THE PERSONAL TOUCH IS THE MIDAS TOUCH

By Liz Martinez
There is an “optical legend” (something like an urban myth) that says November is a slow month, and in a presidential election year, you can go ahead and start shoveling the dirt over November because it’s a dead month. The legend goes on to say that no one spends money until after the election, and then not until their flex-spending dollars are close to running out. But of course, people don’t spend money on glasses too close to Christmas because they’re buying presents to put under the tree instead. Then again, January is a bust because everyone is paying off their holiday debt from December. Using the trickle-down theory of economics, the lack of spending in the retail optical sector translates into vats of red ink for the wholesale labs.

While there may be a few grains of truth to the legend, no one needs to rely on a fairy tale to explain the doom-and-gloom atmosphere that began in late 2008. One look at the headlines has encouraged everyone to frantically search for ways to cut expenses and stay afloat until the global financial crisis passes.

But while some labs rely on the optical legend as an excuse for a lack of profitability, those that are interested in learning how to not just tread water but actually increase business in a slumping economy would do well to follow the example of three New York optical companies: 1-800-OptiSource, Santinelli International, and Universal Photonics.

BUCKING THE TREND

In the late 1970s, Frank Sinatra informed us about both the tough nature of New York as well as the opportunity it holds: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,” he told us in the song “New York, New York.”

New York has a well-deserved reputation as a tough burg. Not only are there a lot of companies competing for the same business, but property values, utilities and taxes are all high. The expensive cost of living means that employers must pay higher wages. When you consider that New York-based optical suppliers are not just competing with each other, but with companies that are located in tax-free states and areas with a lower cost of living where smaller salaries are the norm, the fact that any company based there can break even in a recession is remarkable. Even more extraordinary is the fact that three large players in the optical industry are exceeding last year’s profits and show no sign of slowing down.

While 1-800-OptiSource, Santinelli International, and Universal Photonics are unique companies with individual business approaches, they do agree on several strategies that they have used as their foundation for success. Labs that want to transcend the “optical legend” of decreasing profits can follow their examples for success.

1. PLAN FOR TOMORROW TODAY

The time to build your business foundation is when times are good, not when they become desperate. “You company has to define itself and differentiate itself from the get-go, not just right before the recession,” says Gerard Santinelli, president and CEO of Santinelli International in Hauppauge, N.Y. “The mission has to be built into the company culture.”

“I’ve spent 15 years building a network of vendors and partners so I can make it easy for lab managers to do their jobs without worrying about finding products they need,” reports Wendy Schneider, sales manager of 1-800-OptiSource in Bellport, N.Y. “When labs source their products from me, they get what they need without a hiccup, which leaves them free to run their business.”

John Pecorella, technical sales and marketing manager at Universal Photonics of Hicksville, N.Y., agrees: “It’s all about how you build your reputation and serve clients in this business,” he says.

2. SERVICE WITH A SMILE Nobody wants to be treated like a number—unless it’s the number “1.” Putting customers first puts you first in their minds. “I am an ambassador of goodwill and ‘POS’: Positively Outrageous Service,” Schneider says. “In the manic lab environment, people need some comic relief, and I provide that for every customer I talk with. My secret is that I really do care about my customers’ concerns—even their personal ones,” she adds. “I work to establish a trusting relationship and to become a ‘trusted advisor’ to my clients, not just a salesperson.”

“I average 40 hours a month on my cell phone,” Pecorella reports. “When I’m in the car, I’m making calls to customers to follow up on equipment installation, arranging visits and providing the best possible service. I help my customers out when they’re in a jam—after-hours, on weekends, whenever they need my assistance. And they don’t forget it,” he adds.

Santinelli says that his company is focused on responding to his customers’ needs: “We ship and install the equipment and provide training. Then we return in two to four weeks for a follow-up visit to provide additional training,” he says. “We do our best to assimilate the customers and help make them feel as comfortable with the insides of the machines as with the outsides.”

3. IMMEDIATE RESPONSE TIME

When Ben Franklin’s customers needed a question answered, they had to wait for the Pony Express to make a round trip. Today, a business that doesn’t respond immediately will find itself without any business. “Customer service is every day of the week when a customer has a request,” Pecorella stresses. “And the optical industry doesn’t close down at five p.m. If a customer has an emergency, I’ll run equipment parts to the airport on a weekend, if that’s what it takes to meet their needs.”

“2009 is the year of now: I want my product now, I want a question answered now, I need an invoice faxed now,” Schneider says. “I give my customers my cell phone number, my personal and work e-mail addresses and my instant messenger name, so if they need me, I am accessible to them. I thrive on responding quickly,” she adds.

4. NO SUBSTITUTE FOR QUALITY

Quality wins in the long run, according to Santinelli: “We provide products and services that are different—they’re not ‘me-too’ products,” he says. “If you have quality, stick with it. If you don’t, you’ll pay dearly in the long run,” he adds.

“The ‘salesperson’ role as we know it is dead,” Schneider points out bluntly. “I have worked hard to become a trusted advisor to my clients and provide quality service and quality products. In fact, I welcome an economic slowdown because it separates the men from the boys, so to speak. Those who follow the trusted-advisor model will be here 15 years from now, but those who don’t will go the way of the dinosaur,” she predicts.

5. A RE-DEDICATION TO SERVING THE CUSTOMER

Providing quality goods and services may separate the men from the boys, but customer service will spell the difference between the profitable and the broke. “We have re-dedicated ourselves to focusing on service, service, service,” explains Schneider. “Providing great service costs practically nothing to do, but the costs are enormous if you fail to do it. Instead of spending our energy on marketing, we are concentrating on contacting our customers more, rather than less, in this economic environment,” she adds. “We’ve searched for ways to fulfill our customers’ needs and wants and opened candid discussions with them so we can partner with them.”

In addition, Schneider says, she founded the Women and Minorities Optical Association (WAMOA) (www.WAMOAssociation.org) in 2009 in order to better serve the entire optical industry. WAMOA, which promotes opportunities for women and minorities in the optical field, is also dedicated to serving humanity by providing eyecare for underserved populations.“I feel that some of my success in the optical industry has come about by divine intervention as a result of being there for my customers and giving back to the industry as a whole,” Schneider says.

“When you give service, you will realize a larger portion of an account’s business,” Pecorella says. “Everybody’s business started to slow down in late 2008, so we became more aggressive about offering discounts to give them a better deal on replacement parts that our customers needed at that time,” he added. “That offered them a way to save money on things they really needed anyway, and increased our business when we needed it. The little items you provide an account can really make a difference to the bottom line.”

“We’ve always strived for a sustainable differentiation of products and services,” Santinelli explains. “We’ve separated ourselves from the pack. We succeed not by discounting, but because of the fact that our products and services add value and contribute to our customers’ bottom line.”

CURRENT ISSUE


Lab Talk-February/March 2018