The growth in online ordering of prescription lenses in the past few years has significantly changed the way optical laboratories service their accounts. While many eyecare practitioners still rely on phone and fax machines to transmit Rx orders to their lab, a growing number are increasingly using remote tracing, often in conjunction with Internet portals and other web-based services. Though such online services offer convenience and minimize ordering errors, they allow ECPs to bypass the lab’s customer service reps.

On the surface this reduces the need for direct communication in the initial ordering process, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that labs communicate with their customers any less. Many labs have found that by reallocating customer service reps to other proactive customer service programs, communication has become much more streamlined and efficient. For instance, a number of labs assign reps to certain accounts to allow for better overall communication. Interstate Optical in Mansfield, Ohio utilizes such an approach.

“If there are any questions about a job, it really helps us to know who is taking responsibility for the communication,” says Bud Stanton, a manager at Interstate. “Our goal is to call a customer before they have to call us.”
At Rite-Style Optical in Omaha, Neb., Mike Sutton, vice president of sales and marketing, has expanded the lab’s customer service department’s role. “We assign accounts to customer service staff members,” says Sutton. “Instead of waiting around for calls, our customer service staff stays in frequent contact with the accounts, asking if there are any other questions or anything they can help them with. Online ordering makes things more convenient for our customers, but we don’t want to lose that human factor between the lab and the account.”

The lab implemented increased internal training among its customer service accounts, so not only are they able to explain features and benefits of products, they can field a wide range of dispensing questions about specific lenses. “Eyecare professionals and their staffs are inundated with new products at the same time they’re hungry for knowledge. Our customer service department is now another source of knowledge they can tap,” notes Sutton.

In addition, frequent meetings between an account’s sales rep and their customer service rep are held. “The rep and customer service person play different roles, but we want them working in tandem to meet specific needs of each account.”

Other technological advances have also changed the way labs offer customer service. Tray tracking, a system utilized by labs of all sizes, allows a customer to access information about a job’s status online. Because the customer service department doesn’t have to spend time manually updating the customer about a job’s status, they are more available to answer technical calls and service-related questions. Expert Optics, a wholesale lab in Shorewood, Ill. provides customers with a special hotline maintained by customer service reps who are now more available to answer these in-depth inquiries.

Another byproduct of the change in communication between labs and their customers is the increased emphasis on educational programs for ECPs. Considered by many labs to be an extension of customer service, educational programs allow labs and ECPs to be on the same page when it comes to daily business.

Educational programs have helped tremendously, says Greg Ruden, president of Expert Optics. Expert offers an annual “Optical Preview,” a special event in which ECPs are invited to gain ABO-certified credits and firsthand knowledge about the lab. They also get the rare chance to speak face-to-face with lab employees and customer service reps. “The Optical Preview has been a very good program for us,” notes Ruden. “Our customers come away with a good sense about the industry and about the people in our lab.”

The more skilled the customer service department is at handling daily conversations and responding to customers’ needs the more customers will respond with dedicated business. Some labs go out of their way to make sure customers have this sort of “old-fashioned” customer service.

Ed Hawkins, inventory manager at Sunburst Optics in Syracuse, N.Y., also places an emphasis on direct communication with customers. “We always try to call customers rather than fax or email,” he says. “We try to figure out how each account likes to be contacted and then base our customer service on that. Quite a few people like to speak with a person rather than going through voice menus or automated services.” Hawkins estimates that Sunburst still processes 75 percent of its orders over the phone with customer service reps having direct communication with the customer.

Jeremy Corby, vice president of Annapolis Opticians in Annapolis, Md., likes the direct approach as long as customer service reps are able to help with tough orders he places with the lab. “My preference is to speak with an actual person as long as they’re qualified to answer some questions I may have,” Corby explains. 

At Interstate and most other labs, customer service reps are required to attend customer service training that highlights communication skills and industry information. “In addition to investing in equipment we realize the importance of investing in our people,” Stanton says.

As eyecare practices offer more technologically advanced products and services, they will be increasingly dependent upon labs that can provide instant, accurate information about everything from the status of a job to advice about premium lens options. Labs that recognize this need and can address it with properly trained, knowledgeable customer service personnel will have an advantage over their competitors.