Finding Your Optical Match Made in Heaven

 STORY BY CAROL GILHAWLEY 

Choosing a laboratory is a little like choosing a life partner — you’re looking for loyalty and a similar mindset, you want to be treated well, and maybe every once in a while you’d like them to sweep you off your feet. We can’t help you make a love connection but we can offer you some tips to help you find that special someone for your practice.

A partnership with a lab works if you have the basics, “like good turn times, quality products and consistent service,” says Bryan Schueler, general manager and vice president of Walman Optical in Minneapolis, MN. 

Facebook groups, online forums and peers are all good sources when it comes to choosing the right lab. Some ECPs form decades-long relationships with their labs. Others periodically shop around. The real story is that in labs, as in love, your partner needs to work with you, not against you.

 

WHO ARE YOU?

“In addition to finding out the lab’s prices and warranties, ECPs should ask: Who are you and who are you associated with?” says Adam Cherry, president of Cherry Optical in Green Bay, WI. “A key question might be: ‘Do you want to support laboratories owned by companies that openly compete with you?’ If ‘Yes,’ then all options are available. If, ‘No,’ then do a little digging to find laboratories that match your business philosophies,” he suggests. The current landscape is one in which lens manufacturers own wholesale optical laboratories and are aligned with vision plan providers, online retailers, and brick-and-mortar retailers, and often have off-shore facilities.

Bruce Kaplan, sales manager with Three Rivers Optical in Pittsburgh, PA, advises you to ask yourself: “Do I support large multinational labs that send a large percentage of their work offshore and push their own lens agendas, or do I support American workers in American labs?”

 

INDEPENDENTS FOR INDEPENDENTS

The main challenges facing ECPs, Schueler explains, are: keeping and training staff, marketing, and improving profitability with managed care. “You need to find a lab that’s focused on your success,” he says. “They need to ensure you’re successful because the more successful you are, the more successful they’ll be.”

There are over 100 independent labs in the U.S. Walman is the largest, doing 8,800 jobs a day and working with 3,500 practices in 30 major territories.

One benefit of independent labs is that they can offer you more choice, since they’re not affiliated with a particular lens manufacturer. “Changing laboratory support has a dramatically greater impact than changing lens brands,” Cherry says. “ECPs should be cognizant of the independent route now with Essilor’s acquisition of Luxottica. They should dig deeper when looking at warranties, service levels and support... What lab you support makes a big difference.”

 

ASK ABOUT PRICES AND WARRANTIES

Kaplan and Schueler agree a lab needs to be competitive on pricing, but not necessarily the cheapest. “Low prices come with other issues: slower turn time, limited or no warranties and product limitations,” Kaplan says. “You need to ask how many price lists they have. If they’re offering you a huge discount,  what price list are they using, for example, X% off what amount?” 

A lab should be reasonable in its warranties too. Kaplan advises that you ask: “Will you help if I need something that falls outside the written warranty?”

 

FINDING A GOOD LAB PARTNER

 Staff training is key, especially with new products. A good lab will offer training programs, webinars, classes and on-site sessions to educate you and your staff.

Does the lab have a knowledgeable rep you can build a relationship with? Kaplan of Three Rivers Optical says they should be able to help you understand products and how to market them. “A rep with optical experience can help with pricing, insurance and profitability.”

Labs can help ECPs find and retain patients, and even suggest ways to save money. Walman’s ADO Practice Solutions Group offers a membership program with free frame shipping, contact lens rebates, vendor discounts and consolidated billing.

Becoming profitable with managed care is another issue a lab can help with. “Practices can do well with managed care,” Walman’s Schueler says. “It can be a powerful program, but ECPs need guidance to optimize it.”

A lab owner should be accessible and available if you don’t always want to deal with the lab manager or customer service.

Some labs only offer limited brands and products. A lab with a large array of products from many manufacturers can give an ECP freedom of choice. 

QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF

Steve Sutherlin, Lab Division liaison at The Vision Council, said: “Every survey I’ve ever seen about why ECPs choose a lab to partner with says quality is the overwhelming number one reason.” Quality isn’t just measured by the accuracy of the Rx, but can include other factors too, such as:

  • The lab’s customer service team. Can you count on great information and consistent follow through? 
  • Internal operations. Is the lab a well-oiled machine or do things fall through the cracks? Do they consistently perform or do you have to keep an eye on them?
  • Sales force. Is the lab’s rep a true partner in seeking success?
  • Do they have a courier system that is always on time and hassle free?
  • Are they invested in modern technology?
  • Do they support things that matter to you? For example, your state association or a favored charity.
  • Do they provide important services such as professional training?
  • Do they make handling warranties hassle free?
  • The Vision Council’s Lab Division has many tools to help labs become great partners to ECPs. These include customer service training, marketing resources, sales rep coaching, shipping services, the “Indispensable Dispensing Guide,” the “Clear Choices” patient guide, and much more. Is your lab a member?
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