Wilson Eye Center, Valdosta, GA

BEST OF THE BEST: Georgia practice provides super customer service (while smartly branding itself) through its free local contact lens delivery service

Dr. Steven Wilson was running a pretty typical eyecare practice — and that was the problem. By 2009, he felt like his five-optometrist office, which had just doubled its space, was in a marketing rut. The eyePOD proved to be a way to get the Wilson Eye Center name seen all over Valdosta, GA, while keeping patients happy and holding online retailers at bay.

THE IDEA

Wilson and his competitors were running the same types of ads and promotions, a mix of broadcast, print and digital. “Branding” had taken off as a buzzword, and he was looking for a way to stand out.

“We wanted something really simple that was very ‘sticky,’” says Wilson, who started his practice in 1981.

Wilson knew that his practice, with a staff of 35, had plenty to offer with its optical lab, a 4,000-frame dispensary and the newly expanded 12,000-square-foot floor plan.

But the fact that online eyewear retailers were trying to grab market share, especially in contact lenses, was not lost on him. He figured that same-day service might be a way to differentiate his office. It would prevent patients from having to make return trips for bifocal, toric or other contacts not in stock. For a sense of the logistics, Wilson met with the owner of a local drugstore that did home delivery.

Soon his hopes for a distinctive marketing concept had been realized. Even a few years later, Wilson doesn’t know of another practice doing exactly what his does. “I assume it’s just an extra effort that people don’t want to do,” he says. The service is especially popular among working parents who are short on time.

Best of all, the eyePOD — Personal Optical Delivery — no longer requires much thought to maintain.

“With typical marketing, you have to come up with new ideas over and over, and after a while it’s hard to come up with them,” he says. “This lasts indefinitely.”

THE EXECUTION

With the concept in place, the next order of business was a car. The practice picked up a new Pontiac for $7,500 — 50 percent off the sticker price — as General Motors was retiring the brand. A snazzy wrap, turning the car into a moving advertisement, cost another $2,500.

Of course, the car needed a driver. Hiring a local university student for 25 hours a week proved sufficient. When there are no deliveries the Pontiac is available to run errands.

Route-planning is tricky business — or at least it used to be, before Google Maps. Now, practice staff members just enter addresses and let the app determine the optimal delivery route.

The patient has to sign for the goods. “We take no money at delivery,” Wilson says. “Everything has to be prepaid.”

THE REWARDS

Wilson Eye Center now makes about 100 deliveries a month, all for free. Those deliveries make up a small portion of total sales, and deliveries don’t seem to be increasing or decreasing. Wilson says the real payoff comes in exposure and branding. The delivery program, he adds, “lets people know that we recognize the value of patient service. This is an extension of the internal operations of our office.”

The eyePOD and digital marketing have allowed the practice to scale back on print advertising. It no longer runs display spots in the Yellow Pages, for example.

The service is also a way to hang onto existing business.

“Patients could ask for a copy of their prescription and order them online,” Wilson says. “Because we provide this service, they continue to purchase from our office.”


DO IT YOURSELF

Get your “house” in order before hitting the road. “It’s easy enough to implement,” Wilson says, “but if your office is not committed to great patient service internally, you should probably focus on that first.”

Hire the right driver, preferably one with not only a clean driving record, but also customer service experience.

Don’t count on a direct return on investment. “We tried to charge for the delivery service in the beginning, but that didn’t fly,” Wilson says. “After five or seven days, we stopped charging and it took off.”

Know where your customers are so you can define a service area. “Ours is a semi-rural area, and our county is essentially our patient base. In a larger market, that could be harder. If I were in a metro area, I might get a courier service to do basically the same thing.”

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