What Would You Do If You Lost Your Top Ten Customers? Don't Panic!

By Seth J. Bookey
What would you do if you lost your top ten customers? The gut reaction from lab managers and owners ranged from panic and despair to “crap my pants,” said jokingly, to “What could I do after I’d committed suicide?” to just repeating the question with alarm: “I just lost my top ten clients?”

Once the joking was over, though, lab owners and sales managers revealed that the key to preventing this sort of catastrophe is preventive maintenance and a constant proactive outlook. Their responses ranged from practical to philosophical.

Partnering for Profitability

Geff Heidbrink, president of Harbor Optical, located in Traverse City, Mich., noted that a key to keeping clients happy has been the three Fs — fast, fluid, and flexible. “Being an independent, we don’t have to have a meeting to discuss having a meeting about how to fix something. If there’s an issue, we get to the bottom of it right away,” he said.

One strategy deployed this year by Harbor Optical has been to have the sales staff reduce the amount of time between calls. But along with seeing customers more often, “the type of calls have also changed,” he noted. “We are doing more quality calls than quantity calls. We are staying in touch with our “A” customers and showing them the value we bring to the equation. We don’t push price. We’ve never permanently lost a customer based on price.” Calling more often, also helps to prevent any problems that might be occurring, from getting out of a hand.

Matt Cummins, a regional manager for Walman Optical, located in Kansas City, Mo., noted that as a company, Walman tries to distinguish itself via “the customer service we deliver,” he said, adding that “Our customer service people are among our most experienced lab folks.” Much of what Walman does to keep customers happy starts within Walman’s training program. “Twenty percent of the sales rep’s time is spent on training,” he said. “Turnaround is considered a key indicator of performance, and we keep a pulse on re-dos.”

Catching the Training

Heidbrink also noted that with the economy in their service area of Michigan and northern Indiana and Ohio slowing down, “People are looking for business growth ideas. They are more open now to listening to how to grow their business compared to when they were busier.”

Harbor Optical helps practices focus on business growth via a formalized training program instituted in recent months. Also, as a member of Global Optics, the lab has been taking advantage of CD-based learning opportunities with the JumpStart series of training discs. Harbor Optical does both lab tours and in-office training to reinforce the lab’s relationship with the clients.

“Training has been a main thrust with independent labs,” Cummins said. At Walman, “we do a lot of marketing,” he added. “We do a lot of customer training on selling AR lenses and selling/fixing rimless eyewear. As an independent, we try to help the ECP provide better service to their customers than the chains.”

As part of this philosophy, Walman has provided customized POP for their accounts. Account managers will “shadow” the dispensers and watch and listen how they work with patients. Walman also delivers training through its Web site, and provides practice tests and dispensing books.

Saved by the Bells and Whistles?

Another factor in delivering “better, faster, cheaper” to clientele is an investment in technology. According to Walman Optical’s Cummins, “Newer technology certainly has helped. We are always on the lookout for equipment, and vendors often contact us when new technology has become available. We’ve been a beta test site for new equipment coming on the market, and for more than two years now, our Milan, Ill. facility has been fully robotic.”

Along with the benefits of speedier job processing, equipment like electronic lensometers help lab managers decide how to select tolerances, so the machines automatically reject lenses that won’t work before processing them.

Technology has also proven a selling point to new customers. “We can detail any lens that is out there. Our sales reps and customer service staff can act as consultants when it comes to lenses,” he noted. Newer technologies also free up the staff to learn other jobs and effectively cross-train for other positions. Walman also makes a point of staffing customer service with its most seasoned workers. “We avoid putting new people in customer service,” he added.

Seeking Comfort

Paul Kriner, one of the owners of four-year-old Premier Lens Lab in Greensburg, Pa., noted that while they have not lost any major clients yet, new clients have come to them for the sort of service they couldn’t get at larger corporate labs. Not only are they coming from the chains, but they are also coming back for the service they used to experience with smaller labs before abandoning them for the chains.

“We take time to discuss their options and work with them through their issues,” Kriner said. “We are sort of like their confidant. We’re willing to take the time to walk through a situation and find solutions for them.”

“Besides wanting everything for free,” he joked, clients are seeking a combination of price and quality of work. That, and making sure the clients are getting their credits back on time.

Recognizing the Relationship

Jeff Szymanski, sales manager for Toledo Optical of Toledo, Ohio, noted, “Every single one of our customers, regardless of size, is important to us. We value the support we get from both our large and smaller customers. We work at being proactive to ensure that we not only offer enough value, but also create the kind of relationship that prevents a catastrophic loss of any kind. As an independently owned laboratory in today's hyper-competitive market, retaining a customer base is vitally important. A laboratory whose strategy is based on being reactive instead of proactive is sure to find itself in dire straits. By properly establishing yourself as a vital and necessary partner with your customers, you can greatly reduce the likelihood and inevitable concern that results in a large customer leaving.”

Toledo Optical also resists engaging in strategies that compromise either ethics or good economics. “If and when one of our core customers should decide to pull their support, we would vigorously and passionately pursue any reasonable means necessary to prevent this from happening.” Toledo offers value-added services to its clients in a number of ways. The STRATA program is a four-part multimedia training and educational tool that shows ECPs ways to increase patient satisfaction and profitability. Szymanski noted, "ECPs are embracing it with full force. Toledo Optical has also created a strategic alliance with the Williams Group to help pair ECPs with respected consultants in the eye care industry.

Toledo also facilitates focus groups with customers "to discuss the issues of the day and engage in brainstorming sessions to prepare for the hyper-competitive climate we all find ourselves in," Szymanski aid. "Furthermore, we initiate multiple programs, promotions and practice-building initiatives throughout the year, all focusing on ensuring the success of our customers."

Szymanski has also noticed that today's customers are looking for more from their labs. "The days of a laboratory being successful by simply processing Rx work in a timely manner are over. Customers coming to us [from other labs] are not finding the value added benefits that we offer our customers. We need to be proactive in practice building to secure our spot as a valued partner with eye care professionals."

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August/September LabTalk 2017