EDUCATING YOUR CUSTOMER

By Liz Martinez, ABOC, NCLC
In a perfect world, eye care professionals would open the doors to their shiny new practices with all the optical knowledge, customer service skills and business training they need in order to be successful. Labs who believe this universe actually exists need to wake up and smell the heat transfer fluid because, in reality, most ECPs don’t possess the full complement of skills necessary to maximize their profitability.

The reason that labs need to be concerned about the competence level of their customers is that ECPs who don’t have the skill sets they need in order to succeed will not bring the lab a great deal of business. Labs have a vested interest in making ECPs successful—the more money the ECPs generate, the more successful their labs become. In a sense, dispensers serve as a gateway for revenue—money must first flow through the ECP’s office before it can trickle into the lab’s coffers. Assisting dispensers increase their profitability equates to increased business, whether directly or indirectly, for the labs that extend a helping hand.

According to Tom Schroeder, president of Schroeder Optical, labs provide three types of training to their customers. “We do technology training—usually seminars with a vendor to explain freeform technology, for example, or how a Drivewear lens works. We also provide practice management training,” he said. “What’s also needed just as much is the fundamentals, such as training a new hire how to use a lensometer or how to take a PD and seg heights.”

PLANTING THE SEEDS OF LOYALTY

Schroeder acknowledged that it is not the sole responsibility of the lab to provide this type of training, but he lives in the real world, where not every ECP knows what they should. “Plus,” he said, “there is loyalty to be gained from all of this.”

Judy Canty, Luzerne Optical Laboratories’ territory sales manager for Virginia, agreed with Schroeder. “The first thing that training ECPs does is to create some loyalty to the labs,” she said. “ECPs remember who it is that’s trying to help them and who cares enough about them to try to help them run their businesses effectively. The more tangible benefit is a cost savings for the lab over a period of time because a well-trained staff is less likely to make mistakes,” she added. Schroeder echoed this sentiment. “The lab’s interest in training ECPs is that we don’t want to do tons of remakes just because a new hire isn’t properly trained,” he said. “We go in and train them so we don’t have to keep remaking lenses and arguing with the customer about whose fault it is that a mistake was made.”

Schroeder was a member of the now disbanded Lightbenders, an early buying group. Lightbenders members also placed a priority on training, and the group’s lab owners would meet twice a year to discuss marketing strategies and come up with collective training strategies. The production staff of the member labs would meet once a year to go over production strategies and techniques, and sales also got together annually to talk about sales and marketing strategies.

INSIDE TRAINING

Schroeder and many other former Lightbenders members still use Lightbenders’s proprietary STRATA module training program. “STRATA provides training for the ECP in converting patients to customers, the role of the OD in recommending lenses and lens treatments from the chair, selling second pairs, tracking and retaining patients, and how to sell sunwear,” Schroeder named as examples. “The program is five or six years old, but it’s not outdated,” he added.

Schroeder’s sales reps or trainer goes in to an ECP’s practice and works one-on-one, using the STRATA DVDs and practicing the lessons through role-playing in using the new techniques.

Canty relies on her extensive experience in the optical industry to help her accounts succeed. “All of them should learn how to run a business,” she emphasized. “Because that’s what we are—business people. I’ve run a practice myself, so I can see where things could be improved,” she said. “I’ve made every mistake possible at least once.”

She cited an example of using her own experience to assist an ECP when calling on an optical that looked dirty. “Sometimes I go into a practice, and what I really want to do is just clean it,” she admitted. “I went into one where I did not want to sit down because the chairs looked so filthy. When you’re in the same environment all day long, you stop noticing things like this, but the patients see it,” she added. “Patients expect that a place of business with an optical professional’s name on the door will look like a professional office.”

Canty said she was gentle but straightforward with the account. “I told the ECP that I didn’t want to see an independent optical go out of business.”

BUSINESS-TO-BUSINESS TRAINING

Don Barton, sales manager of Homer Optical, is a big believer of providing training to ECPs to help them improve their business sense. He favors ECP University, which is given by Transitions several times during year, in various locations. According to Barton, the idea of offering ECP University to dispensers grew out of the annual Transitions Academy, which is held for labs.

“Transitions got ECPs to commit a day to receiving very good sales and marketing training,” Barton explained. “Goal setting was a big topic. The consultants Transitions brought in delved deeper into the principles of business and business metrics.”

Barton said that Homer Optical sponsored some of its customers to attend the training. “It was something new for a lot of the ECPs to be brought into the goal-setting environment and into the world of business metrics,” he said. “The training covered everything from managing the number of frames on the boards properly to how to motivate their staff. The ECPs got a general overview of those topics, then the trainers drilled down even further,” he added.

Homer Optical expands on the lessons after ECP University is over by providing hands-on training to accounts on a monthly or weekly basis.

“We generate reports of lens usage, then we set a baseline, then we give the accounts a ‘report card,’” Barton said. “We also work to help them identify areas of profitability, which come down to using more materials with built-in UV, moving away from CR-39 into premium materials, and using AR. Transitions and polarized are also keys for profitability,” he added.

EDUCATING ECPS

According to Canty, the importance of educating ECPs in the latest technology and product availability cannot be overstressed. “Not only is a well-trained staff a cost-cutter,” Canty stated, “a well-trained staff will also make money. A lot of optical personnel out there think they know a lot, but they don’t. It’s part of my job to make sure my accounts know what they’re talking about. A new product, a service, something that’s changed—by knowing these things, they can recommend better products. And when we educate them, we take away a lot of the fear in recommending new things to patients,” she added.

Selling bigger, rather than focusing so much on reducing costs, is what’s really crucial to increased profitability, the labs agree.

“The important thing about the revenue side is calculating profits,” Barton said. “Increasing revenue has a bigger impact than controlling expenses. Expenses are important to watch, but focusing on revenue will show a much bigger profit,” he pointed out. “So many ECPs try to make a profit on buying smarter, but if that time were spent on trying to increase revenues, they would come out ahead.”

Providing knowledge and empowering the customer go hand-in-hand, according to Canty. ECPs often fail to focus on priorities. A little education can fix that, Canty contended. “An account I’m working with is having trouble with remakes and credits,” she said. “No one is tracking invoices, jobs that need to be sent back, frame inventory or returns. So many people see a boxed frame that needs to go back and they haven’t had time to do it yet. I see a box of money,” she added.

ECPs need to be shown how to put on their business hat, not just their professional headgear.

“I explain that a business runs better when there are systems in place to make it more efficient,” Canty said. “It then becomes more profitable. In the long run, the ECPs are happier because they now have something they can control.”

Because it isn’t possible to train each and every account thoroughly, the reality is that labs have to be choosy about who gets their attention. As Barton put it, “We can spend only so much time with our accounts. The ECPs we focus on helping are the ones who have made a commitment to improving their profitability.”

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Labtalk May/June 2018