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Urgent message: After an urgent care center spends thousands of dollars on marketing and advertising to raise awareness, it should be fully prepared to “welcome” patients whose first interaction with the practice is often by telephone.

Alan A. Ayers, MBA, MAcc is Chief Executive Officer of Velocity Urgent Care and is Practice Management Editor of The Journal of Urgent Care Medicine.

As a volume-driven practice model, urgent care must utilize a number of expensive marketing modalities to remain top of mind when medical needs arise, and capture patients ready to utilize urgent care. These modalities can include signage, billboards, radio adverts, flyers, brochures, and online ads, all geared toward raising awareness of the center and fostering patient acquisition.

And while centers hardly think twice about spending marketing dollars on these more obvious tactics, they often overlook a simple, powerful, yet necessary tool for closing the deal: the telephone. More specifically, the first call a potential patient—who may or may not have been exposed to your marketing messages—places into your center.

Indeed, according to the widely read Baird Group white paper aptly titled The Power of the First Call, medical practices with a poor telephone presence are actively deterring patients long before they ever step foot through the front door. The white paper documents a years-long analysis of mystery shoppers calling in to medical practices to gauge the practices’ telephone presence, with findings that were definitely eye-opening: roughly 35% of first-time callers will refuse to patronize a practice based on a low-quality phone interaction.

When you consider what an urgent care typically spends on patient acquisition only to lose a third of potential customers over the phone, it brings into sharp focus just how frequently a center that neglects this area is leaving dollars on the table.

Root Causes of Poor Phone Presence
In short, the first call is often the initial live customer interaction with the brand. And in a matter of seconds, that first call not only sets the tone of the encounter, but plays an outsized role in determining whether a caller eventually presents as a patient, or bypasses the center in favor of a competitor. So why are so many centers failing to make a positive impression on a third of patients during the first call?

Research points to a lack of consistent phone standards, poor training, and an overburdened front desk function. The center’s front desk phone attendees represent the first live encounter with potential patients. This is where, even during a brief interaction, callers begin forming opinions about the center. For many centers, things become problematic here due to front desk staffers being among the lowest paid team members, as well as receiving little to no training on how to consistently execute a high-quality phone interaction. Additionally, the front desk staff is usually wearing multiple hats, such as fielding calls while greeting and checking patients in and out. So, their attention is already divided among competing tasks well before the phone rings. To compound the problem, the high rate of turnover among front desk staff means there’s little continuity at the position, creating an ongoing cycle of new entry-level team members that have to learn the appropriate phone standards.

Phone Interaction Best Practices
Patients call an urgent care center because they want to be seen. Yet 35% of those patients never show up because they were turned off during the phone call. So how can the center turn things around, and create a phone culture that leaves a positive impression? The Baird Group study outlines several phone interaction best practices your center can follow to start delighting your potential patients during phone calls:

  • Answer on the first or second ring. Letting the phone get to the third ring and beyond sends the impression that the center is understaffed. Going to voicemail or a call queue has a similar negative effect. An unanswered ringing phone also irritates patrons in the waiting area. Hence, have your entire staff chip in here to catch all calls within the first two rings.
  • Nail the greeting. Callers respond favorably to phone attendants who announce the name of the center, state their name, and ask how they may be of assistance. Additionally, callers can sense when the phone attendant is caring and sincere, which further strengthens the positive impression.
  • Provide accurate information. When a phone attendant confidently and accurately answers questions, callers responded favorably. Ensure that your phone attendants know the most frequently asked questions, and have answers at the ready.
  • Project calm, patient tonality. Even if it belies the clinical environment surrounding them, coach your phone attendants to project a calm, nonharried tone at all times. Also instruct them to speak slowly and clearly, and to listen without interrupting—another factor that is shown to leave a strong positive impression on callers.
  • Summarize the call. When it’s time to conclude the call, summarize the caller’s request and ask if they require additional assistance. This demonstrates that the phone attendant was listening, and valued the caller’s time.
  • Monitor calls for coaching and training. Leaders should either listen to live or play back recorded calls at regular intervals, and provide constructive coaching when warranted. Only by consistently reinforcing an exemplary phone culture will the rest of the team get on board and follow suit.

As the Baird study demonstrated, many centers have an untapped trove of additional patients they can capture by simply delighting them during their phone encounters. As such, courting phone callers must begin with an understanding of what types of encounters either attract or repel, and the reasons why. Then, by training your staff how to execute a winning phone interaction by instilling an exemplary phone culture, your center can begin to win over phone patients it had previously lost.

The Power of the First Call: Building Command Telephone Presence

Alan A. Ayers, MBA, MAcc

President of Experity Consulting and is Practice Management Editor of The Journal of Urgent Care Medicine