Faced with the sluggish economy, a changing regulatory climate, shifting patient expectations and new forms of competition, today’s optometrists are getting more creative in their approach to both clinical and business matters. Whether it’s improving their diagnostic skills, implementing new technologies in the exam room or office, employing the latest management techniques or raising the level of patient care, forward-thinking ODs are pushing ahead with fresh ideas. They are the focus of our second annual Optometric Business Innovators report, a special collaborative project between Vision Monday and Review of Optometric Business.
Each month for the rest of the year, ROB will present profiles of the honorees in six categories–business management, optical dispensing, digital media, marketing, the patient experience, influencers and contact lenses. This month we honor those doctors recognized for achievement in optical dispensing innovation.
“I try to treat every patient as if they are doing me a favor by walking into my office, not that I am doing them a favor for providing their care.”
In practice and a member of the American Optometric Association and the California Optometric Association for 15 years, Matthew Alpert, OD, is past president of the San Fernando Valley Optometric Society and board member for over 10 years. He received the California Optometric Association Young Optometrist of the Year Award in 2005, and he is a 2012 member of the VSP Global board of directors.
In addition to attending to his busy practice, Alpert also writes about vision and eyewear issues for the Sheknows.com blog, reaching 38 million people in the U.S. and 55 million people globally.
What is the biggest challenge affecting his practice today? “Keeping up with technology and having the appropriate product mix,” he said. “Investing in new disease identification and management technology is a must. It keeps the quality of care elevated and gives your patients a sense of comfort knowing they are receiving the highest level of care.”
About his dispensary, he said, “The retail product mix is critical. I have found patients will leave your practice if you do not have what they are looking for. I disagree with the current theories of board management. I feel you should have an abundance of choice and not worry as much about how many times your frame boards turn. Losing patients because of poor selection has a trickle-down effect on the entire practice.”
Finally, he views staff as integral to his practice’s success. “I feel educating your staff and making them feel like they are part of the practice has many benefits,” he said. “I take my entire staff to Vision Expo West so they can get excited about our industry and feel like they are a part of something big. A happy, productive and educated staff yields a profitable optometric practice.”
“We distinguish ourselves by service. We want our staff to be friendly and personal in the service we provide.”
Bonnie Chen, OD, of The Vision Loft in Concord, N.C., has built her practice to grow. After years of working part time and raising children, she and her husband, an emergency room physician, built a free-standing building with room to expand. “One of the best pieces of advice I got from colleagues was allow yourself enough space so you never have to move,” she explained.
Chen is expanding, now, from one exam lane to two (and eventually five), and she has taken on several associates, who also work part time. The dispensary has a staff of four, including an office manager and an optical manager. The building is located across from Concord Mills, a 200-store outlet mall that draws shoppers from nearby Charlotte and throughout the region. “We have so many people driving right past us every day, and they see my big sign, which is my best marketing tool,” Chen said.
If her sign brings in patients, her distinctive 1,000-square-foot optical dispensary, combined with friendly service and expert care, keeps them there. Chen chose a local design team—one with no experience in optical but heavily steeped in retail design—to create a dispensary that was unlike that of competitors. She showed them brochures from optical dispensary manufacturers, but in the end they used their own ideas and local craftsmen to fabricate a unique look.
Her dispensary design combines curves and straight-edged displays, as well as contrasting fabrics and woods and thoughtful merchandising and lighting that sets off high-end lines like Lafont and Tom Ford, two of her best-sellers. She also placed a fish tank with brilliantly colored tropical fish as a separation from the dispensary and lab, and also created a “spa area” where patients rest in comfortable chairs while being dilated or awaiting exams.
“It is my responsibility to bring you the latest and greatest technology every year. If I ever stop bringing you the best, then you should go somewhere else for your eyecare.”
Jeremy Ciano, OD, established his own practice over four years ago taking the hard stance of doing what’s best for his patients all the time. For example, he offers no CR-39 lenses because they have no inherent UV protection. Every pair of glasses he sells comes standard with anti-glare, and all of his progressives are digitally surfaced.
“We had to make that stand and let some people who want a lesser quality medical product walk out the door,” he said. “It’s tough when you’re starting up a new practice, especially during a recession, but we’ve been growing by 15 percent to 20 percent every year.”
In addition, the dispensary is commission free with the goal of making it a relaxed and fun shopping experience. Ciano said that working for a big box chain for more than five years prior to opening his own practice taught him “what not to do in retail.”
“The complaints I heard were about how pushy salespeople were,” he said. “When people notice that they are being educated and not sold to, they are more open to listen to your suggestions because they’re coming from a medical perspective rather than from a sales standpoint.”
His attention to his patients’ needs was also evidenced by promotions he offered during the recent economic downturn. He noticed that while moms were making sure their kids still got their annual exams they were skipping their own, so he offered to examine them for free when they brought their children to the office. “We were there as a community provider, and that goodwill went a long, long way,” he said.
Ciano is similarly attentive to his staff. “Without them I am nothing,” he said about his employees, some of whom have been working with him since his previous position. “We close down our office every quarter to have a team building and customer service event. Customer service is something that I am fanatical about. I hire on character and not on their skills set because I can train skills…but I can’t train a smile.”
“I am here to keep you seeing for the rest of your life.”
A video greeting from Maureen Fahey, OD is the first thing people see when they visit Desert Valley Eye Care’s website, www.desertvalleyeyecare.com. That 30-second clip lets patients know she is friendly, knowledgeable and enthusiastic about providing them with a broad selection of distinctive, fashionable eyewear, something her family practice, and she herself, are known for. In fact, the site features a display of stylish frames that Fahey has worn over the years.
Fahey’s communication skills are also evident in the way she educates patients about their eye health. “It’s important for patients to know in simple terms what’s going on,” she said. “I make sure they know what they’re doing if they need to follow any type of care regimen.”
Following a consultation with The Williams Group, Fahey heightened her focus on customer service, enabling her to extend a personal touch into all areas of the practice. “For example, when patients call for an appointment, my staff tells them the doctor has ‘reserved’ their time,” she said. Simple but effective changes like this have boosted the practice’s already high referral rate.
Fahey and her staff are excited about moving next month into a new 4,200 square foot office space that is being built to her specifications. The new facilitywill include a 900-square foot dispensary and reception area, and will feature drop down tin ceilings, chandeliers and floor to ceiling windows. “We want our patients to feel welcome, so they can have fun shopping around and finding a frame that’s perfect for them,” she said.
“Empower your people.” And: “I plan to work myself out of a job and have fun doing it!”
For Elaine Happ, OD, of Uptown Eye Care in Monticello, Minn., the operative word is growth. The 22-year-old practice expanded office space in 2005, going from 1,500 square feet to 5,000 square feet. “This expansion was a huge accomplishment for me since I designed the optical,” said Happ. “Not too many practices have trees on the inside!” The enhanced optical also features park benches and a fountain.
In addition to the creative revamp of the optical shop, the practice has kept pace with a fluctuating economy by offering free frames with second- and third-pair purchases, increasing the number of value frames for sale and re-evaluating practice insurance coverage. The practice, which hired an outside marketing firm, uses social networking to get the word out, including a presence on Facebook, Twitter and staff blogging. Quality employees are crucial, the doctor stressed. “The upside of this poor economy is that we have decided to hold off on big purchases, but have been investing in staff training,” she said. “Staff members love the education, and we get empowered, loyal staff.”
Happ also gives back, including a memorable charitable mission to Guatemala. “I was only giving out reading glasses, but this one woman explained through tears what they meant to her,” Happ said. “Her only source of income for her family was her sewing. She had not been able to do her craft since her vision had failed. Those small readers gave her more than her eyesight back.”
Happ also is proud of the practice’s embrace of technology and the latest optometric science and treatments. “We have the TearLab, Epic Refracting System, Visi Office, and the iZon System, and offer eye lash extensions, Botox, Latiesse and Blepharoplastys.” The practice also offers nutraceuticals such as Omega 3 and MacuHealth supplements.