By Sarah McGoldrick

In an era where online shopping has become the new normal, eyecare providers have had to find new and innovative ways to boost customer loyalty. The prevalence of discount eyewear options paired with a pandemic that reduced in-office service hours has created new challenges to compete with online vendors.

One of the key allies in driving customers back into brick-and-mortar practices is the optical lab. Building on this strategic partnership through strong service support and product education gives eyecare providers the extra tools they need to demonstrate to patients the importance of choosing their eyeglasses provider based on service rather than price.

Many online stores now offer effective measurement tools that produce a pair of lenses that patients would deem adequate for their vision needs, giving some patients the feeling that they don’t need to see a brick-and-mortar eyecare provider. According to Statista, more than 7.3 million consumers bought their prescription glasses online in 2019.

A teamwork approach to patient education paired with more hands-on support from labs is a first step to changing patient buying habits. Taking full advantage of the partnership with your lab can enhance the level of patient care by improving accuracy and reducing the likelihood of redos due to lab or doctor error. Some industry sources estimate that more than eight percent of jobs are redos, including all warranty, doctor errors, lab errors and breakage.

Improvements in personalized measurements and lens design, particularly PALs, mean patients enjoy a higher rate of lens adaptation. However, the fitting of eyeglasses, which often has as much to do with the frame as it does the lens, remains a challenge. As more eyecare providers also adopt online dispensing practices to compete with virtual retailers, there is an even greater need for improved communication between the lab and eyecare provider to ensure glasses purchased through an online portal are accurate and fit well at the point of dispensing.

This hybrid approach to care demonstrates the benefits of particular products and the value in using a knowledgeable in-house dispenser who can properly measure the patient and fit their glasses rather than rely solely on online options.

By taking a more active role in educating eyecare providers about new products and technologies, optical labs can create a better patient experience and maximize opportunities for increased sales on higher-quality lens options.

“When we bring new and innovative technology to the table, we ensure a good patient outcome,” says Jeff Szymanski, regional VP for Walman Optical, the largest independent wholesale lab company in the U.S. “Independent labs can offer a greater variety of choice, allowing them to offer unbiased opinions on products.”

Szymanski, who also serves on the Marketing and Communications Committee for The Vision Council, says collaboration between labs and eyecare providers is one of the best ways to be a part of the patient learning process and help customers better understand the lens technology being offered to them.

“There are more than 50,000 optical offices in the country to buy a pair of glasses, so eyecare professionals need to create an exceptional experience for their patients, to differentiate themselves. As such, it then becomes much less about price and more about the care, the service and the “love of the customer” that we deliver. You need to create an extraordinary experience when they come into the office. With 65 percent of revenue in the average optometric practice being driven through the dispensary, this should always be our greatest focus,” he asserts.

Szymanski suggests offices work with labs to develop tools that can help demonstrate the effectiveness and quality of lenses such as lens samples, and advanced fitting and demonstration tools.

“This creates a better, more precise and unique patient experience as precision technology can help refine traditional and basic measurements including the ability to take a PD within a 10th of a millimeter,” he says, adding exceptional demonstration and education tools can help build confidence in patients and lead to a more accurate prescription. He suggests lifestyle questionnaires and assessment forms that can also help eyecare providers make a more informed choice for their patients and in turn pass this info on to the lab for a more successful lens solution.

Szymanski notes that the pandemic has illustrated the importance of independent eyecare channels. As patients look for a new pair of glasses, they want an office they can trust with resources to back up lens claims. “A doctor can explain presbyopia till they are blue in the face, but through sophisticated computer animation we can better heighten the overall eyewear buying experience ultimately improving the patient’s understanding,” he says. “We want patients to know all the options that are available to enhance their visual lives.”

Szymanski believes optical labs and eyecare providers need to work together to build mutual trust and work as partners in the best interest of the patient. “We are selling quality of life, and there’s simply no greater profession as we help the world see better.”

One of the greatest challenges eyecare providers report in providing patients with the right lenses is a lack of product information. Some feel the lack of facts and science in product literature is making it difficult to properly inform patients about lens technology.

Optical consultant and owner of Optigal Consulting, Carrie Wilson, says many product information pieces she receives from labs or lens suppliers do not provide enough science-based information. She believes labs and eyecare providers need to demand more non-marketing created information that will allow for a more accurate eyeglass design.

“Most of the information is built on marketing, not on facts,” says Wilson, noting that the proprietary nature of the optical industry is making it more difficult to get advanced knowledge on lens technology. “Lens designers need to be more forthcoming with certain aspects of their designs and (they need to) provide facts to both parties such as white sheets.”

Wilson also emphasizes that there needs to be more communication between the labs and the eyecare providers, suggesting eyecare providers try to clarify jobs and work on resolving redo issues before they occur. “If it is a job that is outside the eyecare providers’ normal operation, and you have a question about the how and the why, the lab would rather you call than remake the job multiple times. The lab wants to help.” Wilson says if an error does occur such as a lens that is the wrong Rx or off power, the lab must not only be receptive to the communication, but the eyecare providers need to discuss redos with labs rather than just send them back to maintain the positive eyecare provider/lab relationship that will, in turn, benefit the patient.

“It goes toward establishing trust. This tells the lab you understand what is going on, and it can expedite the process as well as preventing future errors from happening, creating faster eyeglass turnaround time,” she says.

This level of communication doesn’t need to be just between the lab and the eyecare provider but also between the eyecare provider and the patient. Wilson says eyecare providers also have to be more willing to be truthful with patients about jobs that cannot be made such as instances where the Rx is so high, and the lens is so thick that the lens will not properly fit inside the frame.

“You have to have the professional courage to tell the patient, I can’t do this,” she says, noting that eyecare providers should reach out to the lab if they believe a job may be a problem from the beginning to get the advice of the lab tech and see if the situation can be managed proactively.

Wilson suggests labs need to provide as many training resources as possible and eyecare providers need to utilize them to provide better care.

A team effort is important to providing patients with the clearest path to purchase. Despite the challenges of doing business during the pandemic, more labs and eyecare providers are discovering that a collaborative approach to care often leads to increased sales and patient retention.

According to a study released by The Vision Council in January, more than 75 percent of consumers reported that they will likely return to physical eyewear retailers after COVID-19. This gives eyecare providers and labs a chance to find new ways to work better to make the transition back to traditional optical sales a better experience for patients.

ABB Optical Group, one of the largest soft contact and prescription lab operators in the U.S., has made strong efforts to develop customer-friendly products, logistics, services and tools to help increase patient retention and satisfaction.

Lab accounts manager Nick Folkers says labs have to take into account their audience within an office and who that audience will ultimately be working with—the patient. “Our lab created an additional layer of service which also provides education and training to the practice. We work as a team to serve our eyecare providers.” He continues: “We wanted to provide another consistent point of contact so we can continue to foster our relationship with the practice, and we are not handing off eyecare providers to customer service all the time. Everything we do, we do with the end-user, the patient in mind.”

According to Folker, labs need to build stronger relationships with their eyecare providers beyond marketing material, ensuring they are offering the right information to create a positive visual experience for the patient. He notes ABB recognizes that the eyecare providers’ competition may focus on price, that it is easy for a patient to go where it’s cheapest, and this can be a quick way for eyecare providers to lose out on sales if there aren’t adequate lens support materials and training to help differentiate their products.

“We want to get patients into the best products, and when explaining the difference in products, we want to simplify the conversation,” he says, adding labs must find new ways to provide education when conferences and traditional in-person education such as virtual demonstrations and webinars cannot occur. “Practices are moving in that direction too, and this allows the office to schedule learning as needed and work around COVID.”

Folkers notes the pandemic has presented new ways for independent optical retailers to demonstrate exceptional customer service over “big box” and “online retail,” and working closely with a lab can help eyecare providers provide advanced education to their patients too. “The conversation needs to shift to what the patient is getting for that extra $20, $40, $60.”

He believes adding a close relationship with a lab can ensure the best outcome for a patient and provide the office the education needed to talk about lens options with confidence.

“Have a lab that will provide your office with the right information. Having that trust and relationship with a lab allows the eyecare provider to focus on the patient.”

Sarah McGoldrick is a freelance writer who specializes in optical subjects. She is based in Toronto, Canada.