By Ian G. Whipple, OD
May 19, 2021
Staff training poses challenges that can be hard to meet. Over the years I have developed resources and approaches to improve employee performance. Here is how I develop my staff to create a team ready to serve patients and help me grow the business.
We have a unique training manual for each position. These manuals currently range from 12 to ~50 pages depending on the job. Included are written policies and step-by-step instructions for nearly every duty a new employee in each job role will encounter. The training manuals also feature scripts employees can use to easily describe or sell a product. There are detailed instructions on how to perform specific tasks. I created the manuals so any employee can look up a task and be able to complete it with these instructions. We try to update the manuals at least once a year. As most of our employees who move on from our practice leave on good terms (to go to college, get married, move out-of-state, etc.), we ask leaving employees to review and offer updates to the training manual for their position during their last two weeks.
I spent about 24 hours writing the original optician guide. Manuals for the other positions came easier. Now that the training manuals have been written, I usually spend about 10 hours per year rewriting and updating them.
I have found that job manuals need to be organic and custom-written for each position as the positions exist specifically in my practice. I have seen other practices’ manuals, and found that they only work for the offices for which they were written.
Well-Defined Job Roles
One of the biggest areas of evolution in our practice was to carve out well-defined staff positions. When I started practice I had “super-techs,” who acted as technicians, opticians and receptionists. They billed their own products and did a great job – 90 percent of the time. These employees were extremely valuable in that they could do most things well, but I often found that small details (and sometimes big ones) were overlooked. Super-techs were hard to train and usually were not ready to work on their own for at least six months. That caused a huge investment in hiring, and often led to frustration among staff and myself. These jobs were simply too large.
Early on I separated the optometric technician from the optician job role. Over the years these positions have evolved much further. The position that I used to describe as “office manager” is now four different positions with four different staff members taking on roles that were previously assigned to one person. Now, if one of these staff members leaves, I only have to find 25 percent of a replacement for the office manager duties.
Our “receptionist” duties in my old office are now performed by an “insurance specialist,” who pulls medical and vision benefits, a “patient coordinator,” who welcomes each patient and makes sure they are introduced to the person in the office who can best help them, and a “receptionist,” who works the phones.
Our office has grown from five part-time “super-techs” to 16 support staff including: optician, receptionist, billing specialist, insurance specialist, lab technician, optometric technician and patient coordinator, among other job roles. Payroll is currently at 24.7 percent of gross.
There is plenty of online training available, especially in the current pandemic environment. However, nothing substitutes for in-person, live training. I still spend about half a day within the first week with every new hire training them personally about expectations and providing an overview of our office culture. This helps me create a more sincere professional friendship with each employee, which I feel instills confidence in our team.
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Practice Culture Emphasizing Ability to Change & Adapt
I spent a semester as an undergraduate at Utah State University in a seed beetle evolution lab where researchers were trying to get beetles that had only survived on chickpeas to adapt to mung beans. As beetles were introduced to novel hosts, most were unable to adapt and survive, but some eventually did and thrived on the new bean. I use this story with my staff as we introduce new ideas, technology and practices to improve our office. I express my confidence in each employee and make sure to listen to their feedback as we evolve the practice.
Using Staff Turnover as Opportunity for Improvement
Staff turnover can be one of the greatest challenges in any optometry practice. In our two-doctor practice, however, staff turnover has forced some of our most innovative changes.
About six years ago, the perfect storm of staff turnover hit my office. I lost four out of six employees in less than a year. Our office was forced to evolve. We made plenty of mistakes – bad hires, failed projects and superfluous learning “expenses.” But each of these mistakes forced another evolution, which led to better employees, a better-run office and better-served patients.