The world filled with similar offerings, to similar people at similar prices, service levels and quality so how do you differentiate yourself from others?  At the core of question is not how I can spiff up my brand, get a new logo or remodel the lab, but often times we are asking the simple question “How do we 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 building a better hot dog stand?


In rough numbers, the optical industry has over 600 independent optical laboratories, approximately 150 corporate labs all, competing for the same 30,000 eye-care professionals’ business.  Not to mention hundreds of in-store labs and the Internet taking another 10% in direct on-line sales.  Needless to say, 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 build their business. 


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 1/3 that amount to the bottom line.  Does that mean there is another 1.5 million dollar practice hiding in plain site on the shelves in the record room?  Typically not, but there is a portion of one certainly.  Multiply that by the number of offices you currently sell into and the “opportunity” numbers become silly just 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 just to survive, and to a certain extent it is just assumed you already have that.  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 are deliver value to their customers. So how do you stand out?


The first step in building a better 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 my products and services!  Successful hot dog stand vendors know one thing- it isn’t about me.  It’s about you. 


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 I buy from you?  Why should I care you are out here 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.


Four, 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 jobs you can do for your lab, and your customer, is to get more butts in the exam chair.  One very powerful tool in doing so is to help eyecare professionals move away from communicating with patients just once a year, to taking a more active role throughout the year.  In todays competitive environment, patients want to know that their eye care professional actually cares about them!  Monthly news letters, occasional postcards, emails with coupons or special announcements, in addition to “condition specific” information, all are ways to engage the patient throughout the year.  Year long 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 Karlsrud Contact Center Solutions, 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 when the office is closed or taking time off for lunch.  Either way, keeping the phone line working to capture patients is extremely important.  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 add service?  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 website?  If not, help them get one.  It’s the new Yellow Pages.  Many offices put a webpage several years ago and may not have touched it since it went live.  Social media for instance is the new frontier with 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 customer become a stronger player in their own marketplace is a goal they will greatly appreciate. Many times customers know what they want to do; they just don’t know where to look or how to execute.  Another area you can help your eye-care profession gain more business is to coordinate buying opportunities.  Trunk shows, special shopping days, sales on particular products or brands, are very good ways you can 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?  If you can, introduce 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 leg- work 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 is 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 ourselves, and focus on our 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.