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The Big Story: The Art of Superb Service

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Serve Right

Master the art of superb service & win loyal customers for life

This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of INVISION.

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Americans have plenty of places to buy eyewear and get eyecare these days. They can order contacts online in their PJs between episodes of binge-watching Orange Is the New Black. They can get an exam at the big-box store, between fueling the car and picking up groceries. Why should they go out of their way to come to you?

You spend a lot of energy trying to win new customers and patients, and that’s always important. But these days, it’s far more crucial to keep your current clientele ridiculously happy.

You know you offer superior service and quality eyewear at a fair price, but that’s not enough. You need to give people reasons to stick with you — and tell their family and friends why they’d rather get their glasses or contacts at your shop.

Everybody knows the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” But it’s not really about you, is it? Retail consultant Tony Alessandra says that to be really successful in retail, you need to follow what he calls the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they’d like done unto them.”

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Aaron Supianoski, administrator at Kirschner Vision Group, says he has yet another twist on the Golden Rule at the practice’s offices in Homewood and Orland Park, IL. “I have the ‘Grandma Rule’: Treat everyone how you would want your own grandmother to be treated.”

Here are INVISION’s tips for following the “Platinum Rule” to win over your newest customers — and keep an iron grip on your valuable customer base.

The Basics

At its core, customer service is really pretty easy, but it requires paying attention, especially in a highly service-oriented business like eyecare and eyewear.
The basic rules are these:

1) Make a fantastic first impression. Jay Binkowitz of GPN Consulting does many site visits each year. All too often, he says, “we know from the moment we walk into an office that our senses are being attacked by unwanted experiences. What we see, hear and smell in the first 10 seconds will set the stage for the final outcome of the interaction with your consumer.” Ask family, friends or a consultant to give you objective, honest feedback on how your business feels to them.

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Dr. Keshav Bhat of Austin Village Eyecare in Matthews, NC, has a list of behaviors that show he and his staff care: “Smile, compliment, acknowledge, listen carefully, address needs, show passion for the profession,” he says. Don’t forget the personal hand-off to the optician, shake hands after the exam, “and be shameless in asking for referrals,” he adds.

2) Welcome everyone who comes through the door.
“Set the stage with a great introduction,” Binkowitz says. “‘Hi, Mrs. Smith. My name is Jay. I see your name is Kathleen, may I call you Kathy?’ Get personal from the beginning and set the tone to create a warm relationship.”

Adds Daniel Amyx — who owns Hillmoor Optical in Port Saint Lucie, FL, and Treasure Coast Opticians in Vero Beach — “Treat everyone with respect and consideration, bordering on affection. We treat everyone with the same respect and honesty that we do our own relatives.”

3) Remember that the patients’ and customers’ needs come first.
Even before they show up, make it easy for people to patronize your practice. Offer online scheduling. Ask people how they want you to contact them — whether via phone, email, text or postcard — and honor their preferences.
Never just be in it for the money. Amyx says he and his staff “listen intently to their needs and desires so we may design a perfect pair of glasses specifically for them, without adding unnecessary items only to increase the value of the sale.”

4) Know your products and their stories.
And be sure your staff does, too. Bill Gerber, creative director of OMG! the Optical Marketing Group, says your customers “want to become impassioned with the wonders of optics and design and share these discoveries with friends and family. Is the item on display made in limited quantities, featured in a movie, inspired by the sea, proven to improve acuity?” Let people know what makes your wares special. Hold weekly meetings so everyone is on the same page, especially for new and featured lines. Spring for education and in-store sales training.

5) Empower your employees to make customer-service decisions in your absence.
Big-box stores offer instant gratification. E-tailers deliver convenience. People don’t like to wait. Make it easy on your patients and clientele — and on yourself — by having staff members who can work with people on the fly. If you’re asking people to wait a week or so for quality, custom-fit eyewear, you want to make it as easy as possible for them to order. Reduce the roadblocks. As much as possible, ban the phrase, “I need to ask my boss about that.”

6) Reward your best customers — and employees.
A classic study from the Gartner Group found that 80 percent of your future profits come from 20 percent of your current clients. Give those high-value people all the love they deserve — and then some. The same goes for your staff. Herb Kelleher, the legendary co-founder of Southwest Airlines, famously said: “Happy and pleased employees take care of the customers. And happy customers take care of shareholders by coming back.”

7) Exceed expectations.
As the Real Deal scenario in this issue notes, practices get in trouble when expectations are too high. It’s better to follow the advice of David Newman — noted in this issue’s book review on page 63 — and strive never make a promise you can’t keep.
“We always underpromise and overdeliver. We dispense premium products and explain to our patients how they are custom made for them, their vision needs and the frame they choose,” says Diana Sims of Buena Vista Optical, Chicago, IL. “Sometimes patients have a ‘microwave mentality’ and want everything in one hour or less. We tell them two weeks. Our turn-around time is five to six business days, so 99 percent of the time, we call the patient to pick up their eyewear before the two weeks and they are always pleasantly surprised.”

Next Steps

Once you’ve mastered the basics of customer service, go further toward delighting your patients and clients
with some of these ideas.

1) Give first-time customers a tour. Retail is all about the experience these days. You may not have pneumatic tubes (like Warby Parker does in its Lexington Avenue location in New York) or a Genius Bar like the Apple Store. But whatever the special touches you have in your shop — whether a wall of happy customer photos, a framed write-up from the local paper, a play area for the kids or a wi-fi password patients can use while they wait — don’t keep them a secret.

2) Take time to really get to know your repeat clients. Jack Mitchell, author of Hug Your Customers, notes that you SKU your products so you have critical information available as you need it. Why not do the same for your customers? Build a database with as much information on each of your customers as you do on any of your products. Get all the obvious stuff in there — as well as less obvious stuff like hobbies, pets’ names, golf handicap, and their preferred coffee flavor.

There’s been a trend toward renaming the “waiting room” the “reception area” — and GPN’s Binkowitz suggests still another name. “Your waiting area needs to be your living room,” he says, “and you and your entire team need to set the stage to create and support a more socially relaxed environment. When was the last time you or your team sat down in the waiting area and simply socialized with your patients?” Recognize people by name: “Hi, Mrs Jones how are you today? Are we taking good care of you? I heard you recently got back from vacation. How was the trip?”

3) Make people feel comfortable. Little things matter most. “We always ask our patients what music they would like to listen to while they are in the exam room,” says Dr. Ted McElroy, optometrist at Vision Source in Tifton, GA. “We always offer water to our patients as it gets warm here in Arizona. We always give free cloths, cleaner and repairs,” adds James Snow of Experts on Sight in Gilbert, AZ. And, at Art of Optiks in Wayzata, MN, staff members will always walk customers to the bathroom instead of simply pointing in its direction.

We’re all used to taking ample time to find the right clothing and shoes. The same should go for eyewear. “I always approach styling my clients from a wardrobe standpoint, which they’re generally not used to,” says Duane Littles of Duane Littles Eyewear of Brooklyn, NY. “I get them playing and trying on things that they might not try on themselves. I try to make it a fun, relaxing atmosphere for them, whether they end up purchasing at the moment or not.”

“We love to have fun in our office, says Toni Herron of Henry Ford OptimEyes in Westland, MI. “Many Saturdays, we pop popcorn and give it out to our patients. They love it! We want our patients to feel like they are part of our family and we want them to participate in the fun we have each day.” (P.S. Did you notice that she mentions how they do this on Saturdays? Being open when people have time to visit you is an important way to show that you value them — and want to make it easy for them to do business with you.)

4) Thank them. Then thank them again — and be sure they’re happy. Of course, you want to send people on their way with a verbal thanks for their patronage. But you can also tuck a personal thank-you note in the bag with their eyewear or contacts — then be back in touch a few days later to be sure all is well.

“We do a call-back three to five days after delivery to check that they are happy and seeing well as well as being seen well,” says Eric Geiger, owner of Styleyes in Sacramento, CA.

5) Reach out with the latest news. Personally call or email your customers to tell them about new frames and lenses you think are particularly suited for them. Email is a great tool. It’s less intrusive than phone calls, so if you have an email address, use it. A quick personal email is far better than a blanket mass-mailing (though regular email bulletins have their value, too). With email, instead of calling someone to say, “Oh, we’ve got this great new frame in that I really think you’ll like,” you can actually send a picture of it. Teri Focht of Eyes All Over in St. Paul, MN, says she spends an hour or two each month writing personal emails to let customers know about new products. “It lets the patient know I’m working for them and they appreciate the time and effort,” she says. “I get a lot of referrals because of the personal touches.”

6) Give gifts for purchases or inconveniences. When Eye Candy of Delafield, WI, makes a sale, the client gets custom M&Ms. (Eye Candy … M&Ms … get it?) Tokens of appreciation are also appropriate when things don’t go quite as planned. “When we have a delay, we send a note with a gift card for coffee or sometimes a free movie,” says Dr. Jarod Wood of Wood Vision Clinic in Iowa Falls, IA.

And sometimes there’s the true “Murphy’s Law” patient where everything that can go wrong, does. When that happens for Dr. Robert Smith at Smith Optometry in St. Louis, “we will give them a gift certificate for a local restaurant, with an emphasis on local. That’s a win-win: the patient is happy, the restaurant gets business and we get referrals from the restaurant personnel.”

Family Eye Care of New Kensington, PA, does a cross-promotion with the restaurant across the street, giving anyone who buys eyewear coupons worth $5 off of anything on the menu. In turn, the restaurant distributes Family Eye Care’s scratch-off “lottery” tickets good for such things as a free cleaning cloth, 20 percent off non-prescription sunwear, 50 percent off a frame with the purchase of lenses, or $5 off of any purchase. Repeat customers at the restaurant can collect tickets worth a total of $50 off their eyewear.

7) Offer home or workplace delivery. When eyewear e-tailers deliver the goods these days, they do so via the U.S. Postal Service or FedEx. But when you go the extra mile (or two) to save your clients a trip, it definitely makes an impression. “Once a month, our doctor sees patients at the local nursing homes and assisted living facilities,” says Tracy Roberts of Family Eye Care & Mavor Optical in Caribou, ME. “He will also do home visits, and we will deliver glasses or contacts to our patients if they are homebound or unable to come into the office.” Daniel Amyx in Florida notes that he and his staff sometimes go out to an elderly person’s vehicle to take measurements if the person has mobility problems.

(This brings us back to the Grandma Rule: Obviously, many seniors are more active than ever, but when you can go the extra mile to help people who have slowed down, it impresses them and everyone around them. And don’t forget: Harried professionals and parents of young children would applaud repairs at their workplace or home delivery, too.)

8) Know the competition — including online sellers. In a revealing blog post earlier this year (read it at invmag.us/9143), Bess Ogden of The Williams Group detailed her experience shopping for glasses online. She expected the worst and was surprisingly pleased with every aspect of the transaction. “The point is that it is absolutely critical that you understand your competition and create your own unique brand and identity,” she says. “Understand that more and more you will be seeing only those patients who love to try glasses on in a store, who enjoy interacting with your staff in an attractive and luxurious atmosphere, whose prescriptions are higher or more complex, or who have more sensitivity to small changes in Rx.” You can own these customers for life if you understand their needs and exceed them.

Don’t be scared. Ask your customers what they think of your competitors, says Ron E. Gielgun, author of 222 Ways to Promote Your Business. This works in two ways: If your customers criticize aspects of your competitors’ business or service, you’ll know that you should do the opposite. On the other hand, if they sing your competitors’ praises, you’ll know what they’re doing right — and you can figure out how to do the same things, only better.

Above and Beyond

Here are some things you can do to all but guarantee your customers won’t ditch you:

1) Adjust everywhere. “I have been known to adjust glasses at the grocery store when needed,” says Tracy Roberts of Family Eye Care & Mavor Optical in Maine.

2) Say something nice. Consultant Rick Segel, author of the Retail Business Kit for Dummies, suggests that you learn how to harness the power of a good compliment. “If you wait on somebody with a happy, bubbly personality, why not tell them how much fun it’s been to serve them? Alternatively, if you’re waiting on the toughest, most demanding customer around, why not tell them that you appreciate someone who knows what he likes?”

3) Beyond birthday cards: Jeffries Eye Care in Sebring, OH, gives a copy of the Dr. Seuss Eye Book to new parents and milkshake cards for anniversaries, says Dr. Bruce Jeffries.

4) Write stuff down. Working out a purchase price for some eyewear? It gets complicated, right? Ron Zemke suggests writing your calculations neatly on a page with your name, phone number and email address. Add notations that explain why you’re including various options, such as “A/R coating for safer driving.” Your customer will be glad to have it as a reference and will more easily remember you — and the service you offer that’s far beyond what Glasses R Us can achieve.

5) Send a care package. Julie Kubsch of Specs Around Town in Bloomington, IL, sent a hand-selected set of frames to a client in Colorado. “Her son is battling cancer and she’s missing her visits to Specs. Her best friend delivered (the frames) and they had an eyewear party! Extra special surprise!”

6) Try a lifetime-discount card. Discounts are a tricky game in the vision care business. But, at the very least, you can do something to make your longest-term patients and customers feel special. For example, consider a lifetime-discount card. Give the clients who have been with you the longest — or spent the most — a card or certificate which gets them 10 percent off on anything they buy. Forever.

… AND TRY THESE TOO …

Want to become a master of customer service? It’s easy, says Jeffrey Gitomer, author of Customer Satisfaction Is Worthless, Customer Loyalty Is Priceless and other books.

1) Read about positive attitude for 15 minutes each morning for 30 days. Instead of your morning dose of news headlines, start your day with a page or two from classic positive thinkers like Napoleon Hill, Norman Vincent Peale or Dale Carnegie.

2) Change your customer surveys. Don’t ask a lot of questions, just ask the right ones. Instead of asking customers “Would you recommend us?” ask “How will you recommend us?” The answers to this will help you identify your “raving fans.”

3) Try to get an unsolicited letter of praise from a customer about the way you made them feel. It’s a simple — but extremely effective — goal to shoot for. Don’t encourage your customers to write the letters — except by providing exemplary service. Says Gitomer: “Don’t stop until you get one. See how long it takes.” Suggested start time for this challenge? Right this instant. You might not get the letter you want right away, but customers will see the difference immediately.

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Cover Stories

2020 Vision

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The coming year has “eyecare” written all over it. But what changes can we expect to see in eyecare and eyewear as we enter a new year and a new decade? We asked more than 20 industry experts which major trends they expect to make themselves felt in the coming year and beyond. Their responses can make for scary reading at times — few independent ECPs leap for joy when they hear talk of “retail homogenization,” “online refraction” and “eroding margins.” But the way we see it, the real takeaway here is about silver linings and crises turned into opportunities. They say to be forewarned is to be forearmed. Check out the eight currents in the optical and optometric industry discussed in the following pages, and arm yourself for a new year—and a new era—in eyecare.

1. VERTICAL INTEGRATION

Among the industry experts INVISION spoke to for this article, the consensus is clear; the vertical integration that has been evident at all levels of the optical and optometry industry in recent years, from the Essilor/Luxottica merger to the private equity-fueled acquisition of independent practices, will only accelerate in 2020.

According to Evan Engel, vice president for sales and marketing at EyeCarePro, a digital marketing firm for eyecare businesses, “The financial incentive for the Essilors and VSPs of the world to own practices and push their products through their own practices will change the landscape, much like private pharmacies are virtually gone, replaced with CVS/Walgreens.” Mark Hinton, founder of advisory firm eYeFacilitate, puts a hard figure on the financial incentive described above by Engel, saying acquisitions can only grow as “venture capital execs will continue to show investors a 20-plus-percent gain” on acquisitions of eyecare practices.

Matt DiBlasi, president of Abyde, a HIPAA-compliance software provider, named the emergence of private equity within optometry as his top trend to watch. “It’s here and it’s here to stay,” he told us. “Will the independent OD thrive or eventually cave to the more recent trend of offloading business functions through the process of acquisition?”
The most obvious effect of this process is homogenization; as small businesses sell out to join large groups, eyecare is at risk of looking the same everywhere, something that, according to Jennifer Lyerly, OD, co-founder of Defocus Media, “weakens our chance to personally connect optometry’s message with patients.” As the current generation of eyecare’s most prominent leaders sells to private equity, she says, “We need to find and embrace new leaders in the profession who are innovating independent paths forward.”

According to business development expert Michael Karlsrud of the Karlsrud Company, the consolidation of the private ECP market will be focused on larger population areas, or where multiple office locations exist. This is significant, he says, as many frame and lens companies, along with their sales teams, are going to be at risk as decision-making and purchasing will become centralized to maximize purchasing power. “We may experience a loss of jobs in the overall market, and organizations will certainly have to regroup as their ‘A’ accounts are picked off.”

Other eyecare pundits are drawing similarly interesting conclusions. Richard Frankel, OD, of Atlantic Cape Eyecare in Wildwood, NJ, and founder of #emergingtrends on ODs on Facebook, says the acquisitions of VisionWorks by VSP, and FourEyes by Luxottica, point to “the growing segment of the eyecare market in the value-based segment as pioneered by America’s Best.” In addition, he says, “expect the VCPs [vision care plans] owned by those corporations to funnel more of their beneficiaries to them for added synergy.”

Louis Fullagar, creative director at SpexAddict, a digital marketing firm specializing in the eyewear industry, and founder of the online magazine Luxury Eyewear Forum, sees a lot of retirements on the horizon. This will in turn create a real opportunity for independents to separate themselves from the herd, he says. “I see growth in the area happening already but I think there will be more pressure to differentiate in the changing market profile over the next year. It will be ‘decision time’ for many owners to either sellout or step it up!”

Echoing this is Bart Foster, managing director of Colorado-based Sanitas Advisors, who says that while, sure, it can be a scary thing to see, the continued vertical integration of the industry can be an opportunity for those ECPs who recognize it, helping to open up space for smaller companies and niche brands.

James Armstrong of Alberta Eyecare in Portland, OR, made this bold call on an acquisition that’s barely three months old: “VSP abandons VisionWorks after massive revenue losses.”

2. TELE-OPTOMETRY HAS LANDED!

Industry observers have been warning for years that it’s just a matter of time until online refraction becomes something optometric practices will have to take seriously. Well, if our experts are to be believed, that time is upon us, with 2020, as Texas State Optical president John Marvin puts it, likely to be the year that “tele-optometry will go mainstream and be adopted by large groups.”

As far as telemedicine in general goes, Michael Kling, OD/owner at Invision Optometry in San Diego, CA, sees a familiar pattern. “It’s real and it’s coming. Not just to service the under-served, rural areas of the country, but also to meet the increasing demand for convenience and efficiency. Disruption occurs when a new market is created, first by appealing to a niche market, then by becoming mainstream. Just like we’ll soon be hailing driver-less automobiles to get to work, we’ll soon see a completely virtual healthcare delivery system emerge.” It’s an idea expressed succinctly by Peggy Gartin, founder/CEO of The Social Eye, a social media agency for optical businesses, who says that the pressure is on to make online exams a reality, “because some people just don’t want to go to the doctor.”

Foster of Sanitas Advisors not only agrees that the trend is real, he embraces it. “Telehealth — soon to be called just health — and online refractions will finally gain a foothold and enable eyecare providers to offer better access with fewer costs.

Karlsrud, while agreeing that acceptance of online exams is on the way, isn’t sold on the idea that 2020 will be the year US consumers fully buy in. “We are in the third inning of the ballgame. When online refraction becomes perfected and accepted overseas, it will be more accepted in the US. When that happens, look for the consumer to take more control of their healthcare and make decisions based on their own consumer ‘needs,’ i.e. fashion, flexibility, cost, utility measures, versus eye health and other benefits of a healthy eye exam.”

The question ECPs should be asking themselves, according to Lauretta Justin, OD, owner of Millennium Eye Center and founder of Optometry Divas in Orlando, FL, is no longer really about whether telemedicine is coming, or even how to incorporate it into their practices, but how to ensure it best serves eye health. “If we get involved and find ways to incorporate its use in our practices, I believe we can help steer it in the right direction,” she says. Lyerly takes a similar view. “We have to find a way to use it ethically or risk being left behind,” she says. “Primary care doctors are already using telemedicine to prescribe antibiotics for ‘pinkeye’ — even though we know most acute conjunctivitis is viral and doesn’t need antibiotics. Can we ethically employ telemedicine to meet the convenience our patients want, without sacrificing proper care and contributing to antibiotic resistances? If optometry can find the path forward that balances these concerns, our profession will be stronger for it. The pioneers that will bring us into the future are out there right now embracing the challenge.”

3. DECLINING ENROLLMENT, CORPORATE RECRUITMENT

One topic that our experts will be looking carefully at over the next year is the perhaps too-seldom discussed subject of the state of education for aspiring optometrists and opticians.

Sadly, Hinton expects opticianry colleges will continue to see a drop in enrollment as optical salaries present a lower income opportunity than other trades. As for ODs, graduates will flock towards corporate stores instead of private practice, says Karlsrud. “Their debt load will be very high and the risk too great not to seek the shelter of a larger organization — particularly in a market that is shifting rapidly,” he says, with the end result being less options for retiring doctors in smaller markets to have an exit strategy. “In the end, this could mean few choices for care in small markets, forcing the patients to drive to larger communities, or for the younger demographic to hit online options,” he adds.

EyeCoach’s Bell offered the glum prediction that schools and colleges of optometry “will continue to do a disservice to their students by not offering any classes in how to run/manage a profitable practice/business or making the following classes mandatory in undergraduate studies as a criteria in being accepted into optometry school: Entrepreneurship, Business Finance/Accounting, Sales & Marketing, Human Resources, Inventory Control, etc., etc., all the while as students accumulate crushing debt from their student loans which average around $200,000.” Because of this, he warns, independent optometry will see a further drop in capture rates and big box stores and online retailers will continue to see growth “as independent optometry continues its death knell.”

4. MYOPIA AND EYE HEALTH AWARENESS

An increase in myopia cases, heightened public awareness of the importance of eye exams, growing government regulations, gene therapy and more are all on our experts’ radar for 2020.

Look for eyecare practices to expand their scope of practice, predicts Foster, “speeding up new treatments and product opportunities — for example auditory, cognition, genetic testing and eye health.”

American Optometric Association president Barbara Horn, OD, says 2020 will be the year of the eye exam, thanks in no small part to AOA’s #2020EyeExam campaign to drive awareness of the importance of making a comprehensive eye exam part of every American’s annual health care routine. “We are reaching out to employers across the country, enlisting their support and commitment to foster awareness of the importance of eye health and vision care and the overall health benefits of in-person, comprehensive eye examinations,” she told INVISION.

Kristan Gross, global executive director of the Vision Impact Institute, agrees that vision health will become part of the wider public health conversation. With the release of two new reports on the state of vision around the world, the topic of vision is already being elevated to the public health stage, she says, citing the World Health Organization’s World Report on Vision, which highlights the magnitude of the problem of poor vision, and a study by Essilor International on the global scale of uncorrected poor vision. Gross also expects the link between children’s vision and learning to continue to be on the radar of policymakers, adding that in several states this conversation has already resulted in policy change when it comes to children’s vision exam policies. She predicts that more states will introduce legislation in 2020.
The topics of children’s vision and eyecare-related legislation are also on the mind of Armstrong at Alberta Eyecare, who expects the coming year to bring both growth in pediatric-specific optometry practices and new laws in almost all 50 states regulating online eye exams.

Frankel expects 2020 will show us even more evidence of optometry’s potential to integrate with mainstream medicine. “The future of optometry lies in providing professional services and integrating within the tapestry of medicine,” he says. “We are no longer going to be isolated but have the ability to coordinate with a patient’s total healthcare.”

Continuing the pediatric theme, Foster predicts that the massive increase in myopia, especially in children, will change the standard of care and open opportunities for new treatments and service models. He expects genetic testing and gene therapy will be used for early detection and diagnosis of eyecare diseases and, intriguingly, that contact lenses will be used for drug delivery.

Jaclyn Garlich, OD, founder of the 20/20 Glance weekly email for optometrists, is keeping her fingers crossed for possible FDA approval for myopia control. “Eyenovia is working on a drop called Micropine. If approved, Eyenovia will have the first microdosed treatment for progressive myopia in the US. Plus their eyedropper bottle is innovative and is designed to have better drug delivery to the eye. This could be the eyedropper of the future,” she says. Also on her radar are developments in meibography. “As the number of dry eye disease patients continues to increase, so do our diagnostic and treatment options. I think meibographers are going to become one piece of equipment primary care optometrists can’t live without,” she predicts.

 

OUR EXPERTS

 

5. THE RISE (AND RISE) OF MANAGED CARE

In a process inextricably linked to the vertical integration of the industry, managed care is taking over a large portion of the vision plan sector. None of our experts expects this to change any time soon.

You might be thinking this is one trend you can sit out as in independent. Not so, says Karlsrud. “Not only will [managed care] become closer to the consumer by completing the vertical integration of the supply chain, [it] will put pressure on independent ECPs to accept less reimbursements for customary charges and services,” he says. The result will be more patients being driven to corporate owned practices where benefits can be maximized, with the remaining independents forced to either change their business model, or move into a “cash only” practice. “Count on more direct marketing to patients to move them to online stores owned by the larger consolidators,” he says.

“The era of fee for service,” says Atlantic Cape Eyecare’s Frankel, “is drawing to a close.” With the Department of Health and Human Services having declared that 90 percent of Medicare beneficiaries be covered under programs that have quality based outcomes, MSSPs and Medicare Advantage programs are increasing in popularity. “ACOs will continue to become more popular with commercial carriers as a means to control costs. The panels that have been proven to reduce Medicare costs are being used for the commercial plans. Optometry cannot be closed out of providing medical eyecare as a result. Nor can routine eyecare be subcontracted out to VCPs.”

Foster warns ECPs that they should expect to see a dramatic shift in the control of managed vision care in the direction of employers and consumers.
Robert Bell, sales strategist and founder of EyeCoach, a sales and marketing practice, offers this frank assessment: “Optometrists will continue to bitch and moan about new policies of vision care plan companies that are only beneficial to these companies but not to the ODs who accept the plans. Yet, most ODs will not formulate any strategies to leave these plans and the profitability of their practices will continue to dwindle.”

6. THE SEARCH FOR A NEW BUSINESS MODEL GOES ON

Hand in glove with changing consumption patterns comes the eternal quest for the perfect business model. The complexity of the optical and optometric industry makes the challenge posed by online retail especially formidable for ECPs.

Louis Fullagar at SpexAddict, a social media, brand building and digital marketing company working in the eyewear industry, foresees a growth in practices getting their game on in terms of marketing, social media and branding in 2020. “There is a massive opportunity for every independent to at least take a step into that space,” he says. “We are now past the point of the blinkered approach to attracting customers. I am starting to see more practices and owners who are willing to at least try new ways and budget their marketing activity accordingly.”

The goal of such efforts, according to Kling, should be to reduce “retail friction”. “It’s important for businesses to challenge their processes of delivering goods and services, and to find ways to lessen any barrier to the consumer to complete the transaction. Any step in the purchasing process that requires cognitive hesitation creates doubt, and lessens the likelihood of the transaction being completed.” In other words, if you have to stop and think about a purchase, you’re less likely to follow through with it. “Poor customer service, delays in shipping/delivery, a poor shopping environment and poor reviews are all examples of retail friction.”

The most interesting emerging model, according to The Social Eye’s Gartin, is what she calls “DIY optical.” In her view, eyewear customers are unhappy with the price, complexity and restricted selection of the current buying experience. “This is why Warby Parker got so big. Customers are going to source their frames from wherever they can… As long as they bring those frames in to get their prescription lenses from an optometrist/optician, we should support this freedom to choose.”

Hinton at eYeFacilitate says capture from handoff to optical will continue to fall as consumers are influenced by advertised lower cost pricing. “The opportunity is to obtain lower cost, high quality progressive lenses from lab partners and stock SV lenses, both with AR included and frame included; the PAL with frame will cost the consumer between $350 and $389 depending on market saturation.” He advises ODs to write prescriptions for SV and PAL and send opticians to the low-cost providers to mystery shop the average cost of each.

In general, says Todd Berberian, owner of Todd Rogers Eyewear in Andover, MA — the winner of INVISION’s 2018 America’s Finest Optical Retailers competition — too many owners feel obliged to follow industry rules when, after all, “The rules don’t follow us. The only competition that exists should be within your practice’s own four walls; don’t worry about the choices being made by the practice across the street.”

7. CHANGING CONSUMER BEHAVIORS

What separates the future of optical retail from its past? Choice. The consumer/patient seemingly has a world of options available online. As prices stagnate and margins vanish, business owners need to adjust.

Explains Foster: “Online sales will continue to grow with new subscription models taking hold and improvements in virtual try-on technology.” The result? “Downward pressure on pricing will force margin erosion.” Karlsrud agrees, pointing out that there is already a perception in the consumer market that glasses cost as much as 10-15 times higher in a private practice versus online stores. “This will continue to drive the perception that glasses are commodities and can be bought anywhere for the price they want to pay,” he says. “We’ll see this more with the younger generations moving through our offices. The older generations will continue to pay for peace of mind and a relationship with their doctors. We’re all getting older, so now is the time to be preparing for the next generation’s expectations of price, value and convenience.”

Michael Vitale, ABOM, senior technical director at The Vision Council, stresses the opportunity this trend creates. For the discerning patient, he says, the interest you create online can be used to drive the consumer to a brick and mortar location.

“Retail bifurcation” is the term Kling from Invision Optometry uses. “We will continue to see a bifurcation in consumer behavior with, on one extreme, the low-cost-driven providers, and on the other, further expansion of luxury brands and a focus on delivering a unique experience. What will contract is the middle; that is, those that try to be all things to all people, delivering tired eyewear in uninspired environments.”

8. A WOMAN’S WORLD

Here’s an area where we at INVISION think we may even be a step ahead of our own experts. According to our “Big Survey” (check it out at invisionmag.com or in our November/December print issue) 56 percent of responding ODs were women. So while the trend of women gravitating to optometry is well and truly established, a number of the industry observers we spoke to singled it out as one that will continue to be felt in the coming years, with significant numbers of young women seeing a future for themselves in the industry.

In particular, Dr. Lauretta Justin told us to look out for an increase in the number of young women ODs going into private practice, not as solo owners but as partners or groups, which she said will increase the likelihood of success and work-life satisfaction for this new generation of ODs. She also expects an increase in the number of women ODs forming startups with innovative products, and founding companies and networks “to disrupt the status quo and usher in a new era in optometry.” Says Justin, “Many of my colleagues have already launched startup companies that are changing the way we practice. Their companies have various unique offerings such as competitive profitable frame lines, more efficient ways to order contact lenses and capital funding for optometrists by optometrists. It’s an exciting time.”

Marvin of Texas State Optical agrees: “Optometry, as a profession will grow in appeal to females who see practicing as an employment opportunity.”

MORE TRENDS TO LOOK OUT FOR…

• “Virtual reality visual field testing! A company called Virtual Field has a portable visual field tester with audio instructions in your patients’ native language. It’s a great option with a small footprint for patients that have trouble with conventional visual field testing.” Jaclyn Garlich, OD, founder 20/20Glance, Boston, MA
• “Women will continue to fight stigmas about glasses. In November, a story broke about the policies of some Japanese companies banning women from wearing glasses on the job. When poor vision and blindness affect a disproportionately larger portion of females this is clearly a problem. We predict more stories like this.” Kristan Gross, Global Executive Director, Vision Impact Institute, Dallas, TX
• “1. Metals, metals and metals. 2. Ingenuity. You don’t have to spend titanium prices to get first quality metal.” Todd Berberian, Todd Rogers, Andover, MA
• “Divas of an advanced age are starting to come into their own and they all wear glasses. Expect more silver sisters to push the boundaries of eyewear style.” Peggy Gartin, Founder & CEO The Social Eye, San Diego, CA
• “In lenses, the continued development of filters to block specific wavelengths. Be it for color blindness, HEV or enhanced color contrast. Also, developments in “freeform” designed lenses. Not just progressives but also to improve visual acuity for single vision wearers.” Michael Vitale, ABOM, Senior Technical Director & Lens Division Liaison, The Vision Council, Alexandria, VA
• “Private label contact lenses will become a sizable part of the market.” Bart Foster, Managing Director, Sanitas Advisors, Boulder, CO
• “Additive and micro manufacturing — specifically 3D printing of lenses and frames — will become mainstream. Bart Foster, Managing Director, Sanitas Advisors, Boulder, CO
• “Value-based care, a continued migration from pay-for-service to pay-for-outcomes.” Matt DiBlasi, president ABYDE, Clearwater, FL
• “Augmented and virtual reality powered smart glasses, change the way eyewear is used and worn.” Bart Foster, Managing Director, Sanitas Advisors, Boulder, CO
• “1. More gender fluidity. 2. Functional art pieces. 3. Flashbacks to fashions from popular eras.” Arian Fartash, OD, The GlamOptometrist, Orange County, CA
• “There’s a lot coming up for Think About Your Eyes. From new concepts to campaigns kicking off in conjunction with movie releases. Look out April 2020! It will be an exciting year.” Ashley Mills, CEO The Vision Council, Alexandria, VA
•  “Differentiate. Do everything different than your competition. In the optical, find frame lines that no one else has, offer speedy service or home delivery to set yourself apart. Dave Ziegler, OD, Ziegler Leffingwell Eyecare, New Berlin, WI

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Here’s How Eyecare Pros Are Spending Their Advertising Budgets

The pie is getting sliced ever more finely.

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IN INVISION’S FIRST annual Big Survey, we asked more than 500 ECPs which medium accounts for the biggest chunk of their ad and marketing spending. Print is still on top, but the marketing budget pie is getting sliced ever more finely — and nearly 1 in 5 ECPs claim to be passing on the plate all together.

Which gets the largest portion of your marketing budget?

Print
13%
Community events (including sponsorships)
12%
Direct mail
10%
Other social media marketing
8%
Paid search (PPC, Google Ads, etc.)
7%
Facebook
7%
Email marketing
7%
Radio
5%
SEO
5%
Television
2%
Billboards
2%
Other
3%
Don’t advertise
19%

 

Looking at the above results, it’s seems likely the 19 percent of ECPs who said they don’t advertise are relying on word of mouth to sustain their business. Still, it appears to pay to be more active: 25 percent of the ECPs who told the Big Survey the last two years had been their worst ever also don’t advertise. That compares to just 14 percent of those who said those years had been their best ever. Also worth considering: In a separate question, we asked ECPs to name the most significant thing they were doing to drive sales five years ago that they’ve stopped doing. The top answer? You guessed it—advertising in traditional media. Check out the survey to see how your spending fits in to this complex picture.

The 2019 Big Survey was conducted from August to October and attracted responses from more than 500 American ECPs. Look out for the full results in the November/December issue of INVISION.

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Best of Eyecare

The Big Survey 2019 – The Basics

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THE BIG SURVEY 2019

Who is the American ECP? How does he or she do business? What are the main challenges they face? Our inaugural Big Survey set out to find the answers and 505 owners and managers of American vision businesses answered our call. Here are the results.

The Basics

We find it’s always best to start at the beginning … the basic stuff that makes up so much of your business’ identity. The Who, What, How and Where are all here; we’ll get into the fun stuff — like how much and what’s selling ­— later on.

1. Need to swing on chandeliers? Head to Missouri: 60 percent of stores have these fixtures.
2. They don’t take kindly to strangers asking questions in South Dakota. It, along with Louisiana and New Mexico, were the only states not to be represented in our survey.
3. Michigan ECPs are some of the hardest working in the industry: 25 percent work more than 50 hours a week.
4. Eyewear trend capital? That might just be New York where 21 percent of ECPs thought of themselves as being primarily in the fashion business (as opposed to health or retail), the highest level in the land.
5. Move over Austin. Connecticut was tops for self-declared weirdness with ECPs there giving themselves an average score of 8.2 out of 10 on our oddball scale.
6. Ohio ECPs have been listening to our sales experts – 44 percent use role-playing in training staff.
7. Florida had the most male owners and managers in our survey at 76 percent. Washington state had the most female owners at 86 percent.
8. Is there something in the water in the Midwest? ECPs in a band of states from Illinois to Ohio to Missouri were the happiest vision professionals (along with their cousins in NJ), with half or more (50-57%) ranking themselves 9 or higher out of 10 for professional satisfaction.
9. North Carolina vision businesses have among the highest turnover rates in the country, with 72 percent saying their staff stay less than 4 years.
10. Californian ECPs were the least likely to own their places of business with 82 percent renting. Must have been those pesky legal limitations…
11. Kansans were most likely to be open on Sunday with one in four stores and practices open on this traditional “rest” day.

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1. How many locations does your business have?

One
74%
Two
13%
Three to five
8%
Six or more
5%

2. Please indicate the type of location that houses your store:

Free-standing building
43%
A strip mall
22%
Business park or office building
16%
Downtown storefront
9%
Lifestyle center
3%
In a hospital/medical wing/health center
3%
The Internet
1%
Mobile practice
1%
A mall
1%
Other
2%

3. Do you own or rent your business property?

Own
39%
Rent
62%
NA (For online and mobile only businesses)
2%
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4. How well are things going in your business this year?

COMMENT: As our heat map shows, there’s very little to be blue about for an ECP right now. Note that white indicates states with statistically invalid responses. Figures in parentheses represent the number of survey responses.

5. How would you describe the market where your store is located?

Large city
15%
Medium-sized city (250,000-1 million people)
24%
Small city (25,000 to 250,000)
29%
Country town (up to 25,000)
13%
Resort area
1%
Other
1%

6. How long has your business been in operation?

COMMENT: Businesses that have been in operation for 11-20 years seem to be this survey’s sweet spot. Not only did they slightly edge out other lengths of time in business, as seen above, but those in business for that long also reported the highest proportion of revenue between $500K-$1.5M (50%).
Wondering what the rest of this group’s demos looked like? Well, 59 percent classified themselves as a private practice with a strong focus on retail, 49 percent were in the South and 39 percent operated out of a freestanding building in a small city or suburb. Forty-five percent of owners in business for that long reported salaries over $100,000 and, best of all, the majority reported their satisfaction with their professional life at an 8 or higher (66%).

7. Which description of your business do you most closely identify with?

Hospital or VA setting
1%
Medical model private practice, no retail
1%
Medical model private practice, small dispensarybuilding
22%
Private practice, strong focus on retail
53%
Corporate optometry location
3%
Eyewear boutique, employed or leased OD
10%
Eyewear boutique, no OD
9%
Mobile optician
1%

8. How big is your (main) location?

Less than 500 sq. ft.
4%
500-999 sq. ft.
10%
1,000-1,499 sq. ft.
24%
1,500-1,999 sq. ft.
17%
2,000-2,499 sq. ft.
15%
2,500-2,999 sq. ft.
11%
3,000-3,999 sq. ft.
8%
4,000-5,000 sq. ft.
6%
More than 5,000 sq. ft.
5%

9. Check the paid services you offer:

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