Managing Your Practice

Phone etiquette, part 2


My recent column on proper telephone technique for front office employees triggered some interesting commentary. “What about the calls we take?” someone asked. “The phone etiquette among most professionals leaves a lot to be desired.”

A doctor talking on the phone alvarez/Getty Images

How true! Haven’t we all answered a call from another physician, only to hear, “Please hold for Dr. ___________”?

Let’s begin with that, since it’s one of my major pet peeves: Long tradition, and common courtesy, dictate that the person initiating a call be on the line when the recipient picks up the receiver. So don’t ask an assistant to dial calls for you. Is it really that much bother to do it yourself? A peer should never answer and then be expected to wait while your employee tracks you down. It is impolite, and implies that you consider your time much more valuable than his or hers.

Speaking of common courtesy: Always give callers your undivided attention; they can tell if you are distracted. If it’s not a good time for you, say so honestly, at the outset. “Listen, I can give you a couple of minutes, but I’m right in the middle of office hours ...” That’s much more polite than abruptly cutting someone off, mid-conversation. If the caller needs more time, offer to call back.

By the same token, if you are the caller, be sure to ask, “Is this a good time for you?” Then, be aware of how long you keep the other person on the line. We all have a finite amount of time, and not everyone knows how to end a phone conversation gracefully. Respect others’ time and get to your point quickly.

When you reach an answering machine or voice mail, talk clearly and distinctly. Few things are more frustrating than a mumbled message that no one can decipher. I always repeat my name and phone number for clarity’s sake. And please don’t leave a callback number that no one answers, or that automatically rejects all unidentified callers.

Mobile phones have become so ubiquitous, it is hard to believe that they were relatively scarce only 15 years ago. A distinct set of faux pas has evolved around them; for example, few things are less professional than a loud, indiscreet, annoying, or profane ring tone. Your recorded voice mail message needs to sound professional too – especially if patients will be hearing it.

It should be obvious that cell phones be turned off in theaters and during meetings, but many still remain on. Vibrate mode doesn’t count; anyone close by will still hear it, and you’ll be tempted to answer it. If you get a call during a movie or show, or at a meeting, and you absolutely have to answer it, quietly excuse yourself, and don’t take the call until you are alone. If you miss the call, you can always call the person back.

Answering phone calls in a restaurant is my wife’s biggest pet peeve. She says it is rude and inappropriate, and she’s right – yet it is now, arguably, the most common etiquette mistake. Never take calls (or worse, answer texts or emails) while seated at the table – which leads to another issue: Don’t put your phone on the table! You can hear it just fine from your purse or pocket; and putting it on the table implies to your companions that you are looking for something – anything – more interesting than their company. If you must take a call or read a message, excuse yourself and go to a private area.

In fact, you shouldn’t answer any nonemergent calls or texts when you are with others; it makes your friends and colleagues feel unimportant and ignored. The people you are with should always take precedence over your phone, unless it is a medical emergency or otherwise extremely urgent. On those rare occasions when it is, be polite: “Do you mind if I take this call? It’s important.” Then, once again, excuse yourself to answer privately.

One final thought: Don’t walk around wearing one of those wireless Bluetooth earpieces on your ear, as if the Governor might call at any moment. Everyone around you has to guess whether you’re addressing them or some unseen caller; and frankly – with all respect – it looks ridiculous. And pretentious.

Dr. Eastern practices dermatology and dermatologic surgery in Belleville, N.J. He is the author of numerous articles and textbook chapters, and is a longtime monthly columnist for Dermatology News. Write to him at [email protected].

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