Has anybody heard from Joe the Plumber recently? Ever since the presidential election, he seems to have disappeared. Maybe Joe is waiting for Obama to name him head of the Small Business Administration. Or maybe he’s holed up in his office writing his memoirs. Meanwhile, some new characters have taken over his role as the prototypical American small business owner. Say hello to Joe the Optometrist and Josephine the Optician.

Like everyone else, Joe and Josephine are worried about the effects of the recession. They are watching uneasily as unemployment increases, consumer confidence erodes and retail sales plummet. As the economy flounders, they’re wondering how they can minimize its impact on them.

Joe and Josephine might like to hear some practical advice I picked up recently from a couple of business consultants, Hedley Lawson and Nancy Friedman, who were speaking at the Optical Laboratories Association annual meeting. Although Lawson and Friedman were addressing optical lab executives, their advice is just as relevant for eyecare professionals. Interestingly, both touched on themes of excellence.

Lawson, who edits Vision Monday’s Business Essentials e-newsletter, spoke about the need for “organizational excellence” during tough economic times. For each eyecare practice or retail store, it means something different. For some, it could be hiring, training and retaining the best people and giving them the tools to do their jobs properly. That, in turn, might mean buying a new piece of exam or lab equipment that will enable them to give a more thorough eye exam or provide faster service. Just because money is tight doesn’t mean that all spending should automatically be curtailed.

Friedman noted the strong link between “great customer service and high consumer confidence.” The organizations that succeed are the ones whose customers feel a personal connection with it, she said.

Although these ideas may seem obvious, they can be hard to execute. If Joe and Josephine want to grow or at least maintain their practice or business in this uncertain economy, they should start by upgrading, not downgrading, the quality of the products and services they offer.

—Andrew Karp