Columns , Communication

It’s your call

Delivering exceptional phone service can make the difference between a pet owner who agrees to book an appointment and one who gets a quick answer and hangs up.

It’s your call
Bear in mind that training programs aren’t just for new hires. Your team assessment may reveal that experienced employees aren’t using the desired skills to engage and educate callers.

Callers begin to make assessments about a veterinary hospital based on the telephone interaction with team members. These conversations can easily influence the decision to book an appointment.

This is especially true when pet owners who aren’t established clients call to inquire about services and fees. Since the prices of routine services are likely to be similar at most hospitals, a determining factor for booking an appointment is how the pet owner feels about their phone experience. That’s why developing outstanding telephone skills on a customer service team is extremely valuable for veterinary practices.

Do you know how well your team is doing at exceeding the expectations of pet owners who call your practice? Consider the following information from a database I have compiled:

  • 92 percent of client service representatives (CSRs) quote fees without attempts to engage the caller.
  • 25 percent of CSRs score below average on their knowledge of basic veterinary preventive care.
  • 27 percent of CSRs ask callers to book an appointment.
  • 76 percent of CSRs score below average in communicating the value of the physical exam and consultation.

Clearly, a significant opportunity exists for practice teams to improve service on the telephone. Yet I find CSRs routinely aren’t adequately trained. If you don’t provide formal training in this area of client communications or would like to improve telephones skills training, follow these three steps.

1. Identify What’s Holding Your Team Back

All teams can benefit from training that focuses on enhancing knowledge and honing specific skills. But no amount of training will result in consistent exceptional service to pet owners if team members have workplace challenges that prevent them from doing an excellent job. To identify your team’s challenges, schedule a feedback session and create dialogue focused on their answers to these two questions:

  • What challenges do you have in delivering exceptional service on the phone?
  • What do you need from the business so you can provide better service on the phone?

The team meeting should provide insights into these areas:

  • Employees’ level of knowledge and expertise as well as training gaps. For example, you may determine that some CSRs don’t know the answers to commonly asked pet owner questions and others may feel uncomfortable responding to angry callers.
  • Job fit and engagement level. Are all employees eager to help clients, or is answering the phone an aggravating task for some?
  • Relevant challenges the leadership team may not be aware of. Examples of challenges that may affect a CSR’s ability to provide a high level of client service and education are internal communication breakdowns, team conflict and inefficiencies.

Enhancing the team’s knowledge and skills can be addressed by implementing or improving your telephone skills training program. But other challenges holding back your team need to be resolved with a separate action plan. For example, if hold times are routinely excessive, action steps may include increasing staffing at peak times or designating someone from the technical team to assist with answering phones. Likewise, if someone on your team offers only negative feedback about telephone communications, she may need coaching on the value of telephone skills.

2. Train a Few Skills at a Time

In my experience, most CSRs are effective with basic telephone skills. They’re polite, and they know how to juggle several phone lines and book appointments. But team members often lack communication skills training and veterinary knowledge that would result in providing a higher level of service and client education. Anybody can answer the telephone, but not everyone knows how to create an exceptional client experience on the phone. Hospital teams with effective telephone skills training programs are able to differentiate their practice every time the phone is answered.

Whether you train new hires on basic skills or teach tenured employees to use more advanced skills, it’s critical to have team members focus on only a few skills at a time. I recommend practicing one or two communication skills a week, beginning with skills that will have the most positive impact on delivering outstanding service.

The goal is for communication skills to become habits. You may have heard that about 21 days are needed to form a new habit. Actually, research has shown that forming new habits depends on how simple the habit is for a person. On average, it can take 66 days or longer.

When I do telephone skills training with teams, they frequently tell me that trying to implement all the skills at one time is overwhelming. But when they follow my advice and practice just a few skills at a time for one or more months, they start to gain proficiency and are excited to see how positively clients respond.

3. Track the Team’s Progress

Remember to follow up with employees to determine their progress and learning retention. Ideally, a telephone skills training program has multiple phases. For example, if a practice has a three-phase program, basic skills would be first and all new hires would complete this training during their first two weeks of employment. The second phase would include specific communication skills training and instruction about preventive health care. The third phase might cover more advanced skills such as how to respond to angry callers and how to answer a variety of medical questions.

Bear in mind that training programs aren’t just for new hires. Your team assessment may reveal that experienced employees aren’t using the desired skills to engage and educate callers. In my consultant role, I always find opportunities for new and seasoned team members to improve their telephone skills.

Here are questions that can be used to establish a defined training program that includes tracking team member progress. After each question are examples showing how you might answer the questions for a team that wants to improve specific telephone skills:

What is the goal or purpose of the training?

  • To convert cost inquiry calls to booked appointments by providing exceptional service and client education.

What specific skills need to be learned and practiced in the next two months?

  • Respond to inquiries about fees with a welcoming opening line such as “I’d be happy to give you some information about our hospital and services.”
  • Ask to book the appointment and offer specific times.
  • Close the call with a positive statement tailored to the call.

How will proficiency be measured?

  • A manager or supervisor will listen to recorded calls or periodically observe employees.
  • The employee will track the conversion of fee inquiries to booked appointments.

How will accuracy and retention of knowledge be measured?

  • Quizzes will be given on preventive health care standards.
  • Calls will be recorded to make sure the provided client education is aligned with the hospital’s medical standards.

What resources will be used for training?

  • Online video training course.
  • Webinars.
  • An assigned mentor or trainer.

What ongoing feedback will be established to assist with training? 

  • Meetings twice a week with a supervisor or manager will serve to share success stories and problem-solve challenges.

The best way to improve training programs is to create a structure and follow a step-by-step process. Take action now to develop a team that delivers exceptional service on the phone.

Talk the Talk columnist Dr. Amanda L. Donnelly is a speaker, business consultant and second-generation veterinarian. She is the author of “101 Practice Management Questions Answered” and serves on the Today’s Veterinary Business editorial advisory board.

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