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Colorado ECP Shares Her Business’s Powerful Coronavirus Crisis Plan

Yes, it’s scary out there. But savvy eyecare pros can find ways to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic.

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TWO WEEKS AGO, I burst into my business partner’s office, Dr. Joe Borden, and lamented that all my Spring travel and cycling races had been cancelled. He looked up, shrugged, and suggested that this would pass soon enough.

In addition to owning a small eyecare practice in downtown Golden, CO, I race a bike for a professional cycling team headquartered in Atlanta. I was due to spend much of early April pedaling soft circles along the Mediterranean coast, drinking Tempranillo and slowly easing my way back to good form. Like the plans made by so many of us, it all evaporated overnight.

Even then, standing in Joe’s office and venting my sadness, I hadn’t imagined the consequences of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 here in the United States. He, too, seemed largely nonchalant about the forecasts made by epidemiologists and financial experts. In retrospect, that was both silly and naïve.

As global financial markets spiraled into bear territory in record time and cases of the virus began to surge in the U.S. by mid-March, we recognized the urgency in both keeping our patients and staff healthy and reconfiguring our business plan. Where the bottom ends up will depend, of course, on the trajectory of the pandemic. We know, however, that a recession is likely. The virus quickly snarled supply chains in China and then whacked demands for goods and services as businesses were forced to close and individuals hunkered down at home. Manufacturing sectors have been weak for a while and global oil prices are in a downward spiral. It seems impossible to emerge from this without second and third quarter losses that would meet the definition of a recession. The most vulnerable are small to mid-sized businesses, operating on shorter lead times with less working capital.

That sounds pretty bleak. It doesn’t have to be.

Savvy entrepreneurs can find ways to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic, even if they face the temporary closure of their practice.

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First, have a crisis plan. The number one priority for us all has to be the healthy and safety of our employees and the patients coming into the office. This means adopting stringent sanitation and personal protective measures. In my office, every employee must wear gloves during periods of patient contact, whether pre-testing, dispensing or providing direct treatment. They must wash hands and change gloves between patients. Patients are triaged prior to coming in for an appointment to screen for indications of illness, and may not enter the premises if they have a fever, respiratory symptoms or have been in close contact with a person having a confirmed case of the virus. We have closed walk-in care. Every surface in the office, including all optical frames, are sanitized between each patient. No one in the office is allowed to handle cash, and patients run their own credit cards. And, when we felt the community risk was simply too great and the American Optometric Association recommended the cessation of routine care, we locked the doors.

In short, we recognized early on that we had to look at doing anything to reduce exposure that wouldn’t impact mission-critical work, even if it meant assuming additional costs. We anticipated overreacting, and assumed a 15 percent increase in expenses, in part because cleaning processes between patients reduced patient counts and required additional labor resources, and because we had greater expenses in sanitization products and equipment due to all the protective measures.

Basically, my partner and I used the CDC’s guidelines, and customized them for the demands of the specific business. We review CDC guidelines weekly, make accommodations to the health and safety plan, and then disseminate that information to the staff.

In order to offset losses, we moved from a progressive posture to a sustaining one. We cut new initiatives and identified early on those cross-trained employees who could fill multiple roles. That allowed us to determine quickly what tasks could be dropped or deferred and how to best reduce staffing levels. It should be automatic that if today we only have three people instead of seven, everyone knows exactly what to focus on.

All those internal shifts make clear the need for communication, both with staff and with patients. We emailed several thousand patients to let them know about the existing cleanliness practices, which are being beefed up with constant training and enhancements like multiple handwashing and hand sanitization stations throughout the office. We asked that patients keep scheduled appointments with those reinforcements in mind. Optometry offices should already have preventative measures around things like cleanliness in place, so there’s a marketing benefit to supplementing those activities with the message that you care about customer’s health and wellness.

It’s important to communicate possible closures. When we reached the point where we believed a temporary shutdown was imminent, we called all of our patients on the recall list for the next three months. We reminded them that they were due for upcoming routine care, and that our office might be closed for a short time. We encouraged them to make appointments prior to closure and, for those patients waiting on the renewal of insurance benefits, we offered a temporary extension on expiring prescriptions so that they didn’t risk running out of contact lenses or would have an available set of back-up glasses. This not only benefitted our customers who hadn’t considered the need to stockpile vision care products, it also meant an increase in revenue at a time when we needed it to offset the impacts of shutting our doors.

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We began communicating with our patients in the service industry. Realizing that many felt uncertain about their long-term employment, we suggested that they use benefits as soon as possible. Many were so focused on possible income losses, that they hadn’t considered using their vision and dental benefits while still active. It’s important to market to the situation and to look for the unique business opportunities created by the current economic uncertainties.

Lastly, if all those strategies fail, small business owners can get working capital to survive and prevent mass layoffs. Small business loans have rapidly expanded. Interest rates are as low as they could possibly get. In fact, even businesses with solid financials might examine the options if they are considering expansion, as you now have the opportunity to secure financing at a very low cost of capital.

Businesses can also look into opening lines of credit to create reserve funding if needed, or getting a merchant cash advance. While these funds usually come at a higher cost of capital than a traditional loan, they are quick. In a cash crunch where speed is more important than the cost of capital, these can prove good alternatives.

Hopefully, the impacts of this pandemic will be short-lived and containment will help us to return to life as normal sooner rather than later. I’m looking forward to sitting in Spanish cafes next year. Meanwhile, using market tools, advertising, publicity and carefully crafted strategy can keep your patients thinking about you and waiting to come back.

Rebecca Furuta holds a Master’s Degree in Public Health Policy from the University of Colorado Boulder, and works as a sports vision specialist and ABOC/NCLE optician at Avenue Vision in Golden with Dr. Joe Borden, with whom she co-founded the eco eyewear lifestyle brand, Yeux & Eye (yeuxandeye.com). Email her at [email protected]

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Editor's Note

Small Changes Repeated Over Time Can Change the World

Better yet, they can benefit your business.

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I’M NOT REALLY an all or nothing sort of woman. I am a big fan of incremental improvement, the cumulative effect of making small but better choices over time … the do better today than you did yesterday school of thought. For me, done is better than perfect and waiting for perfect just means nothing ever gets done.

It’s definitely the approach I take toward the environment. I recycle at home. I own reusable straws. I mostly use eco-friendly cleaning products. I choose organic where I can, have reduced my consumption of meat and swapped what I do eat for free-range, grass fed or sustainably farmed whenever possible.

But I’m also “aging gracefully” with all the scientifically engineered help I can get, recently bought a big jug of chlorine bleach to combat the coronavirus, and will never be able to completely give up the cold, sweet chemical deliciousness that is Diet Coke.

The point is, I do what I can and I appreciate businesses that do the same. In our industry we have a growing roster of companies that are making small changes to improve their social good or environmental impact. Like Morel swapping out its old packing material for compostable peanuts and Eastman’s new Acetate Renew material made of biobased and certified recycled content soon to be available from Mazzucchelli. On page 24, we have a whole slew of brands giving back to LGBTQ youth, teachers, animals, and people in need; while Latest Releases (page 26) features a few eco-friendly styles new to the market.

These small steps are important for a long term improvement. Regardless of your political affiliation or where you fall on the issue of climate change, I don’t think anyone is effectively arguing in favor of poisoning the planet.
And it’s not just small changes to save the planet, they can save your business too. We’re living in uncertain times. Exert a little control over the fate of your business by checking out our Big Story — Recession-Proof Your Business — on page 34 for some ideas on how to combat the financial turmoil this global pandemic has thrown us all into. We only wish we had published it sooner.

Small changes repeated over time can change the world… and they can certainly benefit your business.

Best wishes for your business,

Five Smart Tips From This Issue

1. Few things are as feel-good as cute animals in glasses… and yep, there is a week dedicated to that. (Calendar, page 18)
2. After a slowdown in business, get buzz going again with a contest. We tell how to host one. (The Social Eye, page 18)
3. Forget monetary bonuses, give the people what they want: pizza and compliments. (Tip Sheet, page 50)
4. Wondering how to structure (or improve) your new staff onboarding program? Readers shared what they do… with lots more online. (Do You or Don’t You, page 66)
5. Cut the BS and make sure you aren’t just parroting nonsense. (Columns, page 62)

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Cameron Martel

Bad Reviews Don’t Have to Be Bad News

Here’s how to handle them to turn detractors into advocates and potentially earn new business too!

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GOOGLE, FACEBOOK, YELP!, Amazon, and seemingly every other online platform in existence have all made user reviews a focus of their strategy. This isn’t news to you.

Being on the receiving end of a bad review can sting, however you can leverage them to your benefit. Let’s look at how you can handle negative reviews and turn criticism into opportunity.

How Google Views Reviews

Google is on a mission to deliver a best-in-class experience to its users on all platforms.

Looking at search specifically, a great experience for a user involves having their questions answered in an intuitive and pleasant way. In this way, reviews mix with “traditional” SEO, as both SEO and reviews serve to help Google better understand the experience a business provides.

Contrary to popular belief, Google doesn’t immediately tank website rankings when they receive a bad review. If a sprinkle of bad reviews become a deluge, then you should be concerned about your SEO. But if that is the case, then I’d posit that your business has more pressing concerns…

What Bad Reviews Are (& Aren’t)

Focusing on how reviews mix with content, let’s clarify how Google treats bad reviews.

1. Bad reviews are natural and often unavoidable. Google is made up of people, and those people understand that you can’t please everyone.In fact, Google’s Quality Raters — people who review search results and provide Google feedback — are told that even the best sites/businesses get bad reviews.

2. Bad reviews are representative of a single experience, not your business in general. Considering that most people are rational and nuanced, it stands to reason that most people that come across a bad review or two take it into consideration but don’t place toto much emphasis on it. In fact, there is growing evidence that neutral and negative reviews with proper responses actually increase consumer trust.

3. Bad reviews are an opportunity to build trust. I am immediately distrusting of a business that has nothing but glowing four and five-star reviews. Nothing is perfect, and when I see an organization that is apparently flawless, my Spidey-senses start to flare up.

How to Respond

The only thing that customers value more than fair pricing and quality products is when a business treats its customers well. This doesn’t always mean a flawless first experience; it can also be how a business responds to a challenging situation.

There are a lot of ways to respond to a poor review. Before you do, consider leveraging these best practices:

1. Avoid generic or canned responses. Not only will your audience see right through it, but the best outcome you can expect is apathy. Nobody wants platitudes.

2. If appropriate, admit the mistake and provide next-steps. We all make mistakes, so don’t be afraid to own them. Humility is endearing and users will resonate with you for admitting fault. The key is to then provide the next step — “This is what we did wrong, here is how we will fix it.”

3. Be empathetic, not defensive. Getting defensive in your response is a surefire way to alienate the reviewer as well as show other users that your ego is more important than their satisfaction. Bad reviews can sting … it’s best to let the sting roll off your shoulders and to respond with empathy. In a situation where you weren’t at fault, don’t place blame on the customer (or anywhere else for that matter). Acknowledge the problem and focus on solving it; deciding who is at fault doesn’t matter to the denizens of the internet.

4. Drill into specifics. If the review doesn’t go into detail, in your reply ask the customer to reach out to you directly and provide them personally so that you can work with them. Not only does this give the original reviewer a direct line to get their problem solved, but it tells anyone reading the review that you care and want to make things right.

Reviews Are People!

And people respond best when engaged with respect and courtesy. Following the above tips, you’ll turn detractors into advocates (and win new business!).

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John Marvin

How Much is Your Practice Really Worth?

When someone wants to buy your practice make sure to take into account all of the intangibles.

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ANYONE PAYING ATTENTION over the last five years knows there is a significant amount of consolidation happening. An estimated 20 or more companies with funding from private equity firms are actively purchasing private optometry practices. The idea is that this will ultimately lead to a second round of acquisitions with potentially huge valuations.

This consolidation has produced a windfall for companies that professionally, and supposedly objectively, determine the value of a practice. I often get calls from doctors who want to retire and sell their practice to a young associate or entrepreneurial optometrist. I direct them to a handful of professionals I trust.

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Historically, there are three valuations for a practice: the value the buyer determines, the value the banker or lender determines, and the value the seller believes is correct. They all have competing interests. What’s happened in the past five to seven years is the addition of a fourth valuation: whatever a private equity funded company will pay for the practice. I have often heard that the value of anything is what someone is willing to pay.

Many are jumping at the chance to cash in, which usually requires the selling doctor to sign a three to five-year employment agreement.

There are essential aspects to a practice’s value that traditional calculations do not take into account. For people who have been successful in building a large optometry practice, some things are as important as money. For these entrepreneurs, there are other aspects to consider when determining the value of their practice.

Freedom

This might seem esoteric, but there is actual value to having the freedom to practice as you wish. Once you have sold the practice you no longer have the freedom to make equipment purchases you consider essential. You no longer have the freedom to take a vacation with your family on your terms. You no longer have the freedom to determine what products and services you will offer patients.

Connection to Community

When you own a practice, you are grateful for the people in your community who put their trust in you. You show gratitude by becoming involved in your community. You donate to fundraisers. You join civic organizations. You enjoy living in a community that expresses its appreciation for you, your staff, and the health and welfare you contribute. There is a value to your community connection. If you no longer own the practice this changes. It’s now the responsibility of the new owner to connect with their community. Your practice is one of many purchased by them, and they do not have the connection to the community you valued.

Relationships

When you own a practice, you have both independence and responsibility to form relationships. This includes relationships with your staff — and their families — and with your patients. You have staff members who have been with you for years and are invested in you and your commitment to providing care. Those relationships took time and energy and aren’t something an accountant can place a value on. When you no longer own your practice, the building of these relationships is out of your hands.

I could go on … and I bet you can too now that you’re thinking. When someone wants to buy your practice and attempts to determine how much it’s worth, make sure to take into account all of the intangibles. I would encourage you to place some value on things other than just EBITDA.

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