By Michael Karlsrud

The world is filled with similar offerings made to similar people at similar prices, service levels and quality. So the question is: how do you differentiate yourself from others? Some people think…I need to spiff up my brand; get a new logo; or remodel my lab? But here’s the question that really should be asked: “How do I attract more customers?” Customers have many more provider choices today then ever before. With the advent and perfection of overnight and overseas shipping, the options are now global. In an age with intense global competitive pressure is there a way to build a better hot dog stand?

In rough numbers, the optical industry has over 600 independent optical laboratories and approximately 150 corporate labs, all competing for the same 30,000 eye care professionals’ business. Not to mention hundreds of in-store labs plus Internet sales taking another 10 percent in online sales. Competition is fierce and even if you win the business, it is often less than satisfying. While keeping your eye on obtaining new business from new customers is extremely important, it should be equally important to build a strategy where you partner with the customers you already have and help them build their businesses.

For example, an average one-man optical practice will have an active patient database of around 2500 patients. Ironically, they will typically have another 5000-7500 patient records that are classified as “in-active.” When 6 Calls is hired into a practice, we look at the number of “in-active” patients in the database and begin to lay out a plan to re-activate as many of them as possible. According to industry data gathered by the MBA program, each patient delivers about $306 dollars (top line) to the practice and drops about a third of that amount to the bottom line. Does that mean there is another 1.5 million dollar practice hiding in plain sight on the shelves in the record room? Not really, but there is enough untapped money hiding in plain sight to make it worth the effort to try and bring those patients back into the office. Multiply this potential gold mine by the number of offices you currently sell into and the “opportunity” numbers explode within your current customer base.

So how do you go about becoming the “choice” hot dog stand on the corner? The answer used to lay exclusively in the “big three” of price, quality and service. Today, you need all three to survive, and to a certain extent it is assumed you already have them. After all, if you look around, there are many, many, hot dog stands that offer the same thing. The corner is still crowed with stands that all cook hot dogs; all offer the same condiments; and deliver value to their customers. So how do you stand out?


The first step in building a better hot dog stand is shifting the focus from you, to them. We are always fighting the “ego” when we walk into an account. After all, I am here to give you prosperity and a wonderful life through the use of my products and services! Successful hot dog stand vendors know one thing—it isn’t about them. It’s about their customers.

Second, establish a niche in addition to your tried and true “we offer price, quality and service.” So how do you differentiate yourself from the competition? What makes you stand out from the crowd? Why should they buy from you? Why should they care that you are out there in the first place? Many times the questions are hard to hear. But inside the answers, there is the realization that your brand either needs a tune up or you are well established in your brand message.


Next, stop selling and start listening. Because this is no longer about you, quit talking so much. On your sales calls or “customer review calls” let them give you their wish list and what they need in the future. Listen to their desires, take good notes and partner with them to find a solution. In the end, most folks don’t want to be sold to—they want to be listened to. Don’t be afraid to ask them “Why do you buy from me?” Then, follow up with “Why don’t you buy more from me?” Sadly, many times we forget that we are the ones armed with questions and our customers are armed with the answers. Have the conversation and it will enlighten your world.


Fourth, while it is fun to talk about how you will increase sales to patients who have already arrived in the office, focus on the core issues. The greatest business development job you can do for your lab, and your customer, is to get more butts in the exam chair. One very powerful tool for bringing patients back into the office is to move away from communicating only once a year, to taking a more active role throughout the year. In today’s competitive environment, patients want to know that their eye care professional actually cares about them!


Monthly newsletters, occasional postcards, emails with coupons or special announcements, in addition to “condition specific” information, are all ways to engage the patient throughout the year. Yearlong engagement and communication helps stave off the temptation to leave private providers and go to big retail practices. Sales and revenue generation all begin once the patient shows up.

Hmm, you’re hot dog stand doesn’t do that kind of work? Why not? Everyone needs another patient to sell. Doctors need to sell their services and you need to sell products and supplies to meet the demand of optically challenged patients. It’s a win-win 68 percent of the time—at least for you!


At 6 Calls, we do a number of things to get to the core issue of putting butts in seats. Our concept is based on a simple fact that on average, it takes six calls—or impressions—before someone will make a purchase. We begin with personalized patient communication. Whether it is an outbound phone call in a recall situation, or taking inbound calls when the office is closed or taking time off for lunch, 6 Calls keeps the phone lines working to capture patients. Each phone call placed into the patients’ home or the call answered as it rings into the office, is a new opportunity. You may not have the ability to offer such a service through your own lab, but why not partner with someone who can and offer it as a value-added service to your customers? It WILL differentiate your hot dog stand from all the others because you will redefine the relationship from vendor to partner. (By the way, it is an outstanding use of CO-OP funds from manufacturers.)


We also offer marketing services that you can apply to your eye care professionals. Do they have a Web site? If not, help them get one. It’s the new Yellow Pages. Many offices put up a Web page years ago and may not have touched it since. Social media such as Facebook is the new frontier in consumer marketing. It is highly affordable but requires someone (or a company like 6 Calls) to manage and take advantage of the power of the Internet. Helping your customers become stronger players in their own marketplace is a service they will greatly appreciate. Many times the ECP will know what they want to do, but they are not sure where to look or how to execute their ideas.


Another area where you can help your eye care professional gain more business is to coordinate buying opportunities. Trunk shows, special shopping days, sales on particular products or brands, are very good ways to help a practice bring back patients outside of their normal buying cycle. Who said you can only buy a pair of glasses on the same day as your exam? Try introducing your doctors to the idea that marketing the “retail” part of their business on a regular basis is a very good thing.


Bring in some wine and cheese, host a private showing and sell some additional products. You might have to do the legwork on this, but if the office sees an additional $5,000 in sales for that day, it is well work the effort. Laboratory partners today need to provide more business solutions than just lab services solutions. Make it a goal to help them grow their business by helping them think differently about their business.


Finally, coordinate all the manufacturers’ marketing incentives that are due your customers and make sure they take full advantage of them. There is a remarkable amount of money available to the eye care professional that frankly goes unused because no one knows how or where to make that spend. More times than not, if you mind their business, they will mind yours.


Streets and corners are filled with hot dog stands. Everyone in the entire channel has many choices and the world has become much less brand loyal. How we look at ourselves as provider will ultimately be what we become. The key is to remain relevant in many areas such as technology, services, products and ease of doing business. The one caveat of differentiation is to turn our attention away from yourself, and focus on your customers. The cascade of success begins with keeping our practices healthy so that we can be also. The efforts you put in before the patient shows up will take your hot dog stand to a whole new level in the market.


6 Calls is a company that specializes in personalized communication. There are two divisions within the company, Business-to-Business and myTelecare. Our Business- to-Business solution strives to help companies cut through the digital “clutter” of today’s marketing environment and provide personalized communication services. 6 Calls began as an outbound telephone services provider and has since expanded their services. We offer outbound calling, inbound calls, social media monitoring, live chat and response-on-demand solutions. Simply put, we make it possible for someone to engage and dialog with a brand!


For the eye care professional, we offer our myTelecare services. As doctors add more patients, services, procedures and tests, time is slowly being taken away from the work of maintaining patient relationships. We offer inbound and outbound patient communication services for the office so they can focus on the patients that are there, not the ones they are trying to get back into the office. myTelecare specializes in the areas of recall, re-activation, and reminder call services. We seamlessly place calls to patients on behalf of the office and schedule live right into their practice management system. It is literally like having a virtual optician sitting in the office! Learn more at


Michael Karlsrud is the owner and CEO of 6 Calls, a tele-services company that serves the optical industry with its two divisions; Telecare and Business-to-Business. In addition, he is the principle of The Karlsrud Company, a leading sales, marketing and training company serving the optical industry. Michael is a regularly requested speaker/trainer and specifically presented to the Opticians Association of America, Optical Laboratory Association, the Optical Women’s Association and many other regional and local venues. In addition, Michael serves as a “Resident Coach” for the Vision Councils popular program “On the Road Sales Coach.” He is published in 20/20 magazine (October 2008) and in LabTalk (May/June 2009) and again in December 2010 for 20/20 discussing selling techniques and creating an outstanding customer experience. Currently he is published through the Review of Optometric Business on various topics focusing on patient retention, patient relationship building and sales techniques for the optician. or


Labtalk June 2020