By Eric Rettig, OD
June 9, 2021
Online and big-box retailers pose significant challenges to independent practices in increased competition, but the right strategies can buoy your practice to great heights. Here are several of the most important things we do to stay competitive.
Emphasize Customer Service
We know patients can buy glasses or contact lenses from many different places. Whether that’s online, through a retail store, big-box store, or from another source, and it often can be more inexpensive than the prices we charge for our products. For that reason, we make sure every patient knows that with the purchase of those products from us comes our expertise in servicing and troubleshooting any issues that may arise over the lifetime of the products.
Our optical staff has been well trained in troubleshooting difficult frame fits, high prescriptions, or “needy” patients. We also have several staff in our optical who have decades of experience and even some who are ABO-certified or are currently working on completing their ABO certification. We offer to pay for the testing and training materials. We also try to include CE-certified classes in our longer meetings, so the staff can receive credit.
We have a staff meeting every Monday morning for 30-45 minutes before the office opens. We use this time to update employees on any changes in the office. We also go over our bonus boosters from the previous week. We discuss how many second pair-sales we had, total refractions, annual supplies of contact lenses, sunglass sales and other metrics. At the end of each month, if the practice is at least 5 percent above the revenue we generated in the same month last year, the staff is given a bonus (25 percent of the difference between the two years). We also have quarterly breakfast meetings during which we can provide staff training and bigger updates on equipment, items for sale and other practice happenings. These 2-3 hour meetings take place on the morning of the first Monday of each quarter. Lastly, twice per year we close the office for an onsite employee retreat in which we deliver staff education, training, and sometimes just fun, non-work related activities.
Patients feel comfortable knowing they can come to us when they have issues with their glasses or contact lenses and that we will do whatever we can to make sure their problems are addressed quickly and to their satisfaction. We have many patients come to us after getting an exam and glasses from a retail/big-box location and they often tell us our exams are much more thorough and that the service and quality of our products are much better. It’s not uncommon to hear patients say, “I’ll never make the mistake of going cheap on glasses again.”
Patients also realize that, on top of their glasses and contact lens needs, we can take care of their medical eyecare issues and be a “one-stop-shop.”
Take pride in the products and services you offer and be sure to show and explain to patients why your office is different from other eyecare providers and eyewear and contact lens sellers in your community and online.
Add an In-House Edging & Finishing Lab
We are one of the last offices in our area of upstate Pennsylvania that is still equipped for in-house edging and finishing. We stock single-vision lenses in polycarbonate both with and without anti-reflective treatment. This allows us to offer fast service to patients and emergency glasses when patients lose or break previous pairs.
We have two WECO E6 edgers and two opticians who work in the lab full time. Each of them have 20+ years experience and are great at troubleshooting difficult prescriptions and making sure the appropriate lenses are ordered for each patient. Luckily for us, we found each optician after they already had years of experience. They only had to learn the new edging system and how to order lenses, and it went smoothly after that.
The benefit to patients is fast turnaround times (often same day for single-vision patients). They also benefit because we are able to edge 90+ percent of our jobs in-house, including for patients with managed vision care plans. This keeps us in control of the time it takes to complete the glasses and the quality of the lenses. We often found that the job we sent out would be done wrong, get lost in the mail, or just take too long, which was often frustrating for patients and made our service look bad even though it was out of our control.
Pre-COVID, we were able to turn around digital progressive lenses with anti-reflective treatment in five days or less and single-vision in three days or less (if not same day). COVID has created delays, mainly due to lab availability. Industry-wide, labs have had to add extra days to job times, and there has also been a shortage in materials periodically, which has also delayed jobs.
Having an in-house edging and finishing lab has allowed us to explore other independent labs, which resulted in more than a 40 percent cut in ophthalmic lens costs. In a four-doctor, high-volume practice like ours, this is a massive savings. It has also brought patients directly to our practice because they know they can get glasses quickly. We’ve even had other local offices send patients to us who broke their glasses and are in need of glasses ASAP.
Each edger cost $20,000-25,000 and were purchased outright. We broke even within the first week on each. We set aside money every year for equipment purchases, which helps with investments like this.
Don’t be afraid of the potential costs of starting your own in-house lab. It can open up many options in the labs you are able to order lenses from and cut down on time for jobs to be completed.
Offer Special Deals to Patients
About five years ago we started offering a buy one, get one 50 percent off deal to patients as a seasonal back-to-school special. After a few months it was going so well that we decided to make it a permanent offering at our office. If a patient purchases a complete pair of glasses (frame and lenses), even using vision insurance, they can get a second pair at half price. At first we feared that we would lose money on patients who would have purchased a second pair anyway, but we found that it increased our second-pair sales by over 100 percent.
Last year our optical manager brought to our attention that we needed to find ways to capture glasses sales for patients who purchased contact lenses every year. Now, if patients purchase an annual supply of contact lenses, they can purchase a frame and we will give them single-vision, polycarbonate lenses with antireflective treatment for free. We only offer this to patients who had no plan to purchase glasses or were hesitant about purchasing both glasses and contact lenses.
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Patients who were on the fence about prescription sunglasses or updating their glasses because they primarily wear contact lenses are now much more likely to make that leap.
The buy one, get one 50 percent off deal increased our sunglass sales by 10 percent and our overall frame capture rate by 15 percent. It also decreased the likelihood of patients using an old frame by over 40 percent. We can save significantly on single-vision, polycarbonate lenses with AR because we can buy them at stock prices and keep them on hand at the office, which makes it cost-effective for us to offer them for free with an annual supply of contact lenses and frame purchase.
Work with your labs on pricing and try to think more about how to create sales where none existed before instead of focusing only on how to increase the ones you are already making.
Provide 24/7 Emergency On-Call, Evening & Saturday Hours
Our office has found that being available at times when other offices are closed is something that patients see value in and are willing to pay for. We offer two evenings per week and are open every Saturday. This provides opportunities for patients who can’t make it during typical business hours. Being open Saturdays is great for patients who need frame repairs or couldn’t pick out new frames during the week. Also, because of work and school schedules, many people are not able to come to appointments during 9 a.m.-5 p.m. business hours, so the evening and Saturday appointment slots bring in many new patients.
We usually have at least one doctor in the office on Saturday mornings to see patients and any emergencies that may call in. Our 24/7 on-call has been a great resource for patients, and frequently attracts new patients. We often get patients who call the emergency line for an injury or foreign body and they end up coming back to us for their routine eyecare, too.
Our on-call availability keeps them from going to the local emergency room or urgent care (neither of which have an ophthalmology department), which can be costly.
Several local primary care providers and urgent care centers know about our emergency care and on-call services and frequently refer patients to us. We usually have several patients each week added onto our schedules with urgent eyecare needs who have been sent to us directly from other healthcare facilities.
If you have enough doctors in your practice who are able to share the load, Saturdays and on-call hours are not much of a burden and can help to attract many more patients to your office.