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Ubiquitous and omnipresent yet little lauded and rarely acknowledged — INVISION honors the legion of excellent vendor representatives with five profiles of standout retailer/rep relationships.

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THE SALES REP … the unsung hero or cursed villain of many an optical. A vendor’s representative in the field, they are the low-key workhorse of the eyewear, lens and contact lens sales process, the infantry, the warriors on the frontlines. The relationship between sales rep and optical retailer is one of the pillars of this industry. A good one is worth its weight in gold. A bad one, well, a bad one can sour a retailer on an entire manufacturer for all time.

So, what qualities do you look for in a fantastic rep? We asked ECPs that very question and got a range of answers, from honesty, a willingness to please, knowledgeability and being quick with a joke, to always returning phone calls and a fondness for trunk shows. (Having a cute dog doesn’t hurt, either.) We even asked them to introduce us to their favorite reps, who shared some of their secrets with us. We hope you’ll find these five ECP/rep relationships as educational and inspiring as we do.

Verbelee Nielsen-Swanson (left), Gwen Stevenson (right)

Verbelee Nielsen-Swanson, Oxford Eyes, Orlando, FL
Gwen Stevenson, Optical Solutions

“Gwen is such an amazing rep and is always there for us,” says Oxford Eyes owner Verbelee Nielsen-Swanson of her Optical Solutions’ lens rep, Gwen Stevenson. “She comes to our trunk shows to assist and even brings refreshments, provides education, problem solves, connects us with others in the industry, and will even fill in as an optician when one of our opticians is out. She is joyful and always brings her zest of life when she visits us.”

In particular, Nielsen-Swanson appreciates Stevenson’s dedication and flexibility. If her team finds itself dealing with an unusual situation regarding lenses or the lab, she says, Stevenson is there to help, and if she doesn’t know the answer, “she is tenacious and will research until she finds it.” Stevenson has even been known to rearrange her schedule to assist Oxford Eyes with pop-up and community charity events, and she and the practice’s opticians travel together to attend continuing education. Most importantly, says Nielsen-Swanson, “Gwen is a friend and always asks about the team and our families, and we in turn know about her family. It is a mutual relationship, both professionally and personally, of trust, friendship and genuine caring. We feel that Gwen is truly committed to our success and know that she is always supporting us.”

For Stevenson, an independent sales consultant working with independent labs whose accounts comprise privately owned optical, optometric and ophthalmology practices, going that extra mile just comes naturally. Her approach, she says, is centered on the needs of the ECP, so it varies from account to account. “I am a licensed optician, so I can speak the optical language,” she says. “I also managed an optical many years ago, and so I understand the management side. I have worked 20 years in the optical industry for a major optical laboratory. So I have a mix of a lot of optical business knowledge.”

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Importantly, she identifies her agenda as that of the account — not the lens manufacturer or optical lab. “It is all about the ECPs’ goals, their need to reach their goals. The accounts need to know that their rep has their best interest, always.”
Stevens said one of the things she loves most about her job is strategizing with ECPs and setting goals, from the front desk to dispense. “We strategize and put their plan together on how we will reach these goals. Training and follow-up are always part of this plan. It is a MUST to always be a trusted resource.”

And, yes, if an opticianry emergency arises, she can wear that hat: “On occasion I have filled in for an ECP, when a license is needed for an emergency or to help cover a much-needed day off. I do feel honored if my account thinks enough of me to represent them in their place of business,” she says.

Raul Bello (left), Frances Ann Layton (right)

Frances Ann Layton, Eye Associates of South Georgia, Valdosta, GA
Raul Bello, ClearVision

Laughter goes a long way in any relationship, business or otherwise. A way with a joke has certainly endeared Raul Bello of ClearVision to Eye Associates of South Georgia. Well, that and a lot of what might be described as the human touch. “Raul is a joy,” says optical manager Frances Ann Layton. “Not only does he keep us in awesome products, he also listens and cares about us as human beings. I’ve been sick a lot recently and he has gone out of his way to pick me up some soup or Brunswick stew before coming to see me, or make an extra trip to bring some back to me. And the stories he tells….. Hilarious is an understatement.”

Layton has plenty of his famous stories to tell us, but she didn’t think they’d be printable. What we can tell you is that Bello clearly sees friendship and consideration as the cornerstone of a good eyewear rep/ECP relationship. “If we ever need anything, he’s on the ball to get it done. I never have to ask twice. He will also shoot me silly text messages if he finds out I’ve had a bad day (thanks Facebook). He’s a true friend.”

Bello will tell you that while strong relationships might seem to come naturally to someone like him, in fact they require careful attention. “I have been in this industry for some time now and I have had the great opportunity to build strong relationships with my customers. It is much care and trust that has enabled this connection,” he says.

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And not every relationship can be handled the same way, he says. “I approach my accounts differently as their needs are different. Connecting with my customers regularly, as communication is key, I have become an intricate part of their business. I am there with them to set up displays, move merchandise or anything else that will help them to grow their business.”

Pam Peters Matt (left), Lundstrom (right)

Pam Peters, Midwest Eye, Downers Grove, IL
Matt Lundstrom, Essilor Labs of America

Matt Lundstrom of Essilor/Expert Labs is a favorite at Midwest Eye, according to practice manager Pam Peters, for his willingness to “help train staff, help us get product, helps us with missed discounts and make sure all staff has current product.” Crucially, according to Peters, he also responds to questions immediately, and offers to donate lenses (“we don’t even have to ask”) whenever Midwest has a trunk show or event. What’s more, he’ll roll up his sleeves and help out at these events if needed. “He is wonderful!” says Peters. “Matt will help us determine pricing in our area and help us determine product combinations that work for the patient; he also offers us the best pricing. He really knows the product and is all-in when it comes to helping his clients.”

When the practice is considering new frame lines, Peters is comfortable asking Lundstrom whether they are difficult to work with in the lab, and he “understands what frames work with what products and materials. Essilor has been our preferred product for over 30 years, so we have not truly gone looking for a new lens line. However, we do have an application for frame companies when we are looking to bring in a new line.”

The COVID-19 crisis has spotlighted the important of a retailer/rep relationship based on genuine concern — the kind that can only be built over time. “The day we received notification that our state would shelter in place, Matt emailed us with an offer to do some virtual training.” Now reduced to minimal staff answering phones behind locked doors, and with doctors limited to virtual appointments for urgent/emergency patients, the practice is currently trying to determine the best way to take advantage of the offer.
“Lundstrom keeps us up to date on all products as they are introduced, providing Midwest with availability within products and options. We truly appreciate his help and concern for our staff and practice,” says Peters.

“I have enjoyed working with Pam for many years,” responds Lundstrom, who says the secret to fostering such a good relationship is taking the time to listen to his accounts’ needs and then helping them to develop solutions instead of just telling them what to do. “I strive to respond quickly to emails, phone calls and text messages. I put myself in the mindset that I am an employee of the practice and therefore I advocate on their behalf regarding matters they need help on even if it does not directly affect me.”

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Lundstrom says he spends the first few meetings getting to know each account, including their lives outside of the office — their hobbies and interests. “This can differ from account to account depending on how much time they have as well as their personality. I also try to get the temperature of the office and adapt my personality to fit their needs.”

Brookelyn Sager (left), Jade Kowalick (right)

Jade Kowalick, Ryczek Eye Associates, St. Petersburg, FL
Brookelyn Sager, INSPECS

Some rep/ECP relationships just seem fated. “My all-time favorite rep is Brookelyn Sager with INSPECS. The first time meeting her upon walking into our office, she was super sweet, dressed super-hot, and made super friendly conversation before ever even trying to sell me anything,” says Jade Kowalick of Ryczek Eye Associates. The working relationship she has struck up with Sager is a testament to the idea that a strong personal foundation makes for a fruitful business partnership. “I think we actually became really good friends before I ever purchased anything from her company. I think being personable, knowledgeable and friendly makes for a great rep, and she’s all three! I love you Brookelyn!”

Sager returns the sentiment. “I am humbled and honored to be given such a kind compliment. Like any good relationship, professional or personal, I have always been a firm believer in working together. This must start with mutual respect, trust, and understanding. We all want to be successful and it is important that the ECP and reps are open and honest in their communication. Plus a friendly smile never hurts!”

But even if the relationship doesn’t progress beyond the purely professional, Sager believes all accounts, new and prospective, deserve the same stellar quality of service. “I am very fortunate to be a part of a company, INSPECS, and team that believes in this philosophy. It is my job to ask important questions and offer solutions using the fantastic frame lines our company has to offer. Let’s remember we are in this industry together.”

Paula Hornbeck (left), Richard Berliner (right)

Paula Hornbeck, Eye Candy & Eye Candy Kids, Delafield, WI
Richard Berliner, Independent eyewear rep

“He not only carries the most amazing eyewear, but he is a wonderful friend to me and to Eye Candy,” says Paula Hornbeck, owner of Eye Candy & Eye Candy Kids, of Richard Berliner, an independent who represents five small European lines (the two main lines being Plein Les Mirettes and Robert La Roche). “He comes in on his own time to our big sale events and helps us style our customers. And they love him! They even ask when he’ll be back. He’s funny and caring — did I mention his little dog Atticus is adorable?”

With an endorsement like that, it comes as little surprise to hear that Paula and Richard have become good friends outside of work. “Of course, he’s a fabulous rep — always keeps his appointments, finds emergency frames when needed, knows the unique aspects of my business and considers that when he makes recommendations during a buy,” says Hornbeck. “But outside of work we have supported each other during the loss of our beloved pets, we’ve checked in on each other when either of us has been sick, we’re competitors on Words with Friends, and during this lockdown have checked in every couple of days to see how each is coping.”

Naturally, as a rep Berliner is on the road a lot (in normal times, at least), and he finds time to pick up thoughtful or funny little gifts for his accounts. For the team at Eye Candy, this has included local honey for Hornbeck’s tea when she was recovering from pneumonia and pillow cases with glasses on them. “He is hilariously funny and a surprise visit always makes my day,” she says. “He’s been an optical boutique owner so understands my challenges and we’ve both used the other as a sounding board for both personal and business issues.”

Modestly, Berliner downplays the idea that there’s any great secret to fostering relationships, saying he’s fortunate to deal with high-end products. “Therefore I get to choose with whom I do business, just as accounts can decide what reps they’ll deal with.”

He says he approaches his accounts “with no inhibitions and complete honesty. If a frame is ugly, I say it. I have no problem discussing what stupid thing I’ve done lately. I speak to my clients exactly as I do with my friends — at the same time pulling out a few trays.”

Berliner was an optician for almost 20 years before becoming a rep, and believes this gives him a better grasp on how frames and optics work together. “I’m also odd because I love trunk shows, because I get to be an optician for the day. Most reps view them as an unpleasant necessity of their job.”

Berliner seems almost puzzled at being singled out for praise. “I’m nothing special. I just love my job and I think it shows.” Well, he will admit to one advantage: “I also travel with an adorable dog. So if people don’t like me, they like him.”

The Anatomy of a Great Rep


What DO ECPs WANT in a rep?

Frances Ann Layton:

  • Honesty.
  • Ability to see what we need when we need it.
    Someone who actually shows up and does the job.Jade Kowalick:
  • Knowledge of their frame collections and company.
    Friendliness and being personable, instead of making it all about a sale.
    Making sure they know and respect the staff at my office. Some reps make other staff feel neglected when they only give the optician freebies.

Pam Peters:

  • Reps that are trained well (not only about frames but also about lenses — knowing what will and will not work with frames), are excited about their product, and can show details and benefits.
  • Reps that are available to help with frames on back order or for trunk shows or a solo show for a patient that might be hard to fit, and that will help work with the patients.
  • Reps that love their company and are not job jumping. If they… feel supported… they tend to support the practice more. Also, reps that are on top of product as it is discontinued … Get it out of the office!

Paula Hornbeck:

  • Product knowledge. They should know their collection. What’s new, what’s been in the collection for a while. What makes it unique, what materials they’re made of, where are they made. What sells well.
  • Reliability. Do they  return a phone call or email in a timely way? Do they show up for appointments and events as scheduled? Do they call on or check in on me regularly — not just at trade shows?
  • Support my business. Do they understand the uniqueness of my business? Are they mindful of how close other potential accounts are before opening them? Are they helpful in finding emergency frames?

Verbelee Nielsen-Swanson:

  • Always be honest about everything you tell a client. Never say one thing on the phone and something else when the subject comes up in person. If you don’t know the answer, don’t try to bluff. Say you will research it and get back with an answer.
  • Relationship, trust and loyalty are critical. What is said in the optical stays in the optical. Remember, this is a small industry and everybody knows everybody.
  • Be a part of the team. Share new releases, education and industry knowledge. Be helpful with trunk shows and client issues. If your client is having an issue with a patient, be the resource we can turn to for help.

How can a rep earn respect?

Frances Ann Layton:

  • Show up when they say they will.
  • Jade Kowalick:
  • Be non-competitive. Don’t go to to the next optical a block away and sell them the same exact product. I know they work off commission, but what is going to make my office stand out with your brand if every optical in a 5-mile radius has the same frames?

Pam Peters:

  • Reps start with our trust. If they offer something they cannot back up, they will lose it. If they pad orders or include product not wanted, they will lose it.

Paula Hornbeck:

  • Be generous with personals — we want to wear your product. Don’t just show up if you’re “in the area” — that’s disrespectful of my time.

Verbelee Nielsen-Swanson:

  • Always be true to your word. Always bring value and be informative.
    What is the one thing a rep should not do?

Frances Ann Layton:

  • Fail to come to the store. I have gotten rid of frame lines due to reps who never show up, and make no attempt at communication.

Jade Kowalick:

  • Jump from company to company and then trash-talk the last company they worked for after we just bought umpteen frames from them.

Pam Peters:

  • Talk down to you or make you feel bad or wrong for not selecting their product. If they present their product and then belittle you for not bringing it in, whatever the reason, they are not someone we would want to work with.

Paula Hornbeck:

  • Not show up for a scheduled appointment or, even worse, an event. It is unprofessional and shows a lack of respect for the owner/buyer and the business. Forgetting or mis-scheduling a trunk show can cost the business in marketing expenses and goodwill with the customers who showed up.


Verbelee Nielsen-Swanson:

  • Don’t make it about you. It is about the client and their needs!

REP PREP

Want to be a standout eyewear rep? Take a little advice from your beloved peers on how to work with retailers.

Raul Bello:
Be genuine and honest by taking a true interest in your customers’ business. Understanding and knowing the customer base of the optical store (your customer) is crucial to building the relationships that will endure.

Brookelyn Sager:
Tenacity is key. We all know our customers have a lot of options for their eyewear needs. Set yourself apart and go the extra mile! Let them know that you and the company you represent are there to support them. Make sure you are knowledgeable and believe in the product you are selling. Always keep up-to-date with what is going on in the industry.

Matt Lundstrom:
Make sure you are staying in touch with your accounts no matter how small an issue may seem, because it could be a big deal for them. Treat your accounts equally, as well. Imagine all the advice you give an account is going to be shared with a family member of yours. Is that how you would like an office to treat your family?

Richard Berliner:
Don’t carry any product you don’t believe in. Otherwise, you’re an order taker and not a rep. Always be honest with yourself and your clients.

Gwen Stevenson:
Your reputation is everything. Always follow up, keep your word and always be there for your eyecare professional. Be loyal to your account — your integrity is of utmost importance. Make sure you are a reliable and valuable resource. When an ECP has a problem, it is an opportunity for the rep to shine. Anyone can look good when things are going well.

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