BY Vicki B. Masliah

I have spent the past 25 years in the optical laboratory business, always in a position of direct contact with eyecare practitioners. One thing that has always puzzled me is the reluctance on the part of many ECPs to fully utilize their labs’ banks of knowledge. By treating the lab as just another supplier, rather than as the full-service resource it is, these ECPs are missing a significant opportunity to provide their patients with the best products and service as well as build their practice.

Any lab can make a decent pair of lenses. But a lab’s real asset is its ability to develop a close working relationship with its customers. When practitioners can call anytime to exchange thoughts on a particular patient’s requirements, ask for information, or request help, a lab becomes an extension of the practice. That’s what I call a “golden lab.”

I actually enjoy when my phone rings and it’s a customer with a challenging Rx, or a need for any assistance with the lab. Not only is it gratifying to be able to help, but it also indicates a mutual respect between the lab and the ECP. That respect and the trust that grows from it becomes the basis of a strong business relationship.

Lori Treadwell, vice-president/CFO of Precision Optical, a full-service laboratory in San Diego, knows the foundation of the lab-customer relationship is maintaining frequent two-way communication. “Comm-unication is the key to success at both ends,” says Treadwell. “A healthy and growing lab needs to learn and understand what the ECP likes and needs, basically the ECP’s area of focus. Is the ECP concerned about service, quality or price? Usually it is a combination of the three, but the priority varies. It is the lab’s responsibility to make suggestions that will help their customer make product decisions that will set themselves apart in the marketplace. Both businesses benefit by the lab encouraging input and feedback from the dispenser. When that connection is made, the practitioner knows their requirements will be met, as well as those of the patients—the ultimate clients of the lab. That is why it is most beneficial to develop a close and open relationship with the lab. Both the employees and the practice owner should understand and capitalize on the advantages with which they can be provided. Let the lab recommend new lens materials and styles that will enhance the eyewear. This will result in a happy patient that will spread the word to others.” Take the opportunity to brain-storm with the lab on jobs that might benefit by special treatment. Keep an open mind to their recommendations. Often a lab’s creative thinking and expertise can generate a pair of lenses that far exceed practitioner and patient expectations.


So, what can a practitioner do to fully realize the potential of the lab/practice affiliation? First, seek out labs that can really provide full service. Choose businesses that offer a large variety of lens manufacturers, both surfaced and stock. Quality finishing services are important as well. In-house, anti-reflective coatings are most convenient.

Then, take advantage of all the educational opportunities made available from the lab. Many offer continuing education lectures. They also provide new product literature as lenses and treatments are released.

Some labs also offer computer programs that keep the office staff up to snuff. Diane Strickler, president of Professional Optical Labs in Roanoke, Va., finds “employee turnover in a practice presents a challenge because the amount of products and applications is colossal. We have the ‘Jump Start’ series of CDs [produced by Global Optics] that covers topics such as progressives, index of refraction, basic office procedures, among others. There are new subjects coming out yearly. The information is extremely valuable in getting new employees integrated into optics at an accelerated pace. Labs want to work toward efficiency and practice knowledge can help us to do so.”

At times, labs will offer tours of their facilities. Dave Thomas, vice-president of sales at McLeod Optical in Warwick, R.I. highly encourages visiting the lab. “Seeing, firsthand, just how much handling is involved to process an Rx is often an eye-opener,” says Thomas. “Communications improve, errors go down and service gets better… for their practice and the lab.”

Even more beneficial is the lab that has an informed customer service department and sales team. These are the people with whom a relationship should be cultivated. Don’t think of them as order-takers, but rather as order-consultants. They know the importance of their customers and take the time to learn their individual needs. They can assist in suggesting products that can result in the best choice for a patient. They are the main connection to all the resources of the laboratory and can relate to the dispenser everything that can be done to aid in the fabrication process. Customer service reps also have the input to achieve another practitioner goal—getting lenses shipped out accurately and quickly.

Through conversation with the lab team, the ECP can learn the lab’s procedures and requirements. The reps will be sure that all the information needed is provided to complete an order. When an order is incomplete, the lens surfacing is held up until callbacks are made and answers are provided. Customer service will also analyze the information given to determine if it makes sense and if there are other options. It helps to determine from them, how the lab would like the orders placed. Each lab has its own preferences in the order in which the information is provided. By following that pattern, accuracy is assured and the possibility of missing information is reduced. Additionally, many lenses have specific fitting requirements that must be supplied with the Rx order. The reps can help in assuring the measurements and prescriptions are appropriate for the lenses being ordered. When the order is repeated by the representative, listen carefully. So many possibilities of human error are eliminated at this point.

Jennifer Sokolowski, customer service supervisor at Hirsch Optical in Farmingdale, N.Y., knows the importance of an accurate order. “We make every effort to be sure an order is complete and correct when it is given,” she says. “We actually have reps that can enter the order directly into the computer while on the phone with our customers. The system won’t allow an incomplete order. When an order is phoned or faxed, and something is missing or incorrect, the job can be held up for some time until we get the proper information. It’s so important that the ECP gets back to us as quickly as possible when we call, so we can move the orders along. We actually encourage the use of remote ordering software. The practice computer ‘speaks’ directly with ours. It greatly helps with accuracy and shaves so much time off the manufacturing process.”

If it is more convenient for the practice to fax or ship in their orders, re-read them before sending them. Be sure the handwriting is legible and the information is complete. Try to use the laboratory’s own forms. It very much helps in the consistency of processing. It is so much more difficult for the order entry clerks or the lab personnel to try to follow many different office forms. When sending in frames for “frame to follow” orders, take care that they are properly identified with the correct account and patient information. This will speed up the marriage of the frames with the lenses being provided.

Time factors will always be of critical importance to both the ECP and the lab. Labs make every effort to expedite all orders, but are always willing to help out if something requires special handling. Inform customer service when there is a time factor and what the deadline will be. It will affect the way the order proceeds. However, try not to expect that every order can be processed in “rush mode.” In that way, the orders that truly need to be hurried can get the attention they need.

Now that so many lenses are warranted for patient satisfaction, it has become quite easy to replace lenses for patients having “issues.” If the problem is not easily diagnosed, before ordering replacement lenses, call the lab in on a consult. They see so many of these “nonadapts,” they are totally tuned in to what works to prevent repeat problems.

The secret to good lab service will always be maintaining two-way communication and working with the lab’s procedures and policies. When that service is proven, it surely helps to reinforce it with loyalty. The reward will be a connection that could be one of the most important in the practice.


Vicki B. Masliah is director of professional education at Hirsch Optical, a Farmingdale, N.Y.-based independent wholesale laboratory.