Robert Bell: The Socratic Method

Why ‘educating’ cheapskate patients rarely works (unless you do this first )

This article originally appeared in the Nov-Dec 2014 edition of INVISION.

I read a post on ODs on Facebook recently that reminded me of the title of one of my favorite novels — and it occurred to me that it also seems to describe how ECPs are feeling about their patients lately. The title? A Confederacy of Dunces.

To illustrate my point, here is the post, verbatim:

“Parents are on my last nerve today ... Please help with a good comeback when a parent wants the ‘cheapest’ contacts, glasses, etc., but the kid has on Nikes that are over $150 and the newest iPhone in hand. I’ve tried to be nice and educate the whole ‘you get what you pay for,’ but I need a new take home tag line to get into these thick skulls.”

I admit: Without the insight to understand what’s going on here or the techniques to turn this around so everyone wins, it can be extremely frustrating.

optical sales tips from Socrates

Yes, the kid was wearing expensive sneakers and had the latest iPhone. How do you know that the parents weren’t wiped out, financially, the day before? The sign on your practice doesn’t read “Optometry and Clairvoyant,” does it? Now, the probability is that if the kid is sporting expensive items, everything is fine financially. But who are any of us to make purchasing decisions for others? Does your sign read “Optical Shoppe and Financial Planning?”

You are their eyecare professional. No more, but certainly no less! Your responsibility is to give the best care, service and products to help your patients maintain their best health and vision. Whether they can afford it or not isn’t your call. What is of utmost importance is that you communicate, with your patients, the very best choices for their particular ophthalmic challenges.

Notice I said “communicate,” not “educate.” ECPs just love to educate their patients. Yeah, cut that out. It doesn’t work. I’ve been watching ECPs for years trying to educate their patients and your batting average is just awful. OK, I just told a little lie. Educating your patients does work, but only if you educate them at the right time! What I’ve observed is that you try to educate when their hearing is turned off because you’re actually talking at them. Or, in the case of “I just want the cheapest contacts or glasses,” you try to educate them at this point and prefacing it with some semblance of “Yeah, but ...” It’s the beginning of an argument and no one wins an argument. “Yes, I understand that you don’t wish to spend a lot of money, but the cheapest lenses aren’t as good as the more expensive lenses and here’s why ...” This hardly works.

So, how do you communicate first and and educate second? Let me quote Socrates who said, “I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.” How do you make someone think? Ask a question! Ah, but what are the questions to ask? I’m a fan of breaking things down to their most basic form so, I like to ask the simplest, most direct questions I can. In regards to the original post, here are three questions you might find helpful:

“What’s more important for you today: quality or price?” Say it nicely, sincerely, with a gentle smile. Look them in the eyes and do not say another word until you get a response.

“OK, we have different price points so, may I ask, how well would you like your child to see? 53 percent? 68 percent? 86 percent? 100 percent?” Say this innocently, with good humor and a gentle smile. Wait for a response.

“Sure, we can do that. The cheap stuff is the most uncomfortable and irritating. Would that be a problem for you (or your child)?” Again, say this gently and sincerely, and wait for the response.

However they respond, you have the opportunity to educate them on the better products. If they opt for the cheaper stuff, my next question to you is: Why are you carrying cheap stuff in the first place?

Robert Bell believes in “uncommon sense,” inside-out thinking and challenging the status quo of traditional selling methods. He is the creator of The EyeCoach Selling System, “Don’t Be Afraid, It’s Only Selling!”, is a managing partner of The Visionaries Group and Co-director for Project Homeless Connect-Vision Volunteers in San Francisco. Email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.