Speak with Confidence in Client Conversations

Phone manners are important for every member of the team.

When I dialed a clinic to follow up on a training inquiry, the receptionist answered “ABC Veterinary Hospital. Can you hold?” I replied, “Sure.”

While I was on hold for seven minutes, a radio station played AC/DC’s “Shook Me All Night Long.” Although I’m a fan, it’s wildly inappropriate on-hold music for a health-care business. Whether I was a favorite client calling about a sick pet or a phone shopper interested in becoming a client, how I was put on hold was a put-off.

Employees’ ability to speak with confidence affects perception of value and client retention and recruitment. The client-service team is your practice’s most valuable business asset, so train employees to project confidence during every conversation. Here’s how.

Answer the phone with a smile. Often, greetings are said so quickly that it’s hard for the caller to understand the name of the business or employee. Even though receptionists repeat the greeting hundreds of times each day, it creates a first impression with callers every time.

Let callers hear the smile in your voice and eagerness to help. Slow down and enunciate your words rather than sounding like you’ve just finished a triple espresso.

An effective phone greeting includes a salutation, business name, employee’s name, and an invitation for service. “Thank you for calling <Your Veterinary Hospital>. This is <Your Name>. How may I help you?”

Ask permission before placing callers on hold. On average, 70 percent of business calls are placed on hold, so your veterinary clients will inevitably experience hold-time.1 How you do it shapes callers’ perception of your business. Always ask for permission and WAIT for the answer.

Say, “Thank you for calling <Your Veterinary Hospital>. This is <Your Name>. Is this a medical emergency, or are you able to hold?” A caller with a medical emergency will need immediate assistance.

A client requesting a prescription refill should be able to briefly hold. If it will take several minutes to pull a chart or consult with a veterinarian, ask the caller if she prefers to hold or would appreciate a returned call. Say, “It will take me a few minutes to ask the doctor about Sophie’s prescription refill. Would you prefer to hold, or can I call you back within 15 minutes so you won’t have to hold? Which is the best number to reach you?”

Let’s say a client is standing at the front desk with her credit card and your phone rings. You need to make the client and caller feel equally important. Tell the client, “Will you please excuse me for a moment so I can place this caller on hold and then keep helping you?” Answer the phone, “Thank you for calling <Your Veterinary Hospital>. This is <Your Name>. Is this a medical emergency, or are you able to hold while I finish checking out another client?” The word “finish” tells the caller to expect a brief hold.

You’re on the phone with a client and another phone line rings. Ask the current caller, “Are you able to hold for a moment while I put another caller on hold so I can keep helping you?” Then answer the second line, “Thank you for calling <Your Veterinary Hospital>. This is <Your Name>. Is this a medical emergency, or are you able to hold? I am finishing helping another caller, and then I’ll be right with you.”

Have a message on hold—not dead air or music. Among businesses of all sizes, the average time a caller waited on hold was 56 seconds, according to an Ifbyphone Benchmarking Analysis. Small businesses, such as veterinary hospitals, have the longest hold times at 1 minute and 47 seconds.2

Hold-time is an opportunity to educate callers about your veterinary services, products and preventive care. Your on-hold message should include a call to action that tells callers what to do with the information they’ve just learned.

For example, explain the importance of regular preventive care exams for dogs and cats, and then suggest going to your website where callers can watch a video of your veterinarian giving a play-by-play description while performing a physical exam. Partner with an on-hold company with veterinary expertise to create your customized message.

Politely wrap up conversations with chatty clients. Some pet owners go into detailed descriptions of their pets’ symptoms when scheduling exams. Others see you as a friend and simply want to chat. Find a balance that lets you be efficient while also making clients feel they have the attention of a best friend.

Talk times across businesses of all sizes averaged 4 minutes and 29 seconds in the Ifbyphone Benchmarking Analysis.2 At Communication Solutions for Veterinarians, we teach veterinary teams that an efficient scheduling phone call should take 2 to 2½ minutes, while a phone shopper call averages 5 to 7 minutes including booking the appointment.

To graciously wrap up a lengthy conversation, listen for the caller to complete a thought and say, “Mrs. Smith, we look forward to seeing you and Princess for your appointment on Friday. Let me repeat the two problems she’s having so I can note that for the doctor and finish booking your appointment.” The word “finish” subtly tells the caller your conversation is complete.

If she continues to ramble, use the broken-record technique and repeat, “Mrs. Smith, it was great talking with you. We’ll see you and Princess Friday at 2 p.m. for her exam. I have another client I need to help now, but it was great hearing from you. Goodbye.”

Keep sensitive conversations private. Remember that phones in the lobby are in public areas. Waiting clients will overhear every conversation. If you need to talk with an upset caller, go to a private place such as a manager or doctor’s office. Ask the caller, “Are you able to hold while I move to another phone where you can have my complete attention and we can find a solution together?”

The caller likely overhears barking dogs, ringing phones and the traffic in your lobby so she will appreciate your focus on her concerns. The word “solution” tells her you will fix the problem.

Likewise, keep your personal conversations confidential. During an on-site consultation, I witnessed a receptionist yelling at her kids while on the phone at the front desk. Clients might have negative reactions based on overheard conversations.

Never give medical advice over the phone. A veterinarian needs to examine the patient and determine what specific care is needed. Say, “If your dog is limping, you should seek care now. Our veterinarian will examine your dog to determine if the cause is an injury or illness. Then our doctor can let you know what treatment your dog needs. We also will provide you with a written treatment plan before providing care. Let me give you directions on how to get here.”

Explain the cost of care.  A worried pet owner calls your clinic on Monday morning because her cat has been vomiting and had diarrhea all weekend. She asks about the cost of care. Because you don’t know the cause of the cat’s illness, quote the exam fee. Say, “Let me explain what you can expect for an emergency/urgent care exam. The doctor will do a full medical exam, ask you questions about your pet’s symptoms and then let you know what specific treatment your pet will need. Then you can make a decision on how you want to proceed. Our emergency/urgent care exam fee is $____. Once the doctor has examined your pet, we can provide you with a written treatment plan that describes the needed services and fees.”

Beyond the front desk, communication skills are equally important for every team member.

Cross-training can let assistants and technicians deliver exceptional service when they occasionally have to cover the front desk. Doctors also can benefit from improved phone skills, leading by example and setting expectations for how the team should represent their business. For a free 30-minute webinar on phone skills, visit www.csvets.com/training/webinars.html.

Next issue: How to be an effective communicator in the exam room.

Wendy S. Myers owns Communication Solutions for Veterinarians and is a partner in Animal Hospital Specialty Center, a 10-doctor AAHA-accredited referral practice in Highlands Ranch, Colo. She helps teams improve compliance and client service through consulting, seminars and webinars. You can reach her at wmyers@csvets.com or www.csvets.com.

1. The Business Startup Guide To Custom On Hold Messages, posted 10-16-13. Accessed 12-17-13 at https://easyonhold.com/blog/the-business-startup-guide-to-custom-on-hold-messages/.
2. Cole, O. The 56 Second Hold Time Bogey—Average Customer Wait Times: An Ifbyphone Benchmarking Analysis (Part 2), August 5, 2103. Accessed 12-17-13 at http://public.ifbyphone.com/blog/the-56-second-hold-time-bogey-average-customer-wait-times-an-ifbyphone-benchmarking-analysis-part-2/.

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