September 3, 2020
Inside: The pros and cons of phone automation for your independent pharmacy.
Automated phone menus may seem like a chain pharmacy convenience, but small independent pharmacies can reap the benefits of phone automation. There are even systems designed with independent pharmacies in mind and integrate with pharmacy management systems.
Most automation systems available to small business use a technology called interactive voice response, or IVR. From a patient’s perspective, IVR works like this: They call the pharmacy and are greeted with a pre-recorded message. That message includes prompts to guide them to the service they need, for example, “To refill your prescription, say ‘Refill,’ or press 1.”
In a pharmacy, an automated phone system can reduce the barrage of phone calls that interrupt workflow, but not all patients will be enthusiastic about the technology.
So is an automated phone system right for your stores? These pros and cons can help you decide if this tech will fit into your independent pharmacy
Automated phone systems are more accessible to small businesses than ever, and the efficiencies they create can even save your pharmacy money. These pros may convince you to take the plunge.
Whether it is a provider’s office calling in a prescription or a patient who wants to speak to a pharmacist, automated phone systems can quickly direct calls to appropriate person.
When humans are answering the phone, callers will inevitably have to be placed on hold as the person on the other end fumbles to find the right extension. A well-designed phone automation also eliminates the human error of being connected to the wrong person or getting accidentally disconnected.
Your staff probably can’t be available every hour of every day, but your phone system can. With automation, you can be there for your patients even when you’re not actually there.
Most people have had that moment of realization, right before they fall asleep at night, that they’ve forgotten to refill an important prescription. With an automated system, patients can call and have service outside of normal business hours.
The pharmacists and technicians behind your counter are professionals trained to do a specific job, and if they are spending time directing phone calls, they aren’t exactly practicing at the top of their license.
When you outsource that work to an automated system, you pay a low monthly fee for the service and free up staff members’ time so they can focus on the high-level parts of their job description.
Being greeted by an automated system instead of a pharmacy employee — with all the sounds of the pharmacy echoing in the background — can create an image of professionalism for your store.
Even if you’re just a mom-and-pop shop with a few employees, having an automated phone system can make your store feel like a bigger operation and give patients and prospective patients more confident about the service they will receive.
A robust IVR not only receives in-bound calls but also makes outbound calls, easing the burden of your team and increasing engagement with patients — it can make will-call pickup reminders, flu shot reminders, and more.
IVR’s can be programmed to market your services while patients wait to reach a representative. Altough you would rather patients not be on hold, sometimes that is inevitable, and that is a great opportunity to let them know about your seasonal offerings or your clinical services they may be unaware of.
Some patients — especially older patients with less tech experience — will shy away from an automated phone experience. Be on the lookout for these issues that make your phone system more efficient for patients and staff.
Especially as you transition from a person picking up the phone to an automated system, some patients will be frustrated with the change and take a while to get used to the ways things work. Others are simply put off by talking to a robot instead of a human.
A poorly designed system will also cause patients to become irritated with the phone system. If they can’t accomplish the task they called in for with the existing menus, they may hang up the phone and take their business where they can get more straightforward service.
Voice recognition can be a selling point for these systems, but it also can be a source of annoyance. Patients may think they are giving a straightforward answer, but the phrase they are using isn’t recognized by the phone system.
Patients who speak with accents or have other speaking impairments often find that automated systems can’t decipher their speech, and therefore have a hard time communicating their needs to the pharmacy.
One of the selling points of a community pharmacy is the personalized service that patients receive. With an automated system, that personalization can get lost.
Even if you tailor your menu to the exact services your patients need, some of them still won’t be happy with an automated phone answering service. Patients calling in because of health worries or concerns about their medications might be especially put off by getting a recording on the phone instead of a person.
Phone automation programs can do more complex tasks than ever before, but it can be tricky to execute your menu in a way that makes sense. You’re a pharmacy owner, not a tech expert, so getting a system up and running can sometimes be a challenge.
And, if you don’t create a logical menu, you can end up sending patients in circles around the system without them ever receiving any service.
Despite the cons, the efficiency that a phone automation system can add to your pharmacy is undeniable. Keep these tips in mind to make your automation system straightforward and pleasant for patients to use.
Limit the options presented to patients in the first audio menu. If patients have too many options, they may get distracted before they reach the message they need or have a hard time choosing.
Once they get past the first menu, patients shouldn’t face more than two or three more steps to accomplish what they need. The more convoluted the path is, the more difficult it will be to keep patients on the phone.
Many automation systems come with the option to use a computer-generated voice, and while they sound more realistic than they used to, most still sound like robots.
Instead of going with the computer-generated voice, you or a staff member can record all the messages in the phone tree and upload them to the system. The tone of the messages should align with your current marketing, which will help the automation feel more familiar.
Most systems are designed to recognize human speech, but you should give patients the option to use the keypad to make choices, too. Sometimes, patients just want to refill a prescription and aren’t in a place where they can speak on the phone.
Having both voice recognition and keypad interaction makes your phone system more accessible, especially to patients who may speak English with an accent that isn’t recognized by the phone system.
Having clear cut options in your main menu will encourage patients to stick with the automated help, but there are still some patients who will only want to talk to a human staff member.
For those folks, don’t make it difficult — or impossible — to get a real person on the line. They shouldn’t have to sit through several layers of automation before the option to speak to a staff member is presented. Instead, make sure your messaging includes clear instructions on how to reach a representative at any point during the phone call.
PBA Health is dedicated to helping independent pharmacies reach their full potential on the buy side of their business. The company is a member-owned organization that serves independent pharmacies with group purchasing services, expert contract negotiations, proprietary purchasing tools, distribution services, and more.
An HDA member, PBA Health operates its own NABP-accredited (formerly VAWD) warehouse with more than 6,000 SKUs, including brands, generics, narcotics CII-CV, cold-storage products, and over-the-counter (OTC) products.