Why independent Optometrists & Opticians need an outsider’s perspective

“the optical profession is pretty unique… it is a place where genuine professional healthcare is combined with the world of hard-nosed retail”

(a  dispensing manager of a medium-sized chain of optometrists)

The eye care industry does of course involve providing real expert care to patients who need it, and it also involves selling products to those same patients, or consumers. Those two aspects do coexist, although the combination isn’t unique to the optical profession.

The commercial reality is that the sale of products and additional services (beyond a standard eye test) represent a massive revenue opportunity for the industry, and for each individual practice.

Therefore, the way that patients are treated, and the way that needs are identified, products are presented and options are described by staff is critical to the financial performance (and ultimately the survival) of each practice. But so much more needs to be done than effectively presenting the right products and services at the right time. It is all about the Customer Experience too.

Like many, the eye care industry is also an increasingly competitive one. In the UK, the national optical chains dominate the market that they helped to revolutionise over the last few decades. They’ve created a climate of greater competition on price, that has squeezed margins and created what is sometimes called a “race to the bottom”.

But it’s clear that the national optical chains don’t only compete on price. They focus on the entire customer experience (and they use Mystery Shopping and Video Mystery Shopping to monitor and improve standards in each branch).  Often, this focus really shows through high customer service standards, and a smooth, easy and convenient overall experience. Indeed, many people are very loyal to a particular national optical chain.

The national chains are obviously aware of their market dominance and they believe that they will build on it, with the founder of one famously – and rather arrogantly – claiming (of independent opticians) that “their days are numbered”.

The option of buying one’s own prescription products online is one that appeals to more and more people, especially the younger generation, and this also represents a threat to independent optometrists.

Many high street dispensing opticians are finding that their average customer (who buys products or services beyond a basic eye test) is of advanced age, and probably less tech savvy or comfortable buying products online, hence, these people buy products in store, they really have no other choice.

But it could be said that the ideal optical customer (who goes in for an eye test and then is happy to order the products they need in-store, without shopping around) is a dying breed.

But of course, all is not lost. Independent practices have their own inherent strengths. Clearly they can provide a more personal service, and they should be better placed to build relationships and earn loyalty from local customers in ways that national chains cannot. Many independent practices do provide a service that simply can’t be matched.

Independent practices can also appeal to the desire that more affluent customers have for an upmarket experience, with high-end luxury products, displayed in comfortable and stylish surroundings, and with service to match. By their very “mass market” nature, the national chains can’t position themselves (very far) in this direction.

Independent practices generally don’t want to mimic the methods or values of the big chains. They don’t want to lose their “human touch”. However, they also have to remain competitive, and position themselves according to their strengths. And if they make a promise of superior service, and a better overall experience…they need to deliver on it.

Independent Optometrists and Opticians can provide their clients with the best of both worlds: a service that is consistently professional and efficient, seamless and easy, as well as being more warm and personal than any national chain could hope to provide. But an experience like this will take concerted effort to deliver.

The details matter, and there are lots of details

The challenge is that for customers, the small things do really matter.

Customer’s aren’t rational, computer-like beings, and they don’t carry clipboards and score businesses according to some objective criteria: they form “impressions”. The impressions they form aren’t fair or reasonable, they can be disporportionately affected by “odd little things”. And all customers have their own filter or “lense” (sorry!), and their own priorities, and pet peeves.

The overall impressions formed by any customer are likely to be affected by one or more “odd little things”, and different things matter to different customers.

Objectively, the actual customer experience includes every touchpoint, interaction, every step that is taken (or not)…it is made up of lots of small things. The customer’s overall impression however will be affected disproportionately by some of those small things, some of those details. Some things won’t register at all, but some things will.

Like all human beings, customers are also susceptible to the Peak-end effect. When judging an experience in hindsight, we attach too much importance to the “peak” (the part that most stood out), and how we felt at the end of the experience (our final impressions are often the most long lasting).

So to provide a superior service (that is consistently recognised as such), you have to get those small things right, and you need to find as many opportunites as possible to “wow” the customer, and it is worth paying special  atttention to the end of each customer’s experience.

The problem is that managing a lot of small things can seem like a big responsibility. Because it is!

So many opportunities to impress, or not impress

The journey of a customer using an optometrists practice is, by nature,  quite involved. From booking and obtaining an eye test, receiving advice, and selecting lenses, frames and / or contact lenses and various after-care or eye care packages, and returning for fitting… it often involves repeated interactions with multiple team members, and at least two visits to the practice.

This means that there are many things to go wrong, or many ways to impress a client / patient / customer. This also means that there are many things to monitor, manage and ensure. Without objective, detailed feedback, this could be very difficult in all but the very smallest practices.

One commercial reality might be that in order to maintain a truly superior customer experience, value must be added at each touchpoint, and sales opportunities must be seized consistently. Objective, detailed feedback can help with this too.

How Mystery Shopping can help independent Optometrists practices to take control.

There are many things that Mystery Shopping can help an independent Optometrists / Opticians practice to, well, “see”. The detailed and objective feedback tends to be highly actionable, and will often help to quickly increase sales while increasing customer satisfaction and loyalty long-term. Feedback can be obtained on virtually all and any aspects of the customer experience, including:

  • How your website comes across, it’s useability and accessibility, etc.
  • First contact (phone or in person): speed, efficiency, friendliness, the initial advice that’s given and the services that are offered.
  • All aspects of the eye test experience,
    • first impressions of your practice
    • Welcome received on arrival
    • Efficiency, and communication about the process and timescales
    • The eye test itself: the interaction between professional and patient, explanations of procedures and any observations, uncovering specific patient requirements
    • Explanation of any relevant options regarding lenses, contact lenses, and any additional services
    • Any hand over to other team members
  • Sale of products
    • Building rapport & trust, and offering honest advice
    • Establishing requirements and preferences
    • Presenting relevant solutions helpfully
    • Helping the customer to make choices while giving space
    • Making the customer feel valued and respected
    • Taking all opportunities to add value to the patient
    • Clearly explaining all purchases and clarifying as necessary
    • Explaining and confirming any relevant processes and timescales
  • Following up
    • Giving a reminder of the date and time of any follow up appointment
    • Notifying the patient of any delay a.s.a.p.
  • All aspects of the follow-up appointment
    • Fitting of spectacles
    • Answering any questions, reassuring and instilling confidence
    • Any advice offered regarding eye care / care of the product(s)
    • Explanation of any confirmed or unconfirmed further services or products, care plans, referral schemes etc.
  • A sincere goodbye and farewell from all relevant team members
  • A follow up call where relevant

..and other details as relevant to each practice. Essentially, reports can help the owners of the practice to understand the patient’s overall impressions of all their interactions, all team members, and all the steps and processes that made up the experience as a whole.

At Customerwise, we have experience of preparing and executing Mystery Shopping studies on the entire experience from start to finish.

We’re confident, based on significant research, that our techniques, questionnaires and approaches for Mystery Shopping of Optometrists practices are among the best available in the market, along with the high quality, useable information that’s produced for clients as a result.

For an initial discussion, please don’t hesitate to give us a call for an initial chat, or contact us online to arrange a convenient time to speak.



Paul works creatively with a broad range of B2C and B2B organisations to help them find ways to compete more effectively. Read More...

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