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How This Colorado Practice’s ‘Office Culture Blueprint’ is Boosting Referrals

And how they persuaded their team to embrace a new mindset.

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EYE CARE CENTER of Colorado Springs, CO, has a large specialty contact lens practice that owes its success in part to the referrals it receives from ODs and MDs in Colorado Springs, Denver, Pueblo and as far away as California. You don’t maintain a referral-driven practice without top-level service, and with so much on the line, sometimes it pays to codify what’s expected of staff. But no one responds to a laundry list of rules. “We have found we have to re-educate ourselves and any new team members we hire,” says co-owner Sara Whitney, OD, and this realization recently led the practice to develop its own “office culture blueprint.”

THE IDEA

Translating a vague desire to get the best out of your team into a set of tangible principles is harder than it sounds. “We made a feeble attempt to create a culture statement a few years ago,” recalls Whitney, “and we never finished it because we didn’t really know how to implement it.” Practice founder and co-owner Dr. Reed Bro eventually came across the concept of “above the line behavior,” an approach based on personal responsibility. Whitney says the beauty of this concept is that it encourages “behaviors that create a positive event for the next person in the chain.” The goal is to “resist the temptation to blame…to complain for the sake of complaining, or become defensive.”

Dr. Reed Bro and Dr. Sara Whitney

THE EXECUTION

Whitney, Bro and office manager Mindi Andrade developed what would become the office’s cultural blueprint over several months. It takes its starting point from a few core beliefs. These are matched with a set of encouraged behaviors and desired outcomes. Your core beliefs, Whitney says, “are the reasons you decided to start practicing optometry or open a business.”

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Once these basic elements were finalized, the managers initiated a transitional phase in which they used the vocabulary that forms the core of the blueprint in day-to-day interactions with one another and with staff. “We did not present the blueprint to the team until we were comfortable that we were able to personally apply the core beliefs to any situation,” Whitney says. They launched it at the beginning of January, when people are making resolutions and personal improvements. “We printed up the culture matrix on a card for each member of the team.”

Whitney says you can tell right away which staff will be on board and who will resist. “We lost three team members around the time the blueprint was rolled out. It may have just been a personal decision for the employee, but it can cause you to momentarily doubt your decision to demand these behaviors.” It’s important to be strong and stick to your guns at this stage, she says. Remember that the key beliefs you identified as the basis for your blueprint are important. “They are the reason you get up in the morning and come to work,” she says. “Expectations … make some people uncomfortable. They will resist change, and you have to let them move on.”

THE REWARDS

Whitney says the blueprint has delivered its targeted outcomes: an enhanced sense of community, patient satisfaction, trust, loyalty, adherence to treatment plans, and referrals. But there are personal benefits too. “I think those who have embraced this new mindset will be able to see it spilling over into their personal lives.”

Ultimately, Eye Care Center of Colorado Springs’ aim with the blueprint was to cultivate behaviors that grow the business, and so far, that aim is being met. Says Whitney: “We have developed the mindset that being presented with a challenge is our opportunity to get ahead of the problem and to possibly even be someone’s hero.”

Do It Yourself: Develop an Office Culture

  • DON’T RUSH IT. “Take time to define your beliefs over a period of weeks or months,” says Whitney.
  • WALK THE WALK. “Live out behaviors that support your beliefs,” Whitney advises. “You are the biggest example of your practice culture.”
  • TWO-WAY STREET. An office culture doesn’t have to be static: Survey your team periodically and ask for feedback.
  • COMMUNICATE. If you don’t, a blueprint is just a list tacked to a wall.
  • STAY STRONG. A change like this might cost you an employee. But stay the course or it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.

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After years covering some of the farther flung corners of the world of business journalism, Heath has more recently focused on covering the efforts of independent eyecare professionals to negotiate a fast-changing industry landscape. Contact him at heath@smartworkmedia.com.

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Best of the Best

Spice Up Your Frame Selection with This Strategy That Probably Never Occurred to You

It gives patients a reason to visit based on product assortment rather than discounts.

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PERRY BRILL, GENERAL MANAGER at Brill Eye Center in Mission, KS, was looking for something new to base the practice’s marketing effort on, and knew that having new brands always generates more excitement than just saying you’ve got a refresh. Always one to shy away from typical optical business plans, he hit on a novel concept.

THE IDEA

Tired of brands wanting 30-plus-piece orders, he decided to try bringing in micro-collections of 10-20 pieces every month to create some email and direct-mail hype. He wanted experience with more brands quicker than his usual once-every-six-months, large brand buy. “A retailer should always have a flavor of uniqueness. Restaurants have seasonal menus and opticals should have seasonal eyewear. Give patients a reason to visit based on product assortment rather than discounts,” Brill says.

THE EXECUTION

Perry Brill

To curate a micro-collection of eight to 15 pieces, Brill says, connect with “ma and pa” frame vendors, who he says are just happy to have representation of their eyewear in any city. The easiest way to find these vendors is to go to Vision Expo, find the smaller booths and ask their minimum purchase. “Don’t expect the booths to be fancy!” he says. “Just observe the eyewear for quality and personality before making judgments. Most people will be super transparent and love your idea of creating seasonal collections.”

Brill says a small micro-collection should cost between $500 and $3,000. So far, he’s been impressed with the number of luxury or quasi-luxury brands that let him dabble with smaller orders. Being in the Kansas City area, he says, “It’s pretty easy to have exclusivity, with everyone selling bread and butter.”

The small collections now represent 10 percent of his inventory, which he figures is about right, as he wouldn’t risk going deep into the more obscure pricey stuff anyway. “I’m okay if it doesn’t sell quickly since the investment was slim.”
Micro-collections that have worked well for Brill include:

  • Ethnicity: “Asian and global fitting with acetate built-up pads and special wider temples. Don’t need a ton of frames but enough to tackle difficult-to-fit. Opticians need to up their game with fitting standards. The moment you solve frames on cheek issues — patient for a lifetime.”
  • Lucas De Stael (shown): “Ultra luxury for the high rollers and lover of texture and design. Made of leather, stone or cork. Retails for $1,000-plus.”
  • Sospiri: “Ultra luxury for the fancy woman who wants to shine — literally. Most jeweled frames are tacky; these are classy. $1,000-plus. People that want jewels want it! They will go find it if you don’t have it.”

THE REWARDS

Brill says the main benefit of ordering micro-collections is they give you a reason to engage with patients via social media and email. In such a competitive environment, and having access to great independent collections, it’s fun to test the waters with new product all the time, he says. And from a patient perspective, Brill believes that when they walk into an office they always want to see something new. “Carrying the same branded collections is easy, but having lots of collections gives patients choices and a tour around the world of independent eyewear. My optical is used to rapid change and every optician always wants to show what’s new.”

Do It Yourself: Micro Order Luxury Frames

  • PRIDE OF PLACE. Label an area in your optical with catchy signage that says something like: “New season eyewear, feel invigorated.”
  • DON’T SWEAT THE… “Don’t think too hard,” says Brill. “If the frames are bad sellers, the risk was low and you don’t need to worry about returns.”
  • HAVE FUN. “Go funky, always!” is Brill’s motto. This is your time to try wacky new inventory you would never go 50 frames deep in.
  • TAKE YOUR TIME. The key to selling such frames is sitting the patient down, explaining to them the brand story and frame characteristics.
  • GET THE WORD OUT. Inform your patients you have something cool and new in stock. “Thank goodness for email campaigns,” says Brill.

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Best of the Best

This Office Manager Got Her Staff to ‘Own’ the Patient Experience. Here’s How…

She came up with a nine-step program for employees.

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CINDY BRUNER, PRACTICE manager at Professional Family Eyecare, which has offices in Coldwater, St. Mary’s and Greenville, OH, says new employees will never add to what they already know if you don’t set expectations when they start; otherwise you set them up to fail. As she sees it, it’s her job to help them understand this. “When you have long-term employees it’s easy to become ‘Magoo’ and do and say things without realizing how they’re perceived by customers, and by … teammates.” Managers, in her view, should “help staff understand that as co-workers we are customers to each other, not just the patient.” To accomplish this, she created her own training program for implementation at the practice, “9 Steps to a Phenomenal Patient Experience.”

THE IDEA

A few years ago, Bruner came across a book titled 10 Steps to a Phenomenal Patient Experience: Customer Service Secrets for the Eye Care Team by Sharon Alamalhodaei, COMT. After getting the nod from owners Dr. Jillynn Bruner and Dr. James Dickman, she combined what she learned from this with resources picked up at a Patient’s Voice skills clinic to create a list of steps that fit the culture and patients at Professional Family Eyecare. As a final touch, Bruner incorporated the “Love Dare” concept, borrowed from the marriage counseling book of the same name based on a set of 40 daily principles. “Instead of 40 days,” she says, “I broke the steps down into nine weeks. My owners described their vision of what they want their practice to be known for and with my 25 years of hospital management training I pulled my resources together and away we went.”

THE EXECUTION

Staff and doctors were given a quiz to ascertain their perceptions of how customer service impacted business. Then she handed out a “Commitment to the Practice Standards Accountability” form. Staff were asked to return this with statements explaining how they would contribute to the standards outlined on the form.

According to Bruner, the nine steps are: 1. Who’s the Boss? 2. Give Patients more Than They Expect . . . Respect 3. Handle Difficult Patients & Situations with Finesse 4. Be Ultra Aware of Time 5. Be Extremely Knowledgeable and Professional 6. Use Amazing Phone Skills 7. Be ‘On’ Stage 8. Listen to and Learn from Patient Feedback 9. Work as a Team!

Every Monday for nine weeks, staff were sent the steps in an email and at the end of each they signed an agreement to “uphold/own” the Phenomenal Patient Experience. Later, staff were given an “Own Each Patient’s Experience” accountability form and given seven days to document examples they utilized from the nine steps. Their Team Lead had to sign off.

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Getting staff to cooperate with something new is “always an eye roll” Bruner says, but it soon became part of the work process.

THE REWARDS

Implementing the plan was “most definitely worth it” Bruner says. “I was told by a wise doctor that if you take care of your patients, they will take care of you. This is true; if you give the patients a phenomenal experience, they will return and … share their experience with others.” The result is new and returning customers, which helps financially but also “sets our expectations of how we want our customers treated.”

Bruner urges managers to spend time with staff and let them know it is their job to “own each patient’s experience.” This “builds satisfaction, loyalty and referrals by creating a positive patient relationship. Staff learn to listen before responding,” she says. “That’s what patients truly want — to be heard and understood.”

Do It Yourself: Implement a customer experience training program

  • RECRUIT THE DOCS. Employees may be reluctant at first; having the doctors participate helped her staff buy in, Bruner says.
  • INTEGRATE. “We have monthly staff meetings and there is always a customer service topic following the program implementation,” she says.
  • TWO-WAY STREET. As a manager, be open to whatever new ideas, behaviors and skills suggest themselves as a result of the program.
  • KEEP IT UP. Bruner feels such programs are most useful when done once a year with staff.
  • UP FRONT. Bruner has all new hires participate in the program immediately and lets them know that this is part of the “behavior” portion of their 90-day evaluation.

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Best of the Best

This California Lens Lab Has an Inspiring Recovery Story

They were burned to the ground in last year’s wildfires. Six months later, they’re thriving.

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SOMETIMES, THE THINGS that make you the best of the best are born of tragic necessity. On Nov. 8, 2018, the Camp Fire, the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in a century, raged through the Northern California town of Paradise, destroying it entirely. Eighty-six people died in the blaze, which destroyed more than 18,000 structures. Among them was Paradise Lens Lab, which the day before had just celebrated its seventh anniversary.

THE FIRE

“I was headed to work a little before 7am,” recalls owner Gary Bates of that day. “It was a clear day but off to the side, where the sun was coming up over the hill I could see either clouds or smoke around the sun.” After about an hour at work, Bates headed to a lookout point 200 yards away. “The flames … were racing up the hill towards the back of the lab.”

A brief discussion about what they might be able to save was soon abandoned. “The Fire Department was telling people it was time to run.” There were five staff including Bates working that day; all got out, but all lost their homes. A few days later it was confirmed that the building and all its equipment was lost.

The rebuilt Paradise Lens Lab in Chico, CA. ‘It took us about three weeks to get our first edger and start the buildout,’ says owner Gary Bates.

THE REBUILD

That weekend, Bates and wife Tammy’s first thought was to move to Oregon. “But we just decided we had too many people relying on us. We had to give it a shot. That day we were out looking for commercial real estate” in Chico, CA, 15 miles west of Paradise.

Already reeling from the loss of his business, a second shock followed: “I thought I was insured fully, you know, rookie business owner.” Bates’ insurer informed him that on the $400,000 worth of equipment and stock he’d lost, he was covered for just $3,500. Help was at hand, however. Prior to opening Paradise Lens Lab, Bates, who’s been in the optical industry since 1989, had worked at Coburn Technologies. He was able to marshal some contacts there to get some edgers delivered within a matter of weeks. Later, Satisloh came through with a donation of brand new digital equipment. And a group of local doctors he does a lot of work for gave Bates $50,000 to help him start back up. “The generosity and kindness was amazing right after the fire,” he says. Most importantly, Bates’ customer base came through, pledging to stay with him.

Not everyone was so helpful, though. According to Bates, one major industry player “actually tried to poach my business. They went into all my shops, and promised them all this awesome pricing to ‘help them out.’”

Thankfully, things moved fast. “It took us about three weeks to get our first edger and start the buildout.” He was able to take some customers back almost immediately, though some were asked to be a little patient, as he didn’t want to underserve anyone. “Within a month and a half we were able to get them all back and provide excellent service for them all.”

THE POSITIVES

Many in this situation would see it as an insurmountable setback. But the Bateses have been rewarded for their determination. He says that whereas before Paradise Lens relied on conventional surfacing, with the new equipment, they can now process digital freeform lenses. Amazingly, business is actually up about 32 percent from before the fire. “We’ve gotten more customers; people have reached out to us wanting to give us their business.” And while they still live in their travel trailer, because of a post-fire housing shortage, they’re philosophical. “At least we have a travel trailer,” Bates says.

The rebuild at Paradise is now fully finished. “We’ve been complete for about three months now. It took us just a little over three months to build out and get all the equipment, get everybody trained and up to date,” he says.

PHOTO GALLERY (13 Images)

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