American Association for Physician Leadership

Problem Solving

Handling the Tougher Callers in the Healthcare Practice

Spencer Peller

October 8, 2022


Tough calls can be handled effectively in the healthcare practice, but it takes practice. The first step is analyzing the type of person who is calling your practice so you can deal with him or her in a particular way.

You will encounter several types of tough callers. Although you will deal with other types of tough patients as well, these are the most common types, and these are the ones I want to provide you with strategies to handle effectively:

  1. The tire kicker;

  2. The price shopper;

  3. The skeptic;

  4. The know-it-all;

  5. The curious patient;

  6. The angry patient;

  7. The patient who drags on and on; and

  8. The unsure patient.

The Tire Kicker

Like the person who goes to the car dealership and kicks the tires on many different cars but never buys one, the tire kicker loves to ask lots of questions about what you do, but really isn’t looking to book an appointment. The easiest way to determine whether the caller is a qualified prospect and not a tire kicker is to determine the urgency of the call. You need to find out if the caller is indeed committed to doing something about his or her problem.

Asking the following questions can help you identify a tire kicker:

  1. When were you looking to start treatment for your condition? A caller who has no idea is not a qualified patient.

  2. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest, how urgent do you feel your need for care is? Anything less than a 7 is not qualified.

  3. If we were able to show you a way to treat your condition right away, would you be interested in booking an appointment to find out more? If the answer to this question is no, the caller is not qualified.

  4. What will be the consequences of not taking care of this condition you have? If the caller cannot give you any consequences of not treating the condition, he or she is not qualified.

  5. How is your condition negatively impacting your life? If the caller says there’s no negative impact, he or she is not qualified.

I am not suggesting that you avoid the callers who are not qualified, but I am recommending that you have a plan for them that doesn’t involve your staff members spending a lot of time on the phone with them. Chances are you have brochures with lots of information, a website, regular seminars people can attend to find out more about what you do, and so on. The callers that you deem to be “not qualified at this time” should be invited to one of those options so your practice runs at its highest efficiency levels at all times.

The Price Shopper

The person who calls your practice and has a lot of questions about what costs may be incurred as a result of your services may be labeled as a price shopper. But do not make the mistake of confusing the price shopper with a tire kicker.

The sequence in handling the price shopper call looks something like this:

  1. Once you diagnose the caller as a price shopper who needs to hear some sort of cost structure before moving forward with the call, give him or her a quick cost range for your services (it can be as wide as you want).

  2. Immediately after providing the cost range, quickly move into a helper’s role where your only focus is to educate the caller on the various levels of services you provide along with the benefits of each type of service.

  3. Don’t try and close the caller on one particular service, as you risk being perceived as pushy. Instead, focus on making sure the caller has a complete understanding of the benefits of each type of service.

  4. When the caller understands the benefits from each level of service, ask him or her which one feels most “comfortable.” When the price shopper is educated, there’s a good chance he or she will make a decision right then and there.

  5. If the price shopper does not book an appointment on the call, follow up after the call to see if you can help educate him or her in any other ways.

The Skeptic

Skeptics are difficult to deal with because they need quite a bit of attention in order to turn them from skeptics to believers. However, skeptics can be turned into huge fans of your practice if you understand how to handle them well.

Generally, skeptics are skeptical for one of two reasons:

  1. They have been burned by another doctor’s office regarding something they thought would work but didn’t and now they are hesitant; or

  2. They have no idea what you do and are genuinely afraid of making a mistake.

To determine which of these two reasons apply to your skeptic, ask one simple question: “Mrs. Brown, you seem skeptical about what we do at ABC Clinic. How come?”

This question cuts right to the chase and should quickly uncover the underlying cause of the caller’s skepticism. When you know the reason for the caller’s skepticism, here is your strategy:

  • For the caller who has been burned by another doctor’s office: The best way to handle this type of skeptic is to connect with them on that very topic. Skeptics who have doubt because of something that happened somewhere else need to be reassured that they weren’t the only ones who were disappointed by what happened. They will begin to trust you once they know that you will do things differently, so it’s your job to have that conversation with them and assure them that you will.

  • For the caller who has no idea what you do and is genuinely afraid of making a mistake: The best way to handle this type of skeptic is to share stories of other patients who have come to your practice feeling the same way and have been surprised to see the great results they were able to achieve. They are relieved when they get to put away their fears, because no one likes to be scared. Having a condition that needs to be treated can be a very stressful time for your patients, so making your callers more comfortable by relating to their emotions is always a good thing.

The Know-It-All

The know-it-all calls your practice and can’t wait to tell you everything he or she knows about their condition, the available treatments, new products coming on the market, and so on. They have done their homework and consider themselves experts in many topics (whether they are is another story . . . ).

In reality, the Know-It-Alls are actually quite easy to deal with if you have the right frame of mind when taking their calls. Put yourself in their shoes for a minute. If you have spent the time to research something and want to share what you discovered with someone, chances are you really just want someone to listen to you rather than comment. That’s why the number one rule in speaking with a know-it-all is to be a good listener. Know-it-alls need to be heard, so let them speak first and take good notes while they are speaking. Then follow this simple sequence of steps and you will have a great chance of converting the know-it-all into a booked patient:

  1. Let the know-it-all finish telling you what he or she knows before you comment. Do not interrupt.

  2. Take good notes so when you comment on what the know-it-all has said, your comments are pertinent to the conversation and don’t get off track. Know-it-alls don’t want to have the conversation go sideways.

  3. Begin by agreeing with the know-it-all on all of the things he or she said that were correct. Know-it-alls love acknowledgment that they are well-versed on the topics they brought up.

  4. If the know-it-all made statements that were incorrect, finish by countering those comments last, and in the most polite way possible. But before countering the comments, acknowledge that others may share the know-it-all’s opinion. You never want the know-it-all to feel stupid.

  5. If you counter the know-it-all in any way, you will need a lot of data to support why your practice disagrees with anything the know-it-all has said. Know-it-alls hate to be wrong, but they do respect that other opinions may exist, which is why they are looking to you for help in making their decision about treatment plans. So make sure you can back-up your counter-statements.

  6. Leave room for the know-it-all to make comments in response to your comments. You need the know-it-all to agree with you so he or she is more likely to choose your practice.

The key to handing calls from know-it-alls is keeping your composure. They will test you at times, so stay calm and just follow the strategy. While some staff members may feel the need to flex their intellectual muscle with the know-it-alls in order to maintain dominance in the call, we strongly recommend against that.

The Curious Patient

Curious patients are often the most enjoyable patients to speak with on the phone. They are interested in everything you have to say, are eager to find out more, and are open to a lot of new ideas. In short, your front desk staff members always feel good after talking to curious patients. However, curious patients still need to be handled with a strategy in mind so you can successfully convert them into patients without having to take 10 different calls from them in order to answer all of their questions.

To take your place at the table with curious patients, you need to let them know that your practice is indeed one of those groups that places a high value on curiosity.

First and foremost, curious patients need to know that as a patient of your practice, they will always have their questions answered. So while you may feel the need to have an answer for every question they ask in order to secure the appointment, in reality, you don’t. Instead, your most important job is to assure the patient that you will always answer their questions, whether on the phone or in your office, with the right information—even if it means you need to do research.

To take your place at the table with curious patients, you need to let them know that your practice is indeed one of those groups that places a high value on curiosity. In doing so, you won’t just secure the patients for one appointment, you will secure them for life.

They are a pleasure to have in your office and will reward your practice with lots of appointments once they are engaged in the great services you provide.

The Angry Patient

An angry phone call from a patient is never fun to receive and something your team members probably try to avoid at all costs. The great thing about calls from the angry patient is that if you handle the calls correctly, there’s a good chance you will win the patient over in the long term. However, if handled incorrectly, the patient will be lost forever.

Your team must be well-disciplined in dealing with the angry patient. Here’s the process that gives you the best opportunity to be successful:

  1. Be a great listener. The first step in handling an angry patient is to listen to his or her problem attentively. When someone is angry, sometimes they just want you to hear them out. Most people realize that not every problem can be solved, and usually they don’t even expect you to solve it. The fact that you are listening to the problem can be reason enough for them to calm down.

  2. Don’t argue or interrupt. It is vital that your staff does not argue with, interrupt, or raise their voice to the patient until he or she has completely finished describing the problem or complaint. If your staff argues with or interrupts the patient, they will further provoke anger and frustration.

  3. Don’t question the patient’s correctness. Your staff must always assume that the patient is right. Even if it becomes obvious the caller is wrong, now is not the time to disagree—nothing positive can be gained. In fact, correcting the patient increases the risk that the patient will be lost forever. Therefore, your job in handling the angry phone call is to make the patient feel as though he or she is right so that you can calm the patient down. A calm patient is a rational patient, so save the judgment on correctness for a later phone call.

  4. Apologize and empathize. Once your staff member has listened to the entire complaint from the patient, it is time to apologize. It is important that the apology be made with empathy. An easy way for your staff members to structure their apology is to start by apologizing for the inconveniences, and then move to sympathy and understanding of why the patient would be angry. For example: “We are so sorry for your inconvenience; I can only imagine how frustrating this must be for you.”

  5. Keep your composure at all times. The key to handling the angry patient is to maintain your composure at all times. If a staff member loses his or her composure with the patient, then in all likelihood the patient will be lost forever. It will be very tempting for staff members to raise their voice, especially if the caller is being verbally aggressive; but your team needs to assume the caller is just looking to vent.

  6. Admit there’s a problem. Staff members must admit to the angry patient that there is a problem before suggesting solutions. Admitting there is a problem makes the patient feel as though he or she has brought up an important point that needs to be addressed by your practice, and thus the patient, now feeling as though he or she is part of the solution, is more apt to be loyal to your practice.

  7. Get the patient to suggest a solution. Although you don’t have to agree with the proposed solution a patient may offer, it is still very important that you ask him or her to suggest a solution. By involving angry patients in the solution processes, you empower them to be more active in your practice—which is what you want to happen if you are to turn a negative situation into a positive one.

  8. Don’t attempt to resolve the issue on the spot. Angry patients don’t expect a resolution right on the spot (despite what they might say in the call). Therefore, tell the caller that you need a reasonable amount of time to research the issue and get back to them. I suggest a minimum of 24 hours. Waiting a full day to respond is important because it allows the caller time to calm down. A calm patient is a more reasonable patient.

  9. Give the wrong patient an out. Sometimes angry patients are just flat-out wrong about the issue(s) they have raised. While it may be tempting at that point to take a firm stance on their error, which can threaten the dignity of the patient, you want to avoid this at all costs. Instead, your staff member should offer the patient a way out so he or she doesn’t lose face. Let the patient know the facts and then offer up a resolution that makes him or her feel grateful to your practice.

The Patient Who Drags On and On

Everyone is familiar with these patients. They call your practice and before you know it they are well into their life story and would continue on whether you had the phone up to your ear or not. So how do you avoid being rude to this caller while making sure you advance the call as quickly as possible?

These patients need to be handled with 50% politeness and 50% firmness. In other words, they need to be told what to do but in the nicest way possible! The amazing thing about the patients who drag on and on is that when they are directed to do something, they generally do it without any hesitation.

Here’s an example of how to handle the patient who is dragging on and on: “I’m sorry, Mrs. Jones, the office is swamped today. I hate to interrupt you as I always enjoy speaking with you. The best bet is for us to get you scheduled for your appointment to see the doctor, as you definitely need to come in. I can squeeze you in tomorrow at 2 pm or tomorrow at 3:30 pm—which one works better for you?”

You are simply informing the caller that you are busy and that the most important thing is for her to schedule her appointment. The other reason this response works so well is because you also acknowledged that you love speaking to the patient, which will be music to Mrs. Jones’s ears.

The Unsure Patient

We’ve all handled calls where no matter how committed the callers appeared to be, they had a hard time making the appointment. The key to handling this caller is not selling the features and benefits of your service, but focusing instead on the consequences of doing nothing at all—for example, warning that their condition may worsen rapidly. This should help the caller move off the fence and book an appointment.

If the caller has a condition that needs to be treated and you have a treatment for it, anything short of booking an appointment then and there really is putting them at risk.

Using fear to advance a call is something I don’t recommend using too often, as it is a bit of a dangerous path that can turn callers off. However, with the unsure caller it is the right strategy to take, because in reality, it’s what they need to hear for their own good! If the caller has a condition that needs to be treated and you have a treatment for it, anything short of booking an appointment then and there really is putting them at risk.

Here’s a great way to handle this difficult conversation with the unsure caller:

PATIENT: I’m just not sure I’m ready to book an appointment yet. Maybe I should just wait a bit to see how I feel in a few days?

FRONT DESK STAFF MEMBER: Mrs. Albertson, while we can’t force you to come in, it is our job to make you aware of what could happen if you wait too long to be treated. Patients with your condition have experienced ABC and XYZ, and, therefore, you run the risk of doing further damage to yourself if you wait. Your best bet is to come in to see the doctor right away and then we will at least be able to see what is going on and how dangerous it might be to your health. We can squeeze you in tomorrow—I have a spot open at 10:45 am and one at 3:15 pm. Which one would work best for you?

This tone of voice works well with the unsure caller because it shows that you are doing your job, and no one will fault you for that. Not only are you taking the right strategy to secure the appointment, you are also handling the patient with the utmost care possible. That is behavior any caller will respect.

Spencer Peller

CEO and Co-Founder, YesTrak, and author of Own the Phone: Proven Ways of Handling Calls, Securing Appointments, and Growing Your Healthcare Practice (American Association for Physician Leadership®, 2015), Henderson, Nevada; e-mail:; website: .

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