Front-office gatekeepers can kill your client relationships

By Sandy Schussel

Sandy Schussel, LLC


Referrals come from clients who tell stories about the exceptional service they have experienced. You need to be certain that you and your staff are making magic in your practice — right out of the gate.

If you want to grow your practice, you need to be certain that you've spelled out for your staff how to handle the phones and how to greet people, and you need to be sure that they're following your instructions. This means listening in on a prospective client call and having someone report to you about how they are treated while they're waiting for you. Don't assume that just because you're being treated well by your assistant that he or she is treating your clients in the same way.

I recently had an encounter that showed me just how important the front-of-office assistant really is to the client experience. ​I had been limping around for three weeks with a pain across the top of my left foot that didn't seem to be getting any better. I made it through five straight days on my feet for two workshops and an active vacation, but the pain did not subside. So, I finally decided to visit a local orthopedist.

I called the doctor's office and an unhappy-sounding scheduling assistant treated me as if I were a huge interruption to his day. He was abrupt, unsympathetic and annoyed when it took me a couple of seconds to give him precisely the information he demanded. He advised me that the doctor I wanted wouldn't be available in this century and offered me some alternatives. And he became noticeably agitated when I wasn’t satisfied with the first available appointment. After all, who did I think I was? He worked for a doctor and was very busy. I was just one more bother in his bothersome day.

When I arrived at the office, the staff was annoyed that I didn't notice the big, hand-written "sign in here" sign at the window and that I thought it was OK to approach the busy person sitting behind the desk instead. When I went back to the sign-in desk, the lady handled our entire transaction — from the clipboard to the insurance card and picture ID — without ever looking up to see my face. Believe it or not, your staff may be treating people like this, and no matter how good you are at what you do, or how kind and considerate you might be, your clients are will think, "I'm not coming here again" if you have a front-office gatekeeper like the one I encountered.

Maybe, as it was in the case of this doctor, you have so many people waiting to see you that you can afford not to know how your staff is behaving. But if you're like most professionals, it matters to you that clients who have experienced something like this aren't staying with you, and that they will tell others to stay away, as well.
To prevent alienating clients, you can can specify the basics for your front-office team with a formalized procedure that includes, at least, all of the following points.

1. Identify the office and yourself. Everyone who answers a phone should use his or her name.

2. Be pleasant. No matter how frenetic your office might be, every caller deserves to feel that he or she is not an interruption in someone's busy day.

3. Offer to help. The identification should be followed by, "How may I help you?" or "How may I direct your call?" or, well, anything that's genuinely helpful.

4. Don't rush the caller. No matter how busy you are, clients want to ease their stress, not to confront yours.

5. Own the call. Until the caller is connected elsewhere, the person answering the phone is responsible for the caller's experience.

These are just some of the basic rules. Nearly an hour later, when I finally got to see the orthopedist, I found him to be extremely competent and a genuinely nice human being. He advised me that I had fractured a bone, but I wasn't willing to face his staff for the follow-up appointment. I ended up taking my foot elsewhere.

Referrals come from clients who tell stories about the exceptional service they have experienced. You need to be certain that you and your staff are making magic in your practice — right out of the gate.