I’ve been an owner or an associate in two independent practices since I started practicing in 2002. In each practice, competing with local corporate establishments and online retailers was a major challenge. As a optometrist and professor at Nova Southeastern University College of Optometry, I don’t consider doctors in the corporate practices as competition. However, from a retail, and even sometimes a medical eyecare, perspective, corporate opticals and online vendors compete directly for the independent practice’s business. As independents, we can meet this challenge and flourish by showing our uniqueness.
As I tell my Nova students, your independent practice can be anything you want it to be.
I encourage my students not to be scared to try something different. Think outside of the box. Their practice will be the future of optometry, so they shouldn’t be afraid to make it what they want, rather than what someone else tells them it should be. And that’s the same advice I would give any independent practice.
Provide Highest Quality Care
The main challenge for any business is satisfying the patient’s wants and needs, while still covering overhead and making profit. We all want to help patients, but we also want patients to value and appreciate our expertise. For an independent optometric practice, the best way to overcome these challenges is to continue to provide the highest quality care and to provide products with the patient’s best interest in mind.
That means investing in cutting-edge technology like digital retinal imaging and OCT technology, and to spend time getting to know each patient’s individual needs in a way a larger competitor may not be able to. You can become the doctor who is able to prescribe the perfect custom progressive lenses because you took the time, and had the interest, in discussing the patient’s love of golf and their hours spent in front of the computer doing detailed graphic art work.
Train staff to listen actively and follow through with what they promise to a patient. That means training staff to check up on contact lens and eyewear orders to ensure they are scheduled to arrive as promised, without prompting or nagging from the patient or doctor.
Every patient and every sale in the office provides an opportunity to show patients the value of the independent optometry practice. With consistency and time, patients will see that while technology is helpful and important for optometry to incorporate into a modern practice, there is no replacement for individualized care and one-on-one interaction.
Cultivate Relationships with Vendors
Large corporate establishments have buying power that many smaller independent practices do not have. That buying power allows corporate retailers to negotiate better wholesale prices, and therefore, a lower retail price to their consumers. It’s economics 101. It may be impossible for the independent practice to negotiate the same pricing, but it is possible to overcome the advantage.
The first step is to cultivate relationships with vendors, and use products that you believe in. While it is nice to have choices and use multiple products, a vendor is more likely to give a small practice better pricing if they can show volume and loyal backing. Instead of carrying a few styles from multiple different frame vendors, it may be more beneficial to carry a higher inventory from fewer vendors.
For example, My personal style may not be the same as the trends for the target market I’m trying to reach, “The Trendy Millennial.” So, I ask my reps to help me identify trends that I may not know of. When I buy inventory, I want to see the top-selling styles first. I may not like the top-selling styles for myself, but I’m not buying for myself. I’m trying t predict what my patients want, and the reps often know the new trends before I do.
For inventory, reps can also identify which styles are turning over fast in my office, and which styles are stagnant. So, I ask them to exchange out the ones that aren’t selling and stock up on the ones that are popular, or order me all the colors available in a style that is popular.
When I bring in a new line, or a new style, I ask the reps to review the features and benefits with my opticians. It is helpful for my staff to have a description to learn. I love it when the reps know which celebrity wears their frames. It’s a great taking point.
A major advantage at the independent practices that I have been a part of is the ease in creating a one-on-one relationship with sales reps and local managers with the vendors they want to do business with. The good local sales reps know my office and know my staff. They know what sells well and what does not. They tell me what is new, and they are willing to work with me on returns and inventory management. It’s important for the practice owner or manager to be involved in purchasing, and I definitely have a good relationship with the reps who are willing to work closely with me.
Become an Integral Part of the Community
If you aren’t already, becoming an engaged member of your local community can strengthen your ties to patients. Find out what is important to your patient base and show support for other small businesses in your area.
Understand the demographics of your practice, and which patients participate in which activities, including the involvement of your patients in local organizations, like the Lion’s Club and Kiwanis, or the Red Cross, which you also can support with financial sponsorship and/or participation as a presenter and volunteer. You will be doing a good deed, and current and prospective patients will see that you are like-minded, and have an interest in supporting the same causes they believe in.
It’s also important for all ODs to remember that we are a legislated profession and to support the local and national associations that are fighting to keep us independent, such as the American Optometric Association.
Use Social Media to Connect Frequently & Meaningfully
Many traditional small businesses have a hard time with marketing due to lack of knowledge, lack of time and lack of budget. But to compete with larger chains, even the small independent optometric practice needs to market itself to stay visible. Social media marketing can allow optometric offices to grow and expand their patient base. Many patients will research offices and doctors on Yelp and Facebook before they choose to set foot in a practice, so you need a presence on those sites.
It’s important to remember that not every social media post will go viral overnight. Social media marketing can be a slow process before you see a return on your investment of time. Passive social media marketing may not be immediately effective. Independent practices may need to invest steady continual time and energy to grow their social media and online presence.
But the time you and your staff put into social media marketing will pay off. For example, you can use posts to Facebook to allow your patients to get to know your staff as individuals, with photos and stories from staff members, such as new eyewear you just got onto your frame board that each staff member most likes, or the activities each like to participate in, along with the specialized lenses that help them better enjoy those activities. You also can show the office marking holidays, including related sales and promotions that are only available in your office. You can use social media to highlight the personalities and tailored environment and services that patients may not find at a larger competitor.
Develop Relationships with Local Corporate ODs
One of my best sources for patient consults is a local colleague who practices at a local America’s Best chain. She sends me all of her challenging contact lens fits and keratoconic patients, as one of my areas of interest is specialty contact lenses.
Consults from local ODs are fast-tracked. Patients are scheduled as soon as possible, the doctor who sent the patient to me for a consult is sent a letter after each visit, and patients are encouraged to continue with their previous optometrist for routine annual examinations and glasses. With this system, local ODs feel respected, and they are comfortable sending patients to another OD instead of to an MD. In addition, patients learn the value and extent of optometric services. It is a win-win situation for both independent and corporate practices.
Focus on Improving Eyewear Capture Rate
I always assume that a patient will purchase eyewear or contact lenses from my office. I don’t give them a choice at first. After completing their examination, I do a proper “hand off” to my optician for their eyewear and contact lens materials. If a patient wants to shop around or buy elsewhere, I won’t protest. But opticians and staff still spend time with patients to explain their needs and the specifics of their prescription, even after a patient expresses an interest to shop elsewhere. This ensures that the patient compares “apples to apples,” and increases the likelihood that they will return to my office to purchase another time.
Editor’s Note: According to MBA data, the average optometric practice has a capture rate of 61 percent of exams. How does your practice compare to the national average? DGP that MUST BE WRONG !! 61% of exams.
Thuy-Lan Nguyen, OD
Thuy-Lan Nguyen, OD, teaches at Nova Southeastern University College of Optometry and works part time as an associate at We Are Eyes in Boca Raton, Fla. To contact her: TLNGUYEN@nova.edu