Love Thy Receptionist: Maximizing Patient Experience & Profits
By Eleni Karayeva June 24, 2021
The receptionist is likely the first staff member to interact with the patients in your practice. Because of how crucial these often undervalued employees are for a successful practice, let’s take a closer look to see what it is exactly that makes a perfect receptionist.
Exceptional phone etiquette
The first human interaction between your practice and your patient often isn’t a face-to-face one, but occurs over the phone. Whether it’s a patient calling to make an appointment or to inquire about services offered and their prices, this is where first impressions are made. Therefore, phone etiquette is an indispensable skill for any receptionist. Even the initial greeting matters. The receptionist who answers the phone with a “Good morning, thank you for calling, how can I help you?” communicates a warm, welcoming tone. Compare that to another receptionist answering with a curt “Optical!” (and yes, we've all had that experience when calling a doctor’s office). Now imagine you were a patient shopping around. Which receptionist would you feel more comfortable talking with and asking questions? The same is true for those patients calling to address an issue. It's much harder for an upset patient to keep up a belligerent stance if they are greeted with a friendly tone and a willingness to help.
Asking the questions before giving the answers
An especially valuable skill for a receptionist is to know when to ask or respond with open-ended questions, ones that would allow patients to elaborate on what it is that they need. Bonus points if those open-ended questions are presented in a way that offers options to choose from. For example, should a patient ask if your practice sells “cheap glasses,” the correct answer would not be a short yes or no; instead it should be a series of questions regarding intended eyewear usage, such as, “do you wear your glasses for both far and near; for driving or for computer use?” The more comfortable your front desk is with their optical knowledge, the more intuitive they can get with these questions. Questions about pricing directed at the front desk are very common, but the receptionist's goal should be to establish value ahead of quoting dollar amounts. The key takeaway: building value builds trust with patients, and it starts with the front desk.
Have the patient experience in mind
When a patient walks through the door, one thing to remember is that, consciously or not, they are the only patients in the office. And it's up to the front desk to make that patient feel welcome and give them that attention. How would an ideal receptionist accomplish that?
● Greet the patient with a warm hello and a smile (even if we're still wearing masks, we can still tell when someone's smiling!)
● If possible, stand up to greet the patient; slouching in a chair behind the counter doesn't communicate that willingness to help that we mentioned earlier.
● If busy answering the phone or helping another patient, don't wait until finished to acknowledge the person that just walked in.
The last one especially might seem like a no-brainer, but it's easy to get caught up and unintentionally ignore the newcomer, resulting in that person walking out.
Communication is key
A satisfied patient is one that feels understood and few things are more frustrating than miscommunication. Think of the receptionist as a gatekeeper of sorts. The front desk must be able to accurately identify what the patient is coming in for and communicate that to the doctor and the other relevant staff members. Doing so would save everyone valuable time and reduce the shock of surprise fees after the exam. For example, a common scenario is one where the patient comes in for a contact lens fitting thinking it's part of a regular routine check-up; the front staff doesn't pick up on that beforehand and therefore doesn't get a chance to go over the costs involved, which makes for a sticky situation afterward.
Knowing insurance plans in and out
With so many patients using some type of commercial or managed care health coverage, going over costs for services requires solid knowledge of insurances. In fact, we can argue that the front desk’s knowledge in this area should be second only to the billers’; only unlike billers, receptionists don't have the time to sit and figure out which insurance program covers what. Being able to distinguish between medical optometry and routine coverage, figuring out what co-pays and deductibles apply - accuracy in this is crucial because it not only affects your practice's bottom line but also its reputation, considering that discrepancies in insurance coverage interpretations often rank high on disgruntled patients’ lists of grievances. Patients will always appreciate when a practice is upfront about their fees and out-of-pocket costs. And though there are some doctors who would spend exam time going over these details, it’s not the most efficient way; it’s best if most insurance-related matters are handled by the receptionist, who should be able to give the patient a quick rundown of the relevant insurance benefits.
The ideal receptionist would boast quite a skill set, but even if most candidates you interview or hire won’t be able to check off all the boxes, it’s important to remember that staff training - and cross-training - is an ongoing process. The more knowledgeable your front desk staff becomes through exposure to the many aspects of your practice, the more tools they’ll have to help them handle even the most demanding patients.