patients well.  

Who is the most important person in the office? Not the doctor or any employee. It’s the patient – each and every one. Even the ones you may not care for – how you treat them is watched by other people.  

Let’s stop here for now. I hope I have given you some ideas, and what is most important, is that you incorporate what you like into your own methods. Answering the phone, seating patients, taking vitals, all the things dental assistants do when we are not in the room as still and extension of how people see us as the care providers. 

Furthermore, if we are not genuinely kind – as demonstrated by how we treat other members of the team, then moral slumps and patients begin to pick up bad vibes.  

High turnover offices have a tough time for many reasons, and if the turnover is high because the people at the top think others are their to serve them, rather than the other way around, it will likely not improve – and ironically people we pay to work for us will likely be the last to tell us.  

So do your best to be authentically kind to everyone around you – and if this is difficult because you have fears and frustrations, then you need to talk to close advisors away from the office. Your success in dentistry or dental hygiene may depend on it. But more importantly as far as I am concerned, your general happiness and contentment are too valuable to be lost in the practice of dentistry and dental hygiene. These are stressful occupations, no doubt, but they can be managed if we practitioners are at least honest with ourselves and look at whether or not those around us are happy or fearful in our presence.  

That’s it for today, except to remind you and me that we are very fortunate to have the opportunities we do to serve and treat patients. We dreamed about being able to do this for years, and now we can. How cool is that?  

You have been listening to the Perio Hygienist Podcast and I am still Dr. Ben Young. Thanks for listening. Bye for now.  

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