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In a struggling economy on the verge of recovery, one cannot ignore that every telephone inquiry can result in either a gain or a loss of thousands of dollars. A gain means the phone staff may have successfully converted an inquiring consumer into a loyal or “lifetime” patient. A loss means it hasn't.

Since 80 percent of the time a patient's first contact with a medical office is by telephone, a practice's phone staff has the ultimate power in leveraging telephone inquiries. Therefore, it makes sense to evaluate how phone answerers are conducting business. But how? Simple: Bring in the mystery shoppers.


Mystery shopping is not about spying on staff, nor is it a conspiracy to get employees “in trouble.” The process is initiated with full disclosure to employees who are informed that the information gathered ultimately will benefit everyone. Data collected during the process helps practices assess if their conversion goals are realistically aligned with the skills of their phone-answering teams. In cases in which a misalignment is indicated, the findings illuminate weak areas so that managers can begin focusing on better ways to support staff, usually through improved training opportunities. No matter how you look at it, everyone benefits.

Implementing a telephone mystery-shopping campaign has practice-wide benefits, including many of those described ahead.

Helps managers identify blind spots in training.Mystery shopping results can help managers identify blind spots in training curriculum and provide a jumping-off point for the development of improved training regimes. For example, it is common for practices to discover that their staff rarely “lead” inquiry calls, although in some practices they are encouraged to do so. What often is revealed is that these practices haven't provided adequate training for staff to effectively lead a call. This is a unique sales technique that must be developed and usually involves role-playing and ongoing practice.

Helps staff members excel at their jobs. Once blind spots in training programs are identified and adjustments are made, employees can receive the tools they need to excel and provide excellent customer service. When staff members receive ongoing training opportunities that allow them to perform at their best, they are more engaged and tend to experience a higher degree of job satisfaction than those who do not. Happy, engaged employees mean less staff turnover for the practice.

The following situation is common to many practices and exemplifies the problem of staff members unable to excel at their jobs: Most practices expect their phone staff to answer basic questions about procedures, yet many are unable to do so. Usually this is because the practice does not have a formalized method of educating new staff on procedures and services. Instead, managers tend to provide a cursory explanation during the on-boarding process and assume the new employees will eventually “pick up on” the finer details. This is an unrealistic expectation that creates a barrier between average and excellent phone-answering performance.

Provides data for tracking progress. Mystery-shopping initiatives are usually conducted more than once. This allows practices the opportunity to measure their progress before and after working with their staff to improve skills. As a result, managers and physician-owners are able to identify what works, what doesn't, and any employees who may need additional training or whose talents may be more effective in another department.

Offers an unbiased third-party opinion. A third-party evaluation relieves the burden of assessment from managers and makes it easier to objectively deliver the results to both staff and physician-owners. Undisputable, hard-and-fast data allows managers to sidestep potential defensiveness that could otherwise arise when providing difficult feedback. Having been removed from the data-collection process, managers are able to maintain a position of neutrality, which often leads to increased receptivity by recipients.

Sends staff the message that management is proactive.

When management places its phone staff in the spotlight, employees tend to notice that their leaders are taking an active role in developing their department. This inspires staff members to consistently perform at a higher level and seek out improvement opportunities.

Teaches telephone staff members the importance of their role. A practice's phone and reception employees are sometimes referred to as the office's unsung heroes. Without a doubt, these employees play a vital role in the success of a practice yet often their efforts are underappreciated. The result sometimes is a group of employees who generally aren't overjoyed by their work and find it difficult to muster the enthusiasm required to perform at a high level of excellence. The experience of mystery shopping often awakens staff to the importance of their position, motivating them to regularly perform at their best.

Increases staff accountability. Usually, some form of monitoring must occur to maximize staff accountability. Examples of monitoring tools include checklists, daily check-in meetings, and time clocks. Monitoring phone answering is a bit more challenging. Some offices use conversion tracking to gauge staff phone performance. These practices are on the right track. Mystery shopping, though, provides the ultimate motivation for staff accountability. It should come as no surprise that staff accountability tends to skyrocket once mystery shopping commences within a practice.

Inspires the practice to re-examine its primary goals.

The results of telephone mystery shopping cannot be interpreted effectively without considering the practice's primary mission statement, vision, and goals. Practice-owners who discover that their staff's phone performance does not meet their expectations often come to admit that the practice either does not have a mission statement, vision, or goals or that the ones currently in place are outdated and/or have yet to be shared with the staff. Employees will never be able to meet expectations if they do not know what the expectations are or why they exist. Once practice leaders recognize this, most are eager to begin creating, updating, and sharing these vital practice tools so that they can be used as a training resource.

Improves customer service and patient care. All of the aforementioned benefits of mystery shopping ultimately will result in a huge gain for all patients. Well-trained phone answerers who can skillfully respond to the needs of potential patients over the telephone likely will extend their expertise and knowledge to helping existing patients. Having been provided the resources to excel in their positions, these employees will experience a greater level of job satisfaction, which translates into increased enthusiasm and a sincere desire to provide the best possible customer service and patient care. Performance at this level depends on well-trained, happy employees who take pride in their work.


In a fragile economy on the brink of recovery, practices cannot afford to turn their backs on management tools like mystery shopping. The results can positively affect a staff's ability to court lifetime patients and provides an opportunity for managers and physician-owners to gain clarity over their vision so they can provide better leadership to employees. Ultimately, incorporating mystery shopping into a practice's business management toolkit will lead to enhanced staff performance, improved job satisfaction, and increased practice numbers. Everyone benefits.

Heidi Pesterfield is a publication services assistant for BSM Consulting, Incline Village, NV. She assists in the preparation of content for client media projects ranging from written materials to electronic, web-based content and programs. Her primary responsibilities include the writing, editing, and lay out of content used in various communication and learning products and services such as marketing/advertising tools, magazine articles, web-based learning courses, study guides, staff training tools, slide presentations, and other material. Before joining BSM in 2011, Ms. Pesterfield accumulated more than 25 years experience as a nonfiction freelance and public relations writer. She has 25 years of experience working as a medical assistant and phlebotomist at various primary care facilities, hospitals, and clinics. She also is author of the book Traditional Lead Climbing (Wilderness Press, 2007).

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