Module 5: Steps for Successful Front Desk Training
Before we get started...Pop quiz!
That’s right, that’s all the time you have—rather, all the time your front desk has—to make a good first impression on your patients. And first impressions can make or break your practice.
If a patient walks in your door and immediately gets lost in a disorganized frenzy of activity, or feels like she’s intruding in an ongoing conversation among your staff, or wonders if he’s invisible when no one seems to notice he’s there...well, they’ll be thinking twice about whether they want to be there at all, let alone want to come back again.
Your front desk person is your ambassador, representing your practice from the very first contact with your patients, whether on the phone or in person. So stop for just a moment and think about how you want your patients to feel when they enter your door. How do you want them to be greeted? What kind of atmosphere do you want your waiting room to have? How long do you want them to wait? Do they feel valued? Do they feel cared about?
Keep that vision in mind, because you’re about to discover how you can make it a reality! By the end of this module, you’ll be able to...
- Develop a customer service mind-set of excellence for your front desk team.
Grow your team’s skills in four key areas:
- exemplary phone skills
- efficient appointment scheduling
- complete and proper registration
- dependable collection of copays/coinsurance and outstanding balances
- Prepare consistent answers for frequently asked patient questions.
Ready to make an outstanding first impression? Then let’s get started!
The Front Desk: It’s All About Customer Service
Customer service isn’t just for retail businesses. It’s all about building good relationships in any business setting, and that includes allergy practices too. Your patients are really your customers, your guests, and you want to provide them with the most excellent service possible.
So let’s see how to strengthen your staff’s customer service mind-set.
Give a new title to your front desk person:
Director of First Impressions!
Emphasize Importance of Body Language
When you meet someone new, what’s the first way you connect with them? Most of the time, it’s through eye contact, right? You acknowledge that you see that person, which tells them that they’re important enough to be noticed. (If you’re greeting a visually impaired patient, then tone of voice will be more important.)
The same is true for our patients. When we look up and make eye contact with them as soon as they enter the room, we tell them that they’re important to us.
How is your front office staff doing in the eye contact department? Some of us may struggle with shyness and avoid looking others directly in the eye. Other times, we can get so busy that we talk to people without taking the time to look at them. If this describes your staff, then try a little coaching to build their confidence or remind them of what—rather, who—is most important.
Another essential ingredient of body language is a warm, welcoming smile. A smile can go a long way in making a person feel welcome and wanted, even when the office is extremely busy. Eye contact without the warmth of a smile can actually cause anxiety, which is the last thing you want to do.
Also, you’ll want to remind your staff of the signal that crossed arms often conveys: impatience and unapproachability. It looks like they’re closing themselves off, putting up a barrier, or even judging someone else. Of course, this may not be the case at all—your staff member could simply be cold! So if you notice that your front office team tends to have their arms crossed, ask them about it and tease out their reasons (and be willing to adjust the room temperature). Then encourage them to consciously use a more open, relaxed posture to put patients at ease.
Finally, make sure your staff faces your patients and always gives them their full attention. When they’re frequently glancing away while trying to do something else, they make the patient feel more like an interruption than a valued client. Help your staff be present to your patients, because that’s really what your practice is all about.
Teach Important Language Skills
Language involves not only our words but also our tone and speed of speech. With this in mind, you’ll want to train your front desk staff to do these three things:
- Use a friendly tone of voice with patients—and also with fellow staff. Tension behind the scenes will inevitably erupt in front of patients. So make sure your office environment is one of respect and friendliness, creating a pleasant place that everyone will enjoy coming to.
- Address adult patients as Mr., Mrs., Ms., or Miss Last Name. This is especially important for senior citizens, who often come from a generation where a courtesy title is a sign of respect. After you get to know a patient, it may be fine to use their first name—but only if they ask you to do so.
- Speak clearly and not too fast. Your patients may be preoccupied because they aren’t feeling well, or they could be hard of hearing. You’ll want to encourage your team to do all they can to make the communication process as easy on patients as possible.
Here’s an exercise to try: In an unobtrusive way, take a few minutes several times during one day to observe your staff. You might want to watch and listen at the beginning of the day, when you open the office; at a peak time midmorning or midafternoon; and toward the end of the day, when people are getting tired and are ready to head home.
How are they speaking to patients and each other? Are any pressures affecting their tone or respectfulness? Is their body language positive and are they being as helpful as possible? If you see some behaviors that need changing or stressors that could be eased, jot down some notes and make plans to share some coping skills and coach them toward improvement.
Customer service and helpfulness go hand in hand. Whenever, possible, encourage—and reward—your team for going the extra mile in helping patients and solving their problems! After all, that’s what you’re all here to do. Make sure your staff knows how to help patients with common questions, such as:
- How to fill out a form
- What their deductible is
- Whether their insurance covers immunotherapy
- What the status of their prior authorization is
Equally important is knowing where to go to find an answer or who to direct the question to if a patient needs help. Remind your front desk employees that they don’t need to know all the answers, but they do need to know where to find them!
Here’s a handy customer service checklist that encompasses body language, spoken language, and helpfulness that you might want to post where your front office team can review it every day.
Customer Service Checklist
- Greet and warmly welcome every patient. Smile!
- Maintain an open, approachable posture—uncross those arms.
- Speak respectfully to both patients and fellow staff members.
- Speak clearly and not too fast.
- Politely ask how you can help patients.
- Show you care—be empathetic and take time to listen.
- Give patients your full attention.
- Show regard for the patient’s time. Let them know if the doctor is running behind schedule. When possible, provide options, such as seeing someone else, rescheduling or waiting.
- Be a problem-solver for your patients. Help them find answers to their questions.
These are the customer service basics that will help your front desk make a positive and reassuring first impression. Next, let’s review four front desk responsibilities so you can help your team keep growing their skills in these key areas.
The Front Desk: It’s All About Learning Key Responsibilities
As you develop and fine-tune the training for your front office team’s responsibilities, you’ll want to pay attention to these four key areas: answering phones, scheduling appointments and preregistration, in-person registration, and collecting copays/coinsurance as well as outstanding balances.
Task 1: Answering Phones
Here are some ways to help your front office staff develop exemplary phone skills.
Emphasize the importance of friendliness, customer service, and a can-do-attitude.Encourage your team to smile while they’re talking, since this helps keep their tone friendly.
Provide your staff with sample scripts.This will help ensure consistency in your service. Here are some ideas:
- Begin each call with something like, “ABC Allergy Clinic, this is Trina. How may I help you?”
- After the patient explains what they’re calling about, have your staff respond enthusiastically with, “I’d be happy to help you with that!”
- End every call with, “Is there anything else I can help you with today?” And, “Thank you for choosing ABC Allergy Clinic.” (Patients these days have many choices for allergy care, so it’s important to let them know that you appreciate them coming to your clinic.)
Correctly identify the patient.Busy allergy practices can have multiple patients with the same or similar-sounding names. Explain to staff that they always need to confirm the patient’s identity by asking his or her date of birth and the spelling of his or her name. Avoid taking messages or scheduling appointments for the wrong patient, which can be both an inconvenience and a safety issue.
Teach them how to take a proper message.Train staff to get all the pertinent information so your practice can avoid the time and expense of making unnecessary follow-up calls. With this in mind, teach them to pay special attention to capturing such things as patient questions, a summary of the problem, symptoms, how long the problem has been happening, call-back information, and specific medication requests. Their messages need to be detailed and specific.
Minimize hold times.Let your staff know that they should ask for extra help when the phones get busy. Of course, practice management should already know when the peak phone times are and schedule employees accordingly. But unforeseen circumstances are bound to crop up, so it’s always wise to make sure your team knows what to do when a flurry of phone calls comes in.
Task 2: Scheduling Appointments and Preregistration
When a new patient calls to make an appointment, your first step will actually be to preregister him or her—the scheduling will be the last thing you do on the phone call. When an established patient calls, you won’t need to go through the whole preregistering process, but it’s vital to confirm information, especially at the beginning of the year because of insurance changes.
Let’s walk through these steps.
Registration is probably the most tedious part of any patient’s appointment, but it’s vital to your being able to give them accurate information about what their insurance covers, what their insurance pays, what their deductible is, and what their out-of-pocket expenses will be. Plus, it’s the way your practice gets paid! So make sure your team realizes how important this process is.
How you handle new patients versus established ones will be a bit different, so let’s review those details.
With new patients, you’re obviously starting from scratch. Which means that you need to gather all the appropriate demographic and insurance information. Here’s a list of the items your staff will need to collect.
|Demographic Information||Primary & Secondary Insurance Information|
|Patient name||Insurance company name|
|Date of birth||Plan name|
|Phone numbers (home, work, mobile)||Address for filing claims|
|Email address||Subscriber name|
|Patient’s relationship to subscriber|
Also, with a new patient, your staff needs to explain your practice’s financial policy clearly so the patient knows what to expect. If a patient needs allergy testing or shots, for example, explain the likely out-of-pocket cost or the next steps in determining the cost. You definitely don’t want any surprises for the patient here.
If your practice provides forms—financial policy, HIPAA, health history, etc.—on your website, then have your staff direct them there so they can download and complete them in advance and bring them to their appointment.
Finally, remember to welcome the patient to your practice!
With existing patients, you’ll need to confirm key demographic and insurance information when scheduling their appointments. Also, check to see if the patient owes any money to the practice. If they owe a significant amount, let them know that they may need to speak to a financial counselor before you can schedule an appointment. Also, remind them of your practice’s financial policy, their copay/coinsurance amount, and that they will be responsible for any remaining deductible.
What can your front desk do to ensure patients have a more pleasant and timely experience when they arrive at your office?
With new patients, your team will need to allow additional time to fill out demographic and insurance information forms, as well as provide a health history, among other things. With established patients, the registration process will be quicker but it’s still wise to allow time for registration.
Here are some general tips for responsive and effective scheduling:
Make sure your staff understands and follows your practice’s scheduling protocol.If they need a job aid as a handy reminder, be sure to create and provide that. Better to have a handout right there rather than rely on an already overloaded memory.
Teach your team the different appointment types:new patient, follow-up, shot, allergy testing, etc. Then make sure they understand the time needs for each type.
Be sure to ask what type of appointment the patient needs.A sample script for your staff would be, “May I ask what kind of appointment you need so I can be sure to schedule you properly?”
Have your staff follow your practice protocol for overbooking.What exactly do you allow? Some practices never allow overbooking, and others allow it only under specific circumstances. It’s essential that your staff understands that overbooking causes physicians to get backed up—and patients to get frustrated with long waits.
Have staff ask how the patient prefers to receive appointment reminders.Does your practice offer different types of appointment reminders (text, phone call, email)? If so, ask which method the patient prefers.
Task 3: In-Person Registration
As we’ve seen, your staff should handle a good chunk of the registration process in advance—on the phone when scheduling the appointment. This is when they should get the demographic and insurance information.
But there are still some parts of the registration process that need to be taken care of when the patient arrives for the appointment.
Between their over-the-phone preregistration and in-person registration processes, your staff should have collected all the information you need to ensure patients’ benefits and your practice’s payment. Going beyond gathering the info to actually collecting the payment is a critical part of the process, so let’s look at that next.
Task 4: Collecting Payment
As oil is to a car’s engine, so payment is to your practice—it keeps everything running smoothly. Yet asking patients for payment can sometimes feel very awkward and uncomfortable to staff members. Sometimes they fumble with what to say, while other times they push too hard.
Good customer service skills extend to collecting a patient’s payment too. Even at this stage of the appointment, your front desk personnel are still vitally involved in setting the tone for the patient’s visit.
Let’s take a look, then, at how you can help your staff remain friendly, professional, confident, and dependable in collecting copays, coinsurances, and outstanding balances.
Collect Payment Up Front
The first step in removing the awkwardness is to define the process. So make sure your staff knows when they should ask for payment. For best results, you’ll want to collect all copays/coinsurance, deductibles, and outstanding balances up front when the patient checks in.
Collect Payment up front, at registration
Research has shown that, if you wait to contact the patient for payment after they leave, you’re likely to collect only 50-70% of the payment, and that’s for patients with insurance. For self-pay patients, you might only get 10% of what you’re owed.1
Bottom line: Make collecting payment part of the in-person registration process.
Make it easy for the front desk to collect
The front desk has lots of responsibilities, and as we mentioned before, collecting money can be awkward and difficult. So make it as easy as possible for them to do this part of their job!
- Show them how to find out how much the patient owes. Copays are usually listed on the insurance card, but they need to run an insurance verification to determine benefits, coinsurance, and outstanding deductibles.
- Is it easy for your front desk staff to identify outstanding patient balances? If not, you may want your billing staff to add reminders in the appointments of patients who have outstanding balances so front desk staff knows to ask for payment.
- Offer a variety of payment options. And consider implementing a credit card on file option (which we’ll discuss in-depth in another module).
- Provide scripts on how to ask for payment. Having something prewritten will take a lot of the anxiety out of this process. For ideas to help you get started creating your practice’s scripts, check out the College’s Communication Tips! Collecting Copays and Balances.
- Practice, practice, practice! Go over the scripts with your team until they’re comfortable and confident.
Finally, set goals with your staff for collecting copays and patient balances. Look at your past performance to help set achievable targets, and then celebrate the team’s successes when you meet them!
The Front Desk: It’s All about Being Prepared to Answer Common Patient Questions
Your front desk staff will find themselves needing to address the same types of questions over and over again. Make sure they know what to do by clarifying who on your staff should handle what kinds of questions, and by equipping your front desk team to answer the questions they should be able to handle.
Who Should Handle What
To clear away any confusion, you’ll want to create policies that spell how to handle the following situations:
- What types of questions should the front desk answer?
- What questions should the front desk route to other employees?
- When should the front desk take a message?
- When should the front desk send a patient to a triage nurse?
If a question comes up that’s beyond the front desk’s scope, make sure your team knows who they should direct the patient to. Whatever you do, avoid giving the patient the runaround. In fact, whenever it’s possible, have your front desk staff follow up with the patient to make sure that all their questions and concerns have been answered.
Tasks Your Front Desk Needs to Be Able to Handle
There are some common questions that everyone on your front desk team should know how to handle. So you’ll want to make sure you have protocols in place and that you’ve trained your staff to follow your practices. Here are a few of the questions you’re likely to encounter:
- “I’d like to pay my bill. How can I go about that?”
- “Can you check on my prescription?”
- “How can I leave a message for the doctor?”
- “Can you look in my chart to see if they’ve received my blood work yet? What are the results, and what do they mean?”
- “What will my out-of-pocket cost be?”
A prepared front desk is an effective front desk—and a great ambassador for your practice!
Managers needs to train their staff on how to handle emergencies (anaphylaxis, asthma attack, aggressive patient, etc.). These may not come up often, but when they do, your team needs to know exactly what to do! So be sure to develop protocols for emergencies and have some regular practice drills.
In this module, you’ve seen how your front desk employees have one of the most important roles in your practice: they are your ambassadors. They can make or break your patients’ experience, so you want to make your training count.
- Develop in them a customer service mind-set.
- Make sure they know how to weave customer service into these four key areas of responsibility: answering phones, scheduling appointments and over-the-phone preregistering, properly registering patients in person, and collecting payment.
- Equip them with consistent answers to frequently asked patient questions, and help them grow comfortable with their responses through positive practice.
As we touched on today, collecting payment can often feel awkward, even though it’s what allows you to keep your doors open and serve your community. So in the next module, we’re going to explore a way to make this area a lot easier: keeping a credit card on file for each patient.
See you then!
Sources (provided by ACAAI):
- MGMA In Practice Blog, "Customer Service Training Ideas for the Practice’s Front Office"
- Easy Pay Solutions, "5 Front Office Staff Best Practices for Physicians”
- ACAAI, "Surviving in a World of High Deductibles: Collecting Payment at Time of Service”
- Hanny Freiwat, “Three Ways Front-Office Staff Can Improve Collections”
- ACAAI, "Communication Tips For Collecting Money From A Patient"
1 Hanny Freiwat, “Three Ways Front-Office Staff Can Improve Collections”