The perils —and power—of the telephone handoff.
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh recently published an in-depth analysis of 2009’s Air France Flight 447 Tragedy and what went wrong.
The whole piece is worth a read, but in the end the group boiled the problem down to a problem in the interaction between automation and humans. Automated systems are great. They save time. They give us the power to make calls, schedule appointments and communicate with our team and our patients. However, they can also lead to office disasters, especially at the point where a human has to take over from the technology.
According to the researchers, handoffs from technology to a human are especially perilous when:
· They’re unexpected
· They occur during a crunch time
· When the person dealing with them is startled or inexperienced
· When we misread the cues coming from the system
In these situations, the human part of the equation is likely to make a series of errors that result in a catastrophic failure of all the systems you have in place. Handoffs between technology and people can throw your office into chaos. And, in my experience, once of the biggest danger spots in most dental practices is the hand-off from the phone system to the team.
Why phones are so dangerous
Phones are a great technology. They let people communicate over long distances in an instant. With a phone, your patients can find you online and immediately dial your office, respond to your marketing, or make an appointment. You need phones to do business. But, as with any technology, the point where a person takes control leaves a lot of room for error.
If your phone system is working correctly, when a patient dials the number from your website or an advertisement, they’re connected to your office. The phone begins to ring. It’s time for technology to hand off the caller to a real person. And at this point, in an average practice, a few things can happen:
1. A team member answers the phone and helps the patient book an appointment.
2. A team member answers the phone and fails to book an appointment.
3. A team member answers the phone and puts the caller on hold for some amount of time.
4. A team member answers the phone and transfers the patient to someone’s voice mail.
5. No one answers the phone at all.
Here’s the thing. If you’re interested in pleasing your patients, growing your practice, and developing your team’s abilities, only option number one counts as a successful handoff. All of the other resolutions represent a “loss of control” issue, where the handoff from technology to human failed. When the phone is ringing, absent appropriate safe guards and training, your team is more likely to miss the handoff than to succeed at it.
Why your staff fails at phone-to-human handoffs
Everyone knows how to use a phone, and you train every new team member on the idiosyncrasies of your personal system, so why do they keep failing? Like an airplane pilot who suddenly has to take the controls, the problem has to do with the problem of applying that training in a high stress situation.
Answering the phone is a lot like driving a car. Beginning drivers tend to get into a lot of fender benders because they don’t have the muscle memory to control the machine. In unfamiliar situations, they have to think through every single action, and the more choices they have to make, the more likely they are to mess up.
Experienced drivers are less likely to get into accidents under normal circumstances, but throw some ice, an illness, sleep deprivation or even just yelling at the kids in the backseat into the mix, and suddenly they can’t function. Stressful situations are hard even on experts. And how many of your team members have spent as much time answering the phone as they have behind the wheel? All it takes is a perfect storm of noise, busyness and a patient standing in front of them, and the person on the phone gets lost in the shuffle. It’s an expensive problem. If the average value of a new patient is $1,000 in the first year, a busy 15 minutes where three calls get dropped is like losing half to a whole day of production for many general dentists. Talk about catastrophically failed handoffs.
So, what’s the anatomy of a failure? In general, it begins when a team member is surprised by a call, either because they’re dealing with another patient, or because someone else hasn’t answered yet and so someone unfamiliar with phone calls is answering the call. Because they’re not ready for a handoff, they’re startled. They don’t have a mental plan for the call. They either let the patient steer the conversation off course, or they decide to put the person on hold (resulting in either a dropped call or a hang-up) or send them to voicemail (another hang-up). If the team member is especially unprepared or over-busy, they won’t answer the call at all.
You won’t know about these failures for a while, if you ever find out. But if you can admit that given enough stress, even an experienced team member can screw up a call, you can put training and feedback processes in place to help minimize future disasters.
Getting a handle on handoffs
When the researchers from Edinburgh analyzed the Air France disaster, they came up with some ideas on how to avoid future crashes. While pilots receive extensive, and continuous training, they don’t get a lot of supervised practice flying planes under the sorts of circumstances where unexpected handoffs from technology are expected to occur. So, pilots need more time spent trying to keep the plane flying at high altitudes, since most of their normal experience involves takeoffs and landings.
Likewise, your staff needs to practice dealing with phone calls at high stress times. One thing you could do is conduct an office-wide simulation. When the practice is open, have team members call into several lines at once while another talks at the desk like a chatty exiting patient. Have your front office team practice answering the phone and booking an appointment under these conditions. Give immediate feedback on how they did. You can do the same during a busy day at the office, by having your office manager observe phone behavior in high pressure situations and give immediate feedback.
It might also help to track when your busiest times of day are. Then, if you use a service like Call Tracker ROI, when you get your monthly report you can see who is having the most trouble at crunch times, and schedule them for extra practice and observation time. The more someone learns to answer calls and book patients in these high stress times, the more they’ll develop the ‘muscle memory’ they need to navigate difficult phone situations under pressure.
Phones are essential to our business. We can’t live without them, and an office that can’t answer phone calls and book patients won’t survive for long. Pay attention to the moment of the handoff, where a human takes over from technology. If your team can learn to master handoffs, you’re well on the way to a growing, thriving practice.
Originally published in Dental Practice Management