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Tales so bizarre we couldn’t make them up ... Not that we’d want to.

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WE DARED ECPs to share their most astonishing, their weirdest — and their downright yuckiest — customer encounters. Boy did they come through! In the following pages you’ll read stories that will make you chuckle, cringe, and squirm in discomfort. Mostly, you’ll just count your lucky stars it didn’t happen to you.


1. Out of Africa… and Straight to The Optical

Duke Dye, OD | Riverside Eye Center | Columbus, OH

Once we had a patient scramble in to buy another pair of Maui Jims.

The transaction was so fast we had to ask why, since it had been less than a month since he’d purchased his last pair.

Turns out that the guy lost the original pair because he had to jump into a river to save himself from a swarm of killer bees while traveling in Africa! Yikes!

2. But Why Did He Have So Much Free Time?

Jeff Grosekemper | Casa de Oro Eyecare | Spring Valley, CA

I used to work for a doctor who always spied on us. He used the glass in picture frames hanging in the hallway to watch us from around the corner. He thought he was sly but we could see his reflection as well. Also we could see the tips of his shoes sticking out of the doorway when we walked to the other side of the dispensary. He listened in on our phone calls not knowing a little red light would come on when somebody else picked up a phone. Always be one step ahead.

3. Cradle to Grave

Christine Howard | Attleboro Vision Care | Attleboro, MA

I had to make glasses for a deceased patient. Their glasses broke, and although they could have been repaired enough to function well during the viewing, the patient’s daughter insisted on making a whole new pair, Rx and all.

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4. That Isn’t A Real Thing

Angel Miller | Cynthiana Vision Center | Cynthiana, KY

We had someone who wasn’t a patient come in and ask if we had those colored contacts made of paper that dissolve in the eye. We told them there was no such thing. He then asked whether, since we didn’t have them (because they don’t exist), we would let him have them shipped to our address if he ordered them elsewhere. Weirdo.

5. What They Don’t Teach You At School

Frances Ann Layton | Eye Associates of South GA | Valdosta, GA

I don’t recall my teachers telling me about the disgusting side of opticianry. My favorite story to tell newbies is about a man who brought his semi-rimless glasses in with one of the lenses out. He puts them in my hands and then tells me “they fell off my head into the manure mound and the lens popped out. Could you fix that and clean them up for me?”

6. Tastes Like Chicken

Kim Riggs, OD | Kimberly Riggs OD | Ligonier, PA

I had a patient who admitted that he was too lazy to get up off the couch one evening to throw away his daily disposable contacts, so he ate them after he took them out.

7. Maybe She Just Likes Standing in the Rain

Nytarsha Thomas, OD, Visionelle Eyecare Zionsville, In

We hired an optician who was really nice and said her best quality was attention to detail. One day, after she had been there about a month, she was the first to arrive at work. She opened the door and instead of putting in her unique alarm code, she entered the address of the business. (Why would we ever make the most visible number on the building the code to the alarm system?) When that triggered the alarm, she thought if she left the building and closed the door, it would stop. When I arrived, the alarm was blaring, a police officer was knocking on the front door, and she had been standing outside the back door in the rain for 10 minutes despite her car being inches away. Just a one-off incident, you may be thinking. But the next day, she was standing in the rain again, saying her key (the one she used the day before) didn’t work. I immediately used it to open the door. The following weekend, she forgot to lock the front door when she closed and a patient walked in over the weekend setting off the alarm and alerting the police again. Needless to say, she didn’t last very long.

8. We’ve Always Wondered What’s under Those Lab Coats

Mark Perry, OD | Vision Health Institute | Orlando, FL

Years ago, I had to stop by the office for something on my day off. When I walked in, one of the technicians standing at the front desk spoke up and said, “It’s nice to see you with your clothes on.” (She’d meant to say with my casual clothes on. We all had a good laugh.)

9. If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say …

Kevin Proctor Springer | KP, Brooklyn Center, MN

Customer comes in and says: “Where’s that other guy? He was so nice and could really help me pick out new looks for myself. Darn, I don’t see him … I really don’t want you to help me. Where is he?” I finally said, “Margaret it’s me! I just got a haircut and gained some weight.” She smiled and said, “Well, you looked better before.”

10. There Are No Stupid Questions … Wait

Martha Downing | Advanced Ophthalmology Associates | Clawson, MI

I once had a patient call to say she had a stupid question. Our office response was always that there are no stupid questions … her response was, “Well, I think I put superglue in my eye. Is that a bad thing? It kind of hurts.” I told her to come in, the doctor would see her right away. She showed up an hour later, after getting her manicure fixed (the glue got on her fingers as well). Apparently, she kept both a bottle of eye drops and a bottle of superglue in her car for emergency use. While stopped at an intersection in LA, she picked up the wrong bottle and dropped it in her eyes. What saved her was her contacts, as most of the glue landed on them. She did end up suffering a corneal ulcer from the episode and couldn’t wear contacts anymore. She removed the superglue from her car.

 
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11. That’s Awkward

Cynthia Sayers, OD | EyeShop Optical Center Lewis Center, OH

One of my employees was pretesting a teenage girl. We always come out and discuss the retinal photo screening option with the parents. The employee came out and asked the man who was with the girl if he wanted her to get the retinal photo. He said, “Sure.” I was witnessing this and couldn’t stop laughing. My employee had just asked the teenager’s boyfriend if she should get the retinal photo! In the employee’s defense, he did look very mature for his age, but not old enough to be the girl’s father!

12. That’s Not How It Works

Sarah Jerome, OD | Look+See Eye Care | Minneapolis, MN

I had a patient who, like many of our patients at the conclusion of the exam, asked about how her prescription had changed. She followed that by asking if her right eye needed a different prescription from her left eye. I explained that it is very common for the two eyes to be unequal, and that, yes, she had a slight difference in the strength of her prescription. I was a bit taken aback by the patient’s follow-up question: “Could this be why my left breast is slightly smaller than my right breast?”

13. Grossest. Thing. Ever.

Annie Corvo Poston | Gig Harbor, WA

A woman with open wounds/sores all over her forearms came in and left my counters covered in blood and ooze. She tried on a bunch of glasses and left. I sanitized 378 frames. I’m pretty sure she grabbed a piece of her own skin off the counter and put it in her mouth.

14. Be Careful What You Say

Kristy Smith, Eyeglass Wearhouse Reynoldsburg, OH

Patient came in to get an adjustment on his new pair and inquired as to why his glasses kept smearing on the top of the lens. He was told it was from the lenses touching his eyebrows (bushy). He asked if there was a way to make it stop? Jokingly, my optician said, “Shave them off!” A week later, he came back in for another adjustment — minus the eyebrows!

15. Fashion Over Function

Jocelyn Mylott | D’Ambrosio Eye Care | Lancaster, MA

We had a patient ask us to frost his other lens. One was already frosted for medical reasons as he isn’t using that eye and he wanted them to look even cosmetically … but if we’d frosted the other one he wouldn’t have been able to see with his good eye!

16. Maybe He Wanted To Sell You A Policy?

Heather Kaikuana | Eye Care Hawaii | Hilo, HI

On a Saturday back in January we had a green visitor … a lizard … in our office. He was crawling everywhere and the staff was all screaming, so one of our patients who had just finished her appointment whacked the lizard out with her slipper. It was just so funny the way the staff reacted and how calm our patient was. She is our Lizard Hero for sure!

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17. And on the Seventh Day …

Paula Hornbeck | Eye Candy & Eye Candy Kids | Delafield, WI

We had a couple come in six Saturdays in a row and stay for two-plus hours looking at frames. We started referring to them as the “Saturday people.” All of my opticians, as well as myself, took their turn at helping them find what they were looking for. I finally got them to pull the trigger on the sixth Saturday. They bought frames only — one for her, two for him. The seventh Saturday they came back to return hers and one of his. Good Lord! We don’t do refunds, so then the credit sat there just waiting for it to start all over again. Sheesh!

18. Talk About Visual Learning

CHRIS CLARK | MULLIS EYE INSTITUTE | PANAMA CITY, FL

One day a mom came in and said her son was the most destructive person she knew. I showed them the Flexon frames and how they seem pretty indestructible. When we turned around there were eight to 10 frames lying broken on the frame counters. I don’t do that anymore.

19. Time Can Be Tricky like That

Fred Sirotkin, OD | Eagle Eye Care | Columbia, MD

Chief complaint recently from a patient was that her two-week contact lenses only lasted two weeks …

20. Think about the Children

Pablo E Mercado | The Eye Gallery | Woodstock, GA

A woman asked our doctor if having crossed eyes was genetic, because her son was dating a girl who had crossed eyes in the past, and she “did not want any cross-eyed grandchildren.”

21. Find What Motivates

Paul Londraville | In Focus Eyewear | Greensboro, NC

Once upon a time my old boss decided we would do a community eyewear drive to gather used glasses to send overseas. The response was tremendous and it took a lot of work to clean, sort and neutralize them all. A co-worker, famously penurious, considered the task beneath him and was not contributing to the project. Our lab guy said, “I’ll fix it.” He took a fiver out of his wallet and hid it in a case in the huge pile of old glasses to be gone through. When he knew the other optician was watching, he took that pair out of the pile and pretended to discover the fiver in the old case, snapping it briskly and saying he was getting a cheeseburger for lunch. The other optician’s eyes were bugging out as he watched the lab guy put the bill in his wallet with a flourish. You have never seen a quicker change of attitude in your life. Instead of shirking the onerous task, this guy became a paragon of industry and selfless dedication to charity. He plowed through the rest of the pile nearly single-handedly in the vain hope of another stray fiver.

22. And This Is Why We Have Yelp

Kevin Count | Prentice Lab | Glenview, IL

I once worked for an ophthalmologist in the early days of my career. He was known to be a bit of a hot head and the staff always treated him with kid gloves. A patient came in one day, complaining about his glasses for the umpteenth time. The doctor happened to be at the front desk as the patient railed at the receptionist. The doctor then calmly walked over, addressed the patient and asked to see the glasses. When the patient handed them over, the doctor carefully turned them over and over in his hands, then chuckled and said, “I see the problem.” Then he promptly threw them on the floor and stomped on them. We were all silent in disbelief as the doctor calmly walked to the manager’s desk and grumbled, “Write ’em a check and get them out of here,” as he went to his next patient.

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23. Sounds Like She Needs a Referral

Ted McElroy, OD | Vision Source Tifton | Tifton, GA

When I was an optometry student at SCO (way before HIPAA issues, of course) we would all try to get a little bit ahead on the history of the patient by starting it on the way from reception to the exam room. So I would always ask, “So, what brings you in to see us today?” The response I got from one patient was, “I hear voices in my head.” All I could respond with was, “Is that with your glasses on or off?” My exam partner immediately stops, turns in the other direction and holds his laughter as long as possible. As I turned the corner I could still see him losing it in the hallway.

24. It’s a Trifecta!

Candy Crone | Wayne Optical, York, PA

It might be the woman who insisted Transitions gave her diarrhea — and made me call Transitions to discuss it with her. Or the woman who insisted the Rx fell out of her semi-rimless frame and she could no longer see out of her glasses, so she wanted a frame that went all the way around so it didn’t happen again. Then again it may be the woman whose glasses I scrubbed tons of hairspray and dirt off of while fixing them and she insisted I changed her frame. She swore she had never worn the frame I brought back to her.

25. ‘Oh, Magoo…!’

Jerry Ellis | BJ’s Optical | Framingham, MA

An elderly lady came in to buy glasses. She purchased a pair then left. She called me half an hour later and said I’d switched her old glasses with someone else’s. She came right down with her driver. I looked at her glasses and sure enough they were not hers. I explained to them that I had no idea what happened because I never left the table with them. The driver then said, “Wait” — and switches her glasses with the patient’s. “That’s better.” I was miffed she drove the patient home and back wearing the elderly lady’s glasses!

26. The Stuff of Nightmares

Cindy Henderson | Eyear Optical | Hixson, TN

Once when I first started working, I had a sweet old man come into our small dispensary and ask me to repair his glasses. The optician had stepped out to get coffee so I was by myself. He took off his glasses and his plastic artificial eye came with the frame. There was a large space where everything had been removed … with only gauze in the socket. The plastic “eye” which included the “skin” that covered the socket was coming loose from the frame and needed to be reattached. I got it done … I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I’ve never seen anything else like it.

27. What’s That Sound?

Susan Frick | Premier Eye Care of Eastern Idaho | Idaho Falls, ID

Once, I was trying to provide an explanation of benefits to a post-cataract eyeglass patient. He was very upset about what Medicare didn’t pay and I suddenly started hearing a clicking sound. It got even louder as he was explaining his disgust over the reimbursement, when suddenly his top teeth flew out and rolled across the floor. He didn’t miss a beat though … he retrieved his false teeth from the floor, put them back in his mouth and continued on with his rant about reimbursement.

28. Splitting the Cost

Steve Whitaker | Whitaker Eye Works | Wayne, PA

Patient: “My contacts are larger than my pupils. I’m the same in both eyes; can I tear them in half and have twice as many for the same price?”

29. She Worked Hard For Her Money

Tanya Rogers | Mountain Eye Clinic | Dahlonega, GA

I once worked at a clinic where a patient came in with an abrasion that just would not heal. By the fourth visit the doctor asked what had caused it (the young man would not say before). He finally admitted what had happened — he got a little too close to a high heel at a gentleman’s club!

30. Hair-Raising

Sherry Berry | Pascarella Eye Care and Contact Lenses | Newtown, PA

As I was dispensing eyewear, I accidentally knocked my client’s wig off. I was mortified but she just couldn’t stop laughing about it.

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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Cover Stories

How Eyecare Businesses Can Win the Hearts and Minds of Their Customers

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Loyal customers — not the ones who choose you because you’re the closest optical, or in the building they work in; we mean the ones who cross town to see you, the ones who are genuinely loyal — bring immense benefits. To name just a few, they reduce the cost of every sale, they tolerate price increases and the odd gaffe by a new employee, and perhaps most importantly in the eyecare business: they generate referrals. But how do you win these mythical creatures over? We asked ECPs about some of the more creative ideas they’ve come up with for winning the undying love of their customers.

COMMUNITY VIBE

The business district in Decatur, GA, holds an annual wine crawl through about 30 businesses, and Decatur Eye Care wasn’t about to let their customers miss out. Held in early March, all the businesses open their doors on the weekends, and put out appetizers and quality wines. “It’s a great way to introduce new people to your business and meet current patients in a more relaxed environment,” shared owner, Tom Brillante, OD. Similarly, Avenue Vision in Golden, CO, decided that instead of the traditional frame show, they’d collaborate with area artists and craft breweries. According to Becky Furuta, the result is “an event with a local vibe and a lot of cross-marketing. It’s an easy way to tap into other parts of the community with whom you don’t normally do business, and to bring a local focus to the business.” Who wouldn’t be back?

COLD, HARD CREDIT

Of course, nothing inspires loyalty quite like a reward in the hand. Far be it from us to encourage the pursuit of instant gratification, but an analysis of 20 brands by digital agency Hawkeye found that the most popular loyalty programs have one thing in common: “customer experience [i.e., the reward] is delivered close to the actual purchase.” That’s what Ames Eye Care in Ames, IA, discovered when they started their referral program, which according to Susan Ames has brought them many new patients. “When a patient refers a new patient and that patient has their exam, both patients can choose either a $50.00 credit in office toward glasses or contacts, or they can receive a $25.00 Amazon gift card,” says Ames.

APP AND AWAY

Precision Vision’s Loyalty App.

One of the more interesting trends among ECPs who are serious about locking in customer loyalty is developing a reward program app. Buena Vista Optical in Chicago, IL, asks patients to sign up with their phone number. Every dollar invested in their vision, and every patient referred gets them points they can cash in for their next eyewear purchase. “We have already used it for two-and-a-half years and we feel this app has definitely kept our patients loyal,” says co-owner Diana Canto-Sims.

Precision Vision Edmond in Edmond, OK, has an app with a loyalty program that’s still in its infancy, but owner Selina McGee, OD, is confident it will become a key channel for making meaningful connections with patients and customers. “One aspect that I’m really excited about are the loyalty points that can be tracked with it,” says McGee. “We can reward our patients for investing in their health and education, as well as save them a few dollars along the way.”

Having your own app can allow you to get really creative with marketing: the goal is to get people to register. (Domino’s famously awards pizza points to anyone who uploads a picture of themselves eating pizza—even if it’s a competitor’s. Of course, you have to register to upload.) According to The Manifest tech blog, nearly half of small businesses it surveyed spent less than $25,000 on theirs. There are various ways to go about it: DIY app builders, hiring outside developers and relying on tech savvy staff are the most common options.

SOMETHING TO LOOK FORWARD TO

ECPs who believe “discount” is a dirty word, look away now. But while you’re doing that, those flex dollars will be flowing somewhere else. Just ask Robert McBeath, retail operations manager at Edina Eye in Edina, MN, which runs half off all in-stock frames December through January. McBeath has been doing year-end frame sales for a long time, turning those inventory dollars into cash the practice can distribute, rather than pay taxes on. “We stop buying frames in October and run the sale as an inventory reduction sale with reduced prices only on in-stock merchandise. That saves the ‘see-a-different color’ dilemma. We put up posters in the office, add the promotion to the website, push it on Facebook and sometimes an e-blast,” he says. The Dec. 1-Jan. 31 timeframe catches year-end and New Year flexible spending money. Patients have come to expect it and many contribute to their FSA knowing that if they over-contribute they can always use the money for eyewear. “I have a few that routinely come in at the end of the year to use up their flexible spending. It does keep patients coming back,” McBeath confirms.

Edina Eye’s clients aren’t the only ones waiting for the year-end season. Mark Perry, OD, co-owner of Vision Health Institute in Orlando, FL, reports that their end-of-year frame sale —50 percent off, held on a Friday and Saturday — has been going strong for 10 years now “and it gets larger every year.”

YOUR VERY OWN RABBIT HOLE

At Vision Solutions in Lamar, MO, they call it “top-of-mind awareness.” All their marketing, according to Bryan Hartgrave, is coordinated to optimize this awareness of the practice, and targeted specifically to people living in the communities it serves. One of the best ways it’s found to do this is to implement a social media blitz several times a year, and they’ve also worked on geo-targeting their offices on search engines. “We maintain a daily social media presence with a balance of fun and educational content highlighting different themes throughout the year,” says Hartgrave. They do a frame show twice a year, and social media is a significant part of promoting it and other events and initiatives.

Coming full circle, Diana Canto-Sims at Buena Vista Optical mentions that she’s had good results with Facebook Live, which they do twice a month. She says the practice gets quite a bit of traction with more than 7,000 impressions per video and over 1,000 people reached. “We love this because it is free and 100 percent organic. Some of our videos get up to 40 shares. As a result of our Facebook Lives we usually get two or three bookings per video, not to mention more followers, likes and engagements,” she says. “Our Facebook page has over 4,000 followers. People feel they already know our staff before they come in because they have seen them on Facebook Live and we are very relatable.”

REWARD VIPs

Let’s face it: All customers are not created equal. The truth is, it pays to identify your best customers and do something special for them. Central Texas Eye Center in San Marcos, TX, have moved away from traditional trunk shows to focus on VIP private events every few months. “Our really good customers absolutely love that we close the store for them and make things personal,” says Leah Johnson. Once a VIP show is scheduled, invitations are emailed to all of CTEC’s clients. “The invitations clearly say ‘VIP event; you’re invited! Appointments are required to attend.’ If someone is interested in one-on-one attention, in a party like setting, they will respond and schedule their event appointment. These types of guests really appreciate that we close the doors to the public for the show,” says Johnson.

CTEC experiences better sales at VIP events over trunk shows, because people are committed to purchasing instead of being there to look.
“We weren’t afraid of losing money by closing the doors, and found out these are really profitable events,” she says.

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Get Your Mojo Back

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Burnout. According to retail consultant Vince Rath, it starts “when we experience the world in a way that doesn’t align with our expectations,” leaving us feeling that we’ve lost control of our lives.

Whatever the factors involved in your particular case of burnout — and it affects everyone sooner or later — the basic solution will always lie in making some kind of conscious change. And even if you’re still loving every day at work, don’t wait till you’re tapped out; implement one or all of these fixes now, whether it’s to recharge your mojo, or to just keep things copacetic…

HELP OTHERS

Researchers call it the “helper’s high.” Donating your time or volunteering can release dopamine, the feel-good chemical that causes the sensation you get when you eat chocolate. According to Psychology Today, “Brain scans show a surge of dopamine when we give or volunteer our time.” Annette Prevaux-Matejko of The Visionary in Allen Park, MI, makes time to “donate services and materials to someone who is down on their luck. Making a real difference in someone’s life makes me feel better about everything.”

CHANGE IT UP IN THE OFFICE

Melody Wilding, a performance coach and human behavior professor at CUNY Hunter College in New York, identifies “under-challenge burnout” as one of the three main types (the others being “overload burnout” and “neglect burnout”). What does Jeff Grosekemper at Casa De Oro Eyecare in Spring Valley, CA, do to ward off boredom or crankiness when it threatens? “I switch jobs with my co-worker. Right now I’m pre-testing and she is selling.” Caitlin Wicka at San Juan Eye Center in Montrose, CO, tried a different approach.

“Getting more involved with training and with patient interactions helps with burnout,” she says. “Seeing the positive feedback on social media really helps me.” If you’re an administrator, ask your boss if there’s a task you can be assigned occasionally out front. Nikki Griffin, owner of EyeStyles Boutique in Oakdale, MN, gets back out on the sales floor to “do my thing. I get all my energy from fitting an amazing pair of eyewear and lifestyle dispensing. The administration side of owning is a soul suck.”

Son Nguyen, OD, recalls a radical change in the optical that shook things up at Bakersfield

Eye Care Optometric Center in Bakersfield, CA: “Adding mostly independent frame brands to our practice. Our opticians were skeptical at first about eliminating some of the biggest name brands in our business, but, as a result, we’ve been told it has made them fall in love with their jobs all over again.” Mark Perry, OD, of Vision Health Institute in Orlando, FL, finds renewal by trying “to focus on some new and different aspect of optometry.” This has included accepting externs from two different optometry schools into his clinic.

CHANGE IT UP OUTSIDE THE OFFICE

Paula Hornbeck at Eye Candy & Eye Candy Kids in Delafield, WI sums up her revitalization strategy in one word: “Silmo!” Similarly, William Chancellor of Eye Can See Eyewear in McDonough, GA, tells us that, “Trade shows rejuvenate me. Attending Vision Expo West was a big exciting show that made the heart fonder!” Learning something new is another popular way for ECPs to find their second wind. Christine Howard at Attleboro Vision Care in Attleboro, MA, says, “Networking and attending conferences always ‘refills my cup’ when I’m feeling drained.” Sometimes, just nosing around another optical will do the trick. BJ Chambers at Carrera Optical, in McQueeney, TX, will occasionally visit a competitor, “and then I feel better about myself.”

GET CREATIVE

Burnout isn’t always a function of too much work. Repetitive or unstimulating work can land you in the same psychological territory as doing too much — feeling numb. “I’ve found coming up with a new project or marketing campaign to be rejuvenating,” shares Carissa Dunphy at Duvall Advanced Family Eyecare in Duvall, WA. “It brings the excitement [back] into what we are working on and it’s great for workplace morale.”

GET IN SHAPE

Jeff Migdow, MD, an integrative physician in Lenox, MA, told the Everyday Health blog in a recent posting that even a few minutes of physical movement serves as a powerful stress reducer, forcing us to breathe deeper and helping us “feel more like ourselves.” You don’t have to wait for the weekend or even until you get home: “Burnout is usually a sign that your work and your life outside the office are no longer in balance,” says Becky Furuta of Avenue Vision in Golden, CO. “I have always made sure to plan an hour in the middle of every workday to go for a run or a ride. I come back happier, more productive, and feeling good about where I am.” Robert M Easton, Jr, OD, in Oakland Park, FL is surely the gold standard bearer among ECPs in this category: “I do kickboxing, bodyworks, walk on the beach and weight lifting to lift the stress,” he tells us.

DECOMPRESS

We think of electronic devices as stress inducers, but your phone just might be your ticket to peace of mind. “I meditate and practice mindfulness daily, sometimes at work, using the Calm iPhone app,” says Vlad Cordero at Focus Eye Care in Hackensack, NJ. Sometimes burnout can edge into something more serious. A 2015 University of California study suggests that nearly half of all people who start a company say they have struggled with some form of mental illness. Don’t be afraid to get outside help. Tom Brillante, OD, of Decatur Eye Care in Decatur, GA, champions his “Regular visits to my therapist. Can’t recommend it highly enough.”

Billy Isgett at Eyecare of Florence in Florence, SC, shared what works for him: “Prayer.”

AND IF THOSE DON’T WORK…

Jen Heller reminds of us another sure-fire way to get your mojo going: “I read INVISION! It gets me excited about frames, fashion, new developments.” Sorry, we had to. But okay, she has more: “I’m also rejuvenated by just sitting and entering claims payment, or reconciling the books. Somehow looking at all the details of everything we do calms me down when I’m stressed, and reminds me that we’re superstars on a daily basis.”

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21 Tips for Motivating Your Team

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Behavioral researcher and author Alfie Kohn likes to tell a joke that many small business owners can no doubt relate to:

An elderly man who lives near a school is regularly harassed by a group of students. So, one day he approaches them with a deal: He’ll give each one a dollar if they’ll all return the next day and yell insults at him at a pre-ordained time. They do so eagerly and receive the money as promised. But the old man also tells them he will only be able to pay them 25 cents the next time. More or less still happy to be paid, the children are there again the next afternoon to taunt him, whereupon the old man explains that, henceforth, the daily reward for hurling abuse at him will be one cent. “A penny?” The kids are highly offended. For such a pathetic amount of money it’s not worth the effort. Forget it, they say, and never bother him again.

Like all good jokes, there’s more than a little truth in Kohn’s tale. Humans just don’t behave in seemingly rational ways, never more so than when it comes to money and the energy they are willing to exchange for it. Rewards work in some cases, but in others, they seem to not only deter quality work but bring out people’s worst sides.

The things that we humans tend to pursue with the most care and deepest motivation — like preparing dinner for a family reunion, coaching a Little League team, building a treehouse or running a marathon — are things that are challenging and complex and sometimes even painful. This suggests the things that motivate us — and which sustain peak performance — are things like a sense of achievement, progress, the welfare of others, what other people think of us — the intrinsic stuff. It also implies sustained performance is a result of people acting because they choose to — not because they feel they have to.

The final thing to appreciate about motivation is that it flows and morphs. Sometimes a surprise slice of free pizza will get the best out of an employee. Other times it is a heartfelt one-on-one talk. To unlock every employee’s fullest potential, you will have to experiment — every day and every week. In the following pages, we present a few ideas to help you on your way in this most vital and often mystifying field.

TWEEK TWEEK

1 Success in guiding employee behavior happens in the thousands of daily interactions and decisions between you and your staff. “Great managing is about release, not transformation,” says Marcus Buckingham, an author, talent expert and founder of The Marcus Buckingham Company, a strengths-based management organization. “It’s about constantly tweaking your environment so that the unique contribution, the unique needs, and the unique style of each employee can be given free rein. Your success as a manager will depend almost entirely on your ability to do this.”

KNOW THE RIGHT TRIGGERS

2 “As a rule, money tends to be a poor motivator. You have to look deeper if you want to understand what motivates people. Leadership is not about imposing your will on others, it has more to do with understanding people,” says Dr. Steve Vargo, a business consultant with IDOC and author of Eye on Leadership, An Optometrist’s Game Plan For Creating A Motivated and Empowered Team. Buckingham concurs: “A manager’s most precious resource is time, and managers know that the most effective way to invest their time is to identify exactly how each employee is different and then to figure out how best to incorporate those enduring idiosyncrasies and how to translate them into outstanding performance.”

FOCUS ON SMALL WINS

3 The psychology of motivation has moved away from the big goal approach in recent years and much more toward the idea of small wins. Indeed, Teresa Amabile’s research at Harvard has found that the most motivating thing is “any” progress in meaningful work. Says Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at the Fuqua School of Business: “The question for your staff should be, ‘Can I do one small thing to get better today?’ And the answer to that question is always, ‘Yeah, I’m sure I can.’”

HIT RECORD

4 Logging certain aspects of your life can be a surprisingly powerful practice — not because there’s much value in the record you create, but because the very act of recording exerts an interesting psychological effect. Get staff to spend a couple of days recording their time use in detail, productivity experts advise, and they’re likely to find themselves using it more efficiently. The first observation is likely the discovery that they are frittering away many hours.

DITCH DEBBIE DOWNER

5 The Protestant work ethic basically equates labor with discomfort and looks darkly at levity in the workplace. But there is little in the way of science to support it as an approach to doing good work. Indeed, berating oneself for not working harder runs contrary to establishing a mood that gets things done. A fun environment, on the other hand, promotes innovation, healthy risk-taking, good morale and improved social connections.

LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE


6 Promote positivity, says Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, explaining that an optimistic mindset boosts intelligence, creativity and energy levels. “In fact, we’ve found that every single business outcome improves. Your brain at positive is 31 percent more productive than your brain at negative, neutral or stressed, and 37 percent better at sales,” he says on his widely-viewed TED talk. Much of the reason has to do with a better ability to deal with challenges and setbacks. But just how to do it? Achor recommends meditation, gratitude lists, more exercise and acts of kindness like sending a 2-minute “thank you” email every morning.

GIVE THEM A MAP

7 In 1965, Howard Leventhal, a psychologist at Yale, wanted to see if he could scare students into getting a tetanus vaccination (still rare then) with a presentation of lurid images of patients struck by the disease. The students were duly alarmed — but not enough to get vaccinated. Leventhal found there was one intervention that made a difference, prompting 28 percent of students to get a shot, compared with 3 percent of the others. It was a campus map, showing how to get to the clinic and the hours it was open. Subsequent research has underlined the remarkable power of such step-by-step plans. Got something you want your staff to do? Give them a figurative baby-step map to get it done.

STRUCTURE MATTERS

8 In Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations, Dan Ariely cites the case of different European countries’ success in getting their citizens to sign up to be organ donors on their drivers’ licenses. The disparity is huge and much of it comes down to a simple tweak in form design. In countries where people have to actively opt out, the willingness to donate is much higher. “It’s not because it’s easy. It’s not because it’s trivial. It’s not because we don’t care. It’s the opposite,” Ariely says of the study’s findings. “And because we have no idea what to do (in such a case), we just pick whatever it was that was chosen for us.” Design a work place where the default option is work, and people will be productive.

HARNESS TECHNOLOGY

9 There’s no shortage of apps to help your staff boost their productivity and stay motivated. One of our favorites is stickK (stickk.com), a free goal-setting platform created by behavioral economists at Yale University. Make a resolution and then if you don’t follow through, a pre-agreed amount of money will be sent to an organization you really detest. You then decide what’s worse, getting to work on time 20 times in a month or handing your cash over to Bernie or Donald or whoever else gets your hackles up. Another, HassleMe.co.uk, will remind you by email about anything you want, but does so at unpredictable intervals so that your brain can’t easily adapt to ignoring the prodding.

FLATTER PEOPLE

10 One of the most predictable and poignant (or pathetic, depending on your viewpoint) things about humans is our need to bathe in the warm glow of a compliment. Our brains light up even when we know the flattery is insincere. Think then of the power of a sincere compliment. Be on the lookout for chances to praise your team members.

GO EASY ON MEETINGS

11 For the most part, people want to work; they gripe when things like meetings stop them from doing so. Indeed, a 2006 study showed there’s only one group of people who say meetings enhance their wellbeing — those who also score low on “accomplishment striving.” In other words, people who enjoy meetings are those who don’t like getting things done. The key question for distinguishing a worthwhile meeting from a worthless one seems to be this: is it a “status-report” meeting so employees can tell each other things? If so, handle it with email or paper. That leaves much fewer “good” meetings, whose value lies in the meeting of minds, for example, a well-run brainstorming session.

PLAY PAVLOV

12 One of the reasons slot machines are so addictive is the unique power of “intermittent variable rewards.” As Pavlov showed with his dog, random rewards are more motivating than predictable ones. Make a bonus guaranteed, and it loses its power to motivate. Give employees a perk out of the blue, such as free lunch instead.

WHO MOVED MY CHEESY QUOTE?

13 The power of words tends to be fleeting, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to harness their uplifting power. Whether it’s on the notice board, a store Pinterest page, or the fridge door, look for places to adhere words of wisdom. Update regularly.

ACKNOWLEDGE PEOPLE

14 “Acknowledgment is a kind of human magic,” Ariely says. Indeed, some neuroscientists go as far as to say we need attention almost as desperately as we need food and warmth. Studies suggest that almost 50 percent of people who leave jobs quit because they feel underappreciated. Therefore, simply acknowledging a team member’s contribution can go a long way in making them feel appreciated and motivated.

TOSS BAD APPLES

15 Recent research says there’s something behind the bad apples theory: If a toxic worker sat next to a nontoxic worker, the toxic worker’s influence won out, with proximity increasing the probability that one of them would be terminated by 27 percent. Firing someone is, of course, a last resort measure. But if you have provided training, counseling and patience and the person evidently does not have the inclination to be there, it’s time for you to go your separate ways. And there’s also the sobering impact it has on other staff; firing the least productive employee serves to show staff that their jobs are not sacred.

MIND YOUR Ps AND Qs

16 In her book, The Gratitude Diaries, Janice Kaplan cites a recent survey of American workers:

81 percent of respondents said that they’d be willing to work harder for an appreciative boss.

70 percent said they’d feel better about themselves and their efforts if their boss thanked them more regularly.

And yet, gratitude at the workplace appears to be a pretty rare thing, with just 10 percent of the survey respondents saying they were regularly thanked. Want a more motivated staff? Be more generous with the thank-yous.

CLARITY OF EXPECTATIONS

17 Define excellence vividly and quantitatively. “Paint a picture for your most talented employees of what excellence looks like. Keep everyone pushing and pushing toward the right-hand edge of the bell curve,” says Buckingham.

FOSTER TEAM SPIRIT

18 Kind words and deeds count when it comes to motivating colleagues. According to research by Dan Ariely, complimentary remarks and pizza outpaced cash bonuses as ways to encourage workers to put forth more effort and show greater productivity. The results mirrored previous research by the London School of Economics and Political Science showing that people will work harder if they believe their work is appreciated.

MEET ONE-ON-ONE

19 Don’t assume employees know that you think they’re doing well or poorly. You have to tell them. According to Gallup research, employees whose managers hold regular meetings with them are almost three times as likely to be engaged as employees whose managers do not. “To get the best coaching outcomes, always have your 1-on-1’s on your employee’s turf not yours. In your office the truth hides,” says Buckingham, who recommends you spend at least 10 minutes with each employee each week, asking them just two questions: What are your priorities? How can I help?”

INVEST IN YOUR BEST

20 Spend the most time with your best people. Talent is the multiplier, says Buckingham. The more energy and attention you invest in it, the greater the yield. In one example from First, Break All the Rules, they studied great employees in data entry roles. Initially, they found that top performers were 50 percent better than average. However, after investing in them, they were nearly 10X better than average. “Ever get bogged down trying to squeeze passable work out of a bad employee? How did it feel?” he asks.

Spend the most time with your best people. Talent is the multiplier, says Buckingham. The more energy and attention you invest in it, the greater the yield. In one example from First, Break All the Rules, they studied great employees in data entry roles. Initially, they found that top performers were 50 percent better than average. However, after investing in them, they were nearly 10X better than average. “Ever get bogged down trying to squeeze passable work out of a bad employee? How did it feel?” he asks.

SHORTEN YOUR YEAR

21 Consultants Brian Moran and Michael Lennington aren’t big believers in the value of a year, at least when it comes to setting goals. A year’s too big to get your head around, they argue in their book The 12-Week Year, and there’s too much unpredictability involved in planning for 10 or 11 months in the future. Besides, it’s awful for motivation: the New Year surge of enthusiasm fades rapidly, while the feeling of racing to the finish line — that extra burst psychologists call the “goal looms larger effect” — doesn’t kick in until autumn. In its place, they advocate dividing your year into quarters, and to think of each 12 weeks as a stand-alone “year” — a stretch long enough to make significant progress on a few fronts, yet short enough to stay focused.

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