You Had Me at Hello: Winning with the First Word in Patient Experience

welcome-receptionist?” This little adventure began when a prospective new patient called a doctor’s office for a first appointment. And “rather than saying something pleasant, like Hello, the first word out of the receptionist’s mouth was ‘Insurance?’”

The rudeness of her tone continued: “’IN! SUR! ANCE!’ She bit off each part of the word…she wanted to know the name of my insurance provider before she’d be willing to let me even speak to the person who scheduled appointments.”

This happened a while ago, but it could easily have been today. We can only imagine what happened during the actual visit—if there was a first visit.

What we do know is that a warm welcome and great service reinforces the provider choice. It opens the door to a continuing relationship, and patients want to return. Poor service drives patients away, and 90 percent of them will share their bad experience with others.

The psychology of a greeting ritual…

Psychology textbooks assign extra importance to the human hello/goodbye process. Sometimes called “greeting and separation rituals,” most of us simply appreciate the “power of hello.” The all-important first encounter—on the phone and especially in person—tends to influence and define the entire patient experience that follows.

The thing is, upwards of 80 to 90 percent of businesses—including hospitals, doctors’ offices and healthcare providers—fail the warm welcome test. We’re all familiar with the basic elements of a positive start:

  • Make eye contact
  • Deliver a warm smile (and mean it)
  • Use their name (when possible)

In addition to these mechanics of a greeting ritual (it has to be sincere), it’s important to know and use the underlying psychology—and to translate action into quality patient experience and satisfaction.

People want to feel wanted. Patients, especially someone new to the practice, need to know that they have made the right choice, that they belong here and that they are appreciated.

The 10-second clock is ticking. The opportunity to make a “first impression” is much less than a minute. If someone is not greeted in the first 10 seconds, they begin to feel ignored. In a retail environment, a customer is deciding if they will stay or leave. A patient may not leave, but they may or may not want to return.

Empathy disarms anxiety. Most medical appointments are upsetting. Something’s wrong and people are anxious about a problem that needs attention. A positive initial greeting is a reassuring start in demonstrating empathy.

Be prepared. Patients want to feel that they are expected…not an interruption. People crave attention, and having any relative materials at hand signals they are important.

Introduce yourself. People like to hear you use their name when it’s appropriate. In addition, let the patient know who you are, what you do and how you are going to help them. More than a process step, this is about building an enduring relationship and an emotional connection with patients as individuals.

A positive winning patient experience—in fact, an entire relationship—begins with “hello.” It’s not enough to “smile.” Individuals need a positive emotional connection that allows them to feel wanted, important and gives them a sense of belonging. The bottom line is that a happy patient will tell five people about their experience, and an unhappy patient will tell 25 others.

About Kathy Roy Gaughran

Senior Marketing Strategist Kathy Roy Gaughran [] has helped thousands of clients throughout North America achieve their growth goals. An award-winning strategic marketing planner, Kathy is an accomplished writer and speaker, frequently presenting to national, local and state professional associations.

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