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Electronic Menus?

Question:

We are planning on purchasing an electronic menu system and we are looking for some tips on how to make the message clear and concise. I know you discuss this in your seminar, but if you don't mind, would you briefly go over a few things that would make our system as effective as possible?

ANSWER:

First of all, you want to keep it as short as possible (24 seconds is the best I've ever done) and as few options as possible (I've never been able to have less than 5). You might want to use a few sub menus, but I'd recommend that you never go more than 2 deep because once you make them push button after button, they begin to get very irritated.

In order to keep the menu a manageable length, it's also important to keep the verbiage short and sweet. While “please” and “thank you” are nice in conversation, they're just extra baggage in a phone tree. I would also avoid phrases such as “Your call is very important to us. Please do not hang up; your call will be answered in the order in which received”. It's also a waste of breath to say, “Please listen carefully, as our menu options have changed”. Most people are smart enough to realize this isn't usually the truth anyway.

Another extremely annoying feature of menus is when they're used to manage calls instead of just routing them. I once had a client with a menu in which all options went directly to voice mail. It was very frustrating because it was impossible to reach a live person… Finally in frustration, I pressed zero, thinking it would take me to an operator, and instead, it hung up on me! Boy, if that doesn't say “either follow our rules, or we won't talk to you”, I don't know what does!

In determining the order of your options, I recommend that you put the option for the triage nurse at or near the bottom. If you put the nurse at the top, that option is likely to be over-selected, because everyone wants to talk to the nurse. In fact, I would actually advise you to not put a “speak to a nurse” option at all. Generally speaking, it's better to let the caller tell you what they want to talk ABOUT, and you then decide WHO you want to handle it. As you'll see below, my “nurse” option is reserved for patients wanting to make same day appointments (see FAQ on Triage of Same Day appointments) or those wishing to “speak to a nurse about symptoms”.

The following is the script I'd generally use. If you'd like to call and discuss your ideas, I'm available. I'd also be happy to listen to your menu and critique it… I've heard a bunch!

  • "You have reached Your Home Town Family Practice.”
    • (short & to the point without extra verbiage)
  • “If this is an emergency, hang up and dial 911” (or “Press 9 to speak to a nurse now”)
    • While this is probably a meaningless statement (if they knew whether it was an emergency or not, they might not be calling you), it's certainly standard practice to include this instruction
  • "If you are a healthcare professional or a patient returning our call, press 1"
    • Avoid use of the phrase “doctor or doctor's representative”. There are other healthcare professionals (Pharmacists, Home Health/Hospice nurses, etc) who also need to speak to us promptly. This should be routed to a secretary who can interview the caller, determine who he needs to speak to, and facilitate getting that individual on the line promptly.
  • "If you want to make, cancel, or change a routine appointment, press 2"
    • These calls can go to appointment clerks, but they should be trained to listen for two types of patients who need to be triaged by a nurse. Those include patients who are calling to cancel or change an appointment because they're too sick to keep the appointment, and patients scheduling routine appointments who are currently having acute symptoms.
  • "If you are calling for test results or a prescription refill, press 3"
    • You might want to employ a submenu here if those functions are handled in different places. These calls could be handled electronically through voice mail or interactive response systems that will provide test results. Alternatively they could be screened by an experienced secretary, medical assistant or LPN/LVN. The key point here is to be sure that whoever is taking the calls is aware to watch for acute problems that have precipitated the request for test results or a prescription.
  • "If you have a billing question or need a referral, press 4"
    • Again, you might use a submenu here
  • "If you'd like to make a today appointment or speak to a nurse about symptoms, press 5"
    • These calls would be routed to the telephone triage nurse. Ideally, they would hold in queue until the nurse could take the call. Prerecorded educational messages would be helpful here to make the wait more palatable. Some companies offer this service for less than $100 per month.
  • "For hours of operation, our fax number or directions to the clinic, press 6"
    • This is very optional
  • "To speak to an operator, press 0"
    • Some of my clients have found it helpful to have an option for the patient to leave a message for her doctor or nurse (these have been larger organizations). If you use this option, you will need to monitor it to see if it's working for you or if it's causing more problems than it's worth.