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    How phone skills can make or break your practice

    The perils —and power—of the telephone handoff.


    Why your staff fails at phone-to-human handoffs

    Everyone knows how to use a phone, and you train every new team member on the idiosyncrasies of your personal system, so why do they keep failing? Like an airplane pilot who suddenly has to take the controls, the problem has to do with the problem of applying that training in a high stress situation.

    Answering the phone is a lot like driving a car. Beginning drivers tend to get into a lot of fender benders because they don’t have the muscle memory to control the machine. In unfamiliar situations, they have to think through every single action, and the more choices they have to make, the more likely they are to mess up.

    Experienced drivers are less likely to get into accidents under normal circumstances, but throw some ice, an illness, sleep deprivation or even just yelling at the kids in the backseat into the mix, and suddenly they can’t function. Stressful situations are hard even on experts. And how many of your team members have spent as much time answering the phone as they have behind the wheel?  All it takes is a perfect storm of noise, busyness and a patient standing in front of them, and the person on the phone gets lost in the shuffle. It’s an expensive problem. If the average value of a new patient is $1,000 in the first year, a busy 15 minutes where three calls get dropped is like losing half to a whole day of production for many general dentists. Talk about catastrophically failed handoffs.

    So, what’s the anatomy of a failure? In general, it begins when a team member is surprised by a call, either because they’re dealing with another patient, or because someone else hasn’t answered yet and so someone unfamiliar with phone calls is answering the call. Because they’re not ready for a handoff, they’re startled. They don’t have a mental plan for the call. They either let the patient steer the conversation off course, or they decide to put the person on hold (resulting in either a dropped call or a hang-up) or send them to voicemail (another hang-up). If the team member is especially unprepared or over-busy, they won’t answer the call at all.

    You won’t know about these failures for a while, if you ever find out. But if you can admit that given enough stress, even an experienced team member can screw up a call, you can put training and feedback processes in place to help minimize future disasters.

    Related reading: Top 10 strategies to enhance the power of your practice phone

    Getting a handle on handoffs

    When the researchers from Edinburgh analyzed the Air France disaster, they came up with some ideas on how to avoid future crashes. While pilots receive extensive, and continuous training, they don’t get a lot of supervised practice flying planes under the sorts of circumstances where unexpected handoffs from technology are expected to occur. So, pilots need more time spent trying to keep the plane flying at high altitudes, since most of their normal experience involves takeoffs and landings.

    Likewise, your staff needs to practice dealing with phone calls at high stress times. One thing you could do is conduct an office-wide simulation. When the practice is open, have team members call into several lines at once while another talks at the desk like a chatty exiting patient. Have your front office team practice answering the phone and booking an appointment under these conditions. Give immediate feedback on how they did. You can do the same during a busy day at the office, by having your office manager observe phone behavior in high pressure situations and give immediate feedback.

    It might also help to track when your busiest times of day are. Then, if you use a service like Call Tracker ROI, when you get your monthly report you can see who is having the most trouble at crunch times, and schedule them for extra practice and observation time. The more someone learns to answer calls and book patients in these high stress times, the more they’ll develop the ‘muscle memory’ they need to navigate difficult phone situations under pressure.

    Phones are essential to our business. We can’t live without them, and an office that can’t answer phone calls and book patients won’t survive for long. Pay attention to the moment of the handoff, where a human takes over from technology. If your team can learn to master handoffs, you’re well on the way to a growing, thriving practice.


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