Originally published in 2010
Notwithstanding the advent of the Internet, your telephone continues to be the main gateway to your practice. If you are investing in strategies to get new patients to call your office, remembering what happens after the telephone rings is just as important as getting it to ring in the first place. In other words, how calls are handled can literally make or break your marketing efforts.
In a survey we conducted in 2007, 78% of respondents cited getting their team to properly field telephone inquiries from prospective patients as their biggest marketing challenge. (Converting website visitors to patient appointments was second, and getting prospective patients to call at all came in third.)
Professor Albert Mehrabian’s research while at UCLA determined that three components comprise our communication. These three components are:
• The visual component: the motion and expression of the face and body
• The vocal component: the tone, resonance, and projection of the voice
• The verbal component: t-h-e a-c-t-u-a-l w-o-r-d-s s-p-o-k-e-n
When measured, the effect of each component on the believability of the message (and the messenger) showed that:
• The visual component accounted for 55%
• The vocal component contributed 38%
• The verbal component contributed just 7%
These findings make it abundantly clear why telephone etiquette, or effective use of the vocal component, combined with the appropriate choice of words, is essential in diminishing the telephone’s “visual gap” and enhancing the believability of the message.
In my writing and speaking about Internet-generated inquiries, I often make the distinction between caterpillars and butterflies. Butterflies are people who have already decided on a course of action. Caterpillars, on the other hand, are people who have not yet chosen a course of action. Usually, this is because they are still in the information-gathering phase of their decision process. We make the distinction to underscore that someone who is calling you for the first time needs to be treated differently than someone who is familiar and comfortable with your practice. A first-time caller may literally know nothing about you or your practice. The challenge may be even greater when the caller is responding to a special offer and may be wondering: “What’s the catch?”
In other words, when they call, they might be asking: “How much does a crown cost?” But what they’re thinking and feeling is: “Can I trust you?” and “Will you treat me better than my last dentist did?” Because today’s caterpillar is tomorrow’s butterfly, the growth of your practice literally depends upon how carefully and professionally you treat them. You can (simply with empathy, enthusiasm, and technique), convey that yours is a dental practice unlike any the caller has experienced in the past.
But, for this to occur, you must be on guard against a mental trap.
When Talking To Yourself, Watch Your Language
The self-fulfilling prophecy trap refers to certain attitudes and beliefs that can cause what you least desire to come to pass. For instance, sometimes people assume that a caller asking about a special offer is somehow of low quality, (sometimes even labeled “price shopper” on the call tracking sheet). Team
Members may actually feel they are doing the practice a service by getting rid of the price shopper.
Unfortunately, whenever we label someone as undesirable, the quality of the communication changes for the worse. The call can become more of an interrogation to see if the caller is worthy of the practice than a conveyance of the unique benefits of joining the practice. This is particularly unfortunate because, in all likelihood, the caller simply asked for the price because they did not know what else to ask. To better identify with the caller’s mindset, try this. The next time you decide to buy something for the first time, see if the first question that pops into your head is not “How much should I pay for it?” Does this mean you’re somehow an undesirable prospect? I think not.
To Connect: Impress ALL
Now that we’re free of any prejudgments about who is calling, the next step is to understand how to quickly and effectively connect with the caller. And by “connect” I mean convey empathy, exude enthusiasm, and get the caller to agree. To convey empathy, you must not only feel for another person, you must also let them know you feel for them because people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. For example, if someone calls with a toothache, would they rather hear, “What kind of insurance do you have?” or “I’m so sorry to hear you’re in pain. Can you come see us right away?”
The next way to Connect with the Caller is by exuding enthusiasm. Because we now know most communication is visual, we understand the importance of making up for the loss of that visual component by emphasizing the only two components left to us on the telephone, namely, the verbal and vocal components. This means enunciating and selecting words that are clear, easy to understand, and have the appropriate impact.
I have my coaching subjects simulate a telephone conversation with their fellow teammates as observers. We then take turns evaluating each other’s performance. One of the most commonly cited observations is that the caller seemed “flat” during the simulation. The reason is that, because of the above-mentioned visual gap, being perceived as genuine and enthusiastic over the telephone actually requires one to exaggerate communication a bit. Because this is unnatural, it’s also uncomfortable at first. As with most things, a little practice and positive feedback are all your Team Members need to exude enthusiasm over the telephone.
Choose Your Words Carefully
I attended a lecture where we were asked to indicate our preference between the following workshop titles:
• Proposed Title I: Sexual Harassment in the Workplace and Dealing with Racism
• Proposed Title II: Men and Women as Allies and Friends and Celebrating Pluralism
Both titles promise the same thing, yet it’s obvious which is preferable. The brain hears all the words, but it also feels some of them. Some people will react negatively, perhaps without even knowing why, to the words “sexual harassment” and “racism” because these are negatively charged words. So always choose your words carefully and, if a word can be misinterpreted, don’t use it.
Another example of exuding enthusiasm is to suggest one of two ways you might answer your telephone at work: “Dental Office” and “Thank you for calling Our Dental Office, this is Danny speaking. How may I help you?” While you can tell, just by the words, which is the preferable introduction, it’s how the words are spoken that really makes the difference. Project, enunciate, and vary the tone and inflection of your speech for the desired impact.
The Questioning Seat
The final key to connecting with callers is to get them to agree. This could mean: agree to hear more about the practice, agree to make an appointment, agree to pay their bill on time, or any one of countless other desirable actions you want the caller to take.
Perhaps the easiest way to accomplish this is to place yourself in the questioning seat. This is because whoever is asking the questions controls the call. (Note that by control, I do not mean manipulate. People are best served when the expert is in control.) A really simple way to get and remain in the questioning seat is to answer any difficult question with another question. For instance, if someone were to call your practice and ask: “How much do you charge for a crown?” You might answer: “I can help you with that. My name is Danny. With whom am I speaking?” By that simple, but effective, sleight of word, you have just regained control of the conversation.
Part of succeeding in business (and life) entails being an effective communicator. Because so much communication is conducted over the telephone, those who master the art of telephone etiquette are poised to excel. So, avoid the self-fulfilling prophesy trap, exude empathy and enthusiasm, and practice your skills, and soon you will be a Master Telephone Communicator!