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How to Drive More Word of Mouth and More Questions for February

Personal recommendations are more important than they’ve ever been before.

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We have equestrian games coming to town with 100,000 visitors expected in the area. How can I take advantage?

Lucky you! This gift horse trotting into town is possibly wearing golden hooves. “It’s fair to assume that visitors to equestrian events have the resources to spend — and studies show people are more likely to spend when they’re on vacation or doing things they enjoy,” notes Andy Malis, co-founder of MGH, a full-service ad agency in Owings Mills, MD. First thing to do is inquire of your sales reps if they will have booths or some other promotional events you can partner in? Retail store consultant Kate Peterson recommends you make a special effort to explore joint promotion opportunities, especially those that involve onsite events in your store. “Work with targeted vendors to set up a themed trunk show in the store,” she says. If there’s no corporate connection, Malis recommends going it alone. “I would contact the organizers of the event and find out every possible way to get in front of this audience. They may be offering sponsorship packages.” And if you can’t actually participate officially, think ‘outside-the-event’, he says. “Which hotels and restaurants will be involved? Can you create a ‘Welcome Package’ to be given to each attendee? Include some local foods/beverages plus info (do you offer emergency repairs or lens replacements?) and incentives to visit your store.” It goes without saying that this advice applies to any large sporting event that maybe coming to town…

How can I grow my business when only so many dollars are spent on eyewear in my rural market?

The first thing to test about any rural location are your assumptions, says retail trainer Bob Phibbs. Don’t think that just because you operate from a small town, everyone in that market knows your services. Second, don’t assume that because you’re the only optician in town, people won’t go elsewhere. “People probably drive from farther away to reach your store, so as a business owner, you have to give them a good reason to keep coming back,” he says. Phibbs recommends doing your own research, including walking around your area and knocking on doors to find out how many people are aware of your services. (And if there is an art walk or some other business community event that will put you in touch with new groups of customers, sign up!) Second, test your hours. “If your store is closed on Sundays, you may be missing out on two of the top four money-making times,” he says. Third, through interactions with customers and even studying the license plates in your parking lot, find out where your customers are coming from. With this information, you will able to tweak your marketing and other outreach activities. It’s possible you could run targeted Facebook ads or rent billboard space to catch traffic from a much wider area.

I suspect a rival is trying to poach one of my best sales associates. Should I try to pre-empt them with a pay rise?

Happy employees don’t leave for a small amount of additional money, so the first thing to do is sit down with your associate and see if there are things you can do to remove any frustrations from her current work life or if there are perks (more flex time?) or professional challenges (responsibility for a big marketing campaign?) that could tempt her to stay. Throwing money at them is unlikely to help if you don’t remove what’s unsettled them in the first place (and unless you’re prepared for everyone else to know — as HR experts like to say, compensation is confidential for about 11 seconds). Staff churn is a natural part of business life, especially in a strong economy, and non-compete agreements are a blunt tool that workers resent. A better approach is to foster a great culture. Check in with your team periodically to make sure employees feel challenged, engaged and appreciated.

We still seem to be running into a lot of resistance to blue-light filtering lenses even after the doctor prescribes them. Any ideas?

It sounds like you have to do a bit more work before the patient reaches your opticians. Education should start in your waiting room with a video loop running to provide general information about blue light (and, in particular, how it can affect children, who are spending more and more time exposed to digital screens). Next, the pretest room, your assistants should start the conversation about lifestyles and eye use. ZEISS’s marketing materials recommend a line like, “I bet your eyes feel very tired at the end of the day with so much computer work. I’ll have the doctor talk with you about BluTech lenses to make you feel more soothed and protect your eyes from the blue light that is emitted from the screen.” It is now the doctor’s role to provide the authority, explain the benefits (better sleep, less strain, improved light sensitivity, prevention of potential conditions like macular degeneration,) and make a specific recommendation, as needed. In the best cases, the optician can then simply fill the Rx, but as with any sale, it’s the reassurance provided at the close that is key to generating customer satisfaction. Blue light pens, demonstration aids from your vendors, computer apps and physical comparisons with untreated lenses can all help here (tap your vendors for help). With the overriding emphasis on vision health, your patient should leave protected and satisfied.

How can I drive more word-of-mouth marketing?

Personal recommendations have always been the lifeblood of small business, but in the era of Facebook, Yelp and Google reviews, word of mouth (WOM) has taken on a different meaning and is now even MORE important to attract new customers and patients (studies show prospective customers attach as much credibility to an anonymous star rating as to a friend’s suggestion). It also requires a new, more tech-savvy response. Start by looking into an online review platform like Podium, Yotpo or Grade.us that centralizes the process and reaches out to customers via text messages to encourage them to leave reviews (search the phrase “online reputation management”). Of course, a larger megaphone won’t do you much good if the message is less than complimentary, so there’s still no getting away from the bedrock of WOM — excellent service. You can juice people’s experiences with your brand via community events, customer appreciation events, personal follow-ups, handwritten thank you notes, and those random acts of generosity or goodwill that drive surprise and referrals. Keep in mind that WOM is so fluid it requires constant testing and experimenting: What stories to tell people about your store, what offers, what inside incentives will work? For example, a “Thank you for the referral” card that includes a voucher for $25 off the next purchase might work in one market. In another, giving an existing customer the opportunity to pass on the discount to a friend — or share it — may yield better results. Keep testing!

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Since launching in 2014, INVISION has won 21 international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact INVISION's editors at editor@invisionmag.com.

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Personality Clashes and More Questions for This Month

Read the answers to some of your holiday questions.

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Our holiday events are approaching. What are the best finger foods for an in-store event?

Balancing what tastes good — usually greasy or gooey food — with what looks sophisticated and doesn’t leave crumbs around the store or sticky fingerprints over your eyewear or frame boards is a tough balancing act. But store trainer Kate Peterson thinks she’s seen the answer: small, clear plastic drink glasses. “One presentation had a small amount (about three-quarters of an inch) of ranch dressing in the bottom of the cups, along with a variety of veggie sticks (carrots, celery, bell peppers, cucumbers, squash). The glasses were all arranged on a tray, so instead of having to pick up the veggies and scoop dip onto a plate, guests simply picked up an easy-to-handle, pre-made serving, which could then be dropped into a trash bin when they were done. Peterson adds that she saw a similar but more “savory” twist on this treatment with cocktail sauce and jumbo shrimp (tails removed). Don’t want ranch dressing in your store? Try cubed cheese and seedless grapes, which are always a crowd favorite, and easy to prepare.

I need ideas on how to give my optical a quick, cheap facelift before the holiday season starts.

The problem with quick, cheap facelifts is that they look exactly that — quick and cheap. Take a hard look at your store and if you find worn fixtures splash out and get them refinished. Then focus on creating a killer (but easy-on-the-pocket) winter-themed display. Bare branches, lots of white, big candles, spray-on snow… Be bold about moving your merchandise to new locations. Try them in higher or lower positions, with new props or with more space than usual. And if you’ve got a boring wall you just don’t know what to do with, throw up another mirror. People are endlessly fascinated with themselves.

I’m thinking of opening a new retail optical outlet in what’s possibly the most crowded market in the country; there are over three dozen optical retailers here in a college town of 400,000. I feel I know this market but should I look elsewhere?

A crowded marketplace isn’t necessarily a bad sign; conversely, it may be an indicator of the huge demand for a product or service. The secret to business success isn’t finding an empty field, it’s filling a need, and that generally means a niche. Sometimes niches are created because everyone is chasing the big-ticket-buying crowd or the youth market or there are changes in fashion or technology that the existing players may have missed. The real question is whether you can do something better or differently. “Just don’t think you can do it by being the cheapest,” says marketing expert Brad Sugars. “You’re the little guy; you don’t have economies of scale. The big guys can make up in volume what they lack in margin. You can’t.”

I’m a junior member of a front office team of eight. They’re all good people but one of the older girls bugs the hell out of me. It’s purely a personality thing. What do I do?

Focus on the positives. Remind yourself of the contributions she makes. If that’s too hard then at least don’t fall into the trap of recruiting allies to your cause. Sure, it feels good to have someone confirm she’s annoying but it also makes her presence a bigger issue. Try to minimize contact and ask yourself, does she irk everyone or is there something about you that has you grimacing like this?

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Pulling Off a Successful Event and More Questions for October

Your questions answered by our experts.

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Where can I find good local art to decorate our walls?

This is one of those areas where the reward will reflect the effort. Eisenbrei Plaza Optical in Canton, OH, was facing a similar challenge and decided to confront it with a clever campaign they called #EyesOnArt. “The talent pool of local artists in Canton is deep and our team sought them out by visiting local galleries and by reaching out to some on social media,” explained owner Mark Eisenbrei.​ The store currently has the work of four artists on display, many of which draw inspiration from the local area. The works, says Eisenbrei, have breathed fresh life into the 55-year-old business, while also underscoring its local credentials. All proceeds from any art sold go to the artist.

Re-dos have surged at our practice and it’s mostly because of doctor error. It seems like in today’s world of automation and insurance, docs have little incentive to take their time. I appreciate refractions have become more complicated but what can we do to cut down on re-dos? 

You have good cause to be worried. The typical American practice is losing nearly $10,000 in labor costs due to lab re-dos (based on 2,000 exams per year). And then there is the impact on the patient’s confidence in your practice and the morale of staff when a patient complains. These figures from Hoya show doctors account for about half the issues (slightly higher in an ophthalmology practice due to post-operative situations) with the rest generally due to fit, patient satisfaction, the lab and AR warrantees. Take-away? Yes, docs make errors, but so does everyone in this part of the business. That means everyone has to work better together to lower the rate of remakes. A good system includes checklists, increased training, and doing the proper homework (does the patient, for example, have a history of making complaints? Is this their first pair of multifocals? How big an adjustment to an RX is an old patient going to be able to adapt to?) Hoya provides a handy list of its “Top 10 Things to Do to Avoid Remakes,” find it here: invmag.us/10180.

How do I get better at verbal comebacks? 

We have a lot of fun collecting such imagined retorts for our Woulda Coulda column but there’s a reason we call it Woulda instead of Whatdya — there’s not a lot to be gained from liberally dispensing withering put-downs. As one of our Brain Squad regulars puts it, “Don’t spend a lot of time trying to think of one-liner comebacks to zing your customers with. That kinda stuff just makes you bitter.” Too true.

I still struggle with finding ways to do in-store events that will make a difference in our community. We partnered with organizations, but it just hasn’t caught the spark I wanted. Suggestions?

Events are your chance to roll out new lines, educate, and move old stock. They drive traffic and energy and get consumers in a buying mood. They make you relevant. But, of course, they are none of those things if they don’t get people excited. Kate Peterson, CEO of Performance Concepts, says first and foremost, events have to be unique and interesting. “Look for ideas that are innovative and that have not been done a hundred times by your business or others in the area.” Second step, she says, is to be sure to sort your client list carefully with a focus on the people who are most likely to have an interest in the product you’ll be promoting. “Most importantly, make it personal. The greatest successes will come from personal outreach — phone calls, emails and follow up — not from mass mailing,” she says. Note that events tied to charities or organizations only work if the store owners, management and staff are completely committed to the cause, and if the people at the head of the charity are committed to the event. “You can’t fake it or take it half way!” she warns.

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What Impression is Your Email Address Giving and More Questions for September

Get a real email address, eyeexpert@hotmail.com.

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How do I drive more word-of-mouth marketing?

Personal recommendations have always been the lifeblood of small business, but in the era of Facebook, Yelp and Google reviews, word of mouth (WOM) has taken on a different meaning and is now even more important to attract new customers and patients (studies show prospective customers attach as much credibility to an anonymous star rating as to a friend’s suggestion). It also requires a new, more tech-savvy response. Start by looking into an online review platform like Podium, Yotpo or Grade.us that centralizes the process and reaches out to customers via text messages to encourage them to leave reviews (search the phrase “online reputation management”). Of course, a larger megaphone won’t do you much good if the message is less than complimentary, so there’s still no getting away from the bedrock of WOM — excellent service. You can juice people’s experiences with your brand via community events, customer appreciation events, personal follow-ups, handwritten thank yous, and other random acts of generosity and goodwill that create delight and referrals. Keep in mind that WOM is so fluid it requires constant testing and experimenting: What stories to tell people about your store, what offers, what inside incentives will work? For example, a “Thank you for the referral” card that includes a voucher for $25 off the next purchase might work in one market. In another, giving an existing customer the opportunity to pass on the discount to a friend — or share it — may yield better results. Keep testing!

I’ve used my free email address for years and don’t really want to change it but I worry it looks unprofessional. Thoughts?

True, a lot of people don’t care, but a not insignificant portion of your customers will make a judgment of some sort. And these aren’t completely unfounded. Numerous marketing studies have found Gmail users to be predominantly younger city dwellers with more liberal views. Hotmail and AOL users are more likely to be found in the suburbs, while rural inhabitants are more likely to use Yahoo! Recently, The Times newspaper in Britain reported that a major insurer, Admiral, was quoting a higher rate to car owners who provided a Hotmail address. The firm argued some domain names were “associated with more accidents” than others, raising applicants’ risk profile. Given the way people make irrational assessments, and how important it is for an ECP to be viewed as professional and trustworthy, we’d recommend you make the change. It doesn’t cost much. For $3 a month, Gmail, for example, allows you to upgrade your account to get your own domain name.

I carry two competing sports frame brands. Now one is implying I should drop the other slightly less popular brand or it will cut off supply? Is this legal?

There are some instances when you could take such a case to court — such as when an unreasonable restraint of trade or similar antitrust violation can be established, or when a store’s ability to conduct business is damaged. But these are exceptions; the law allows a miffed vendor to cut you off cold. “In general, companies in the U.S. are free to decide when to do business and when to stop doing business with another company,” says attorney Barbara Mandell, a member of Dykema Gossett PLLC, which focuses on antitrust law.

If an employee is consistently late (usually 30 minutes), can I dock his pay? Are there legal ramifications?

From a legal standpoint, it depends on whether he is a salaried or hourly employee. If the latter, he should be punching a clock, which will automatically deduct his time. If he is salaried, you have to pay him, late or not, says Suzanne DeVries, president of Diamond Staffing Solutions, adding that you should have the issue — and the consequences — covered in your employee manual. “You may need to make some tough and important decisions,” DeVries says. “It is never a good idea to let an employee get away with such behavior. It sets a bad example for those who are always on time.”

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