By Palmer R. Cook, OD
“He left these practically new glasses from you on the nightstand last night. Just look at them now. They were perfectly fine and . . . ”
Every office that dispenses eyewear has experienced this scenario at various levels of intensity. The parent, or the patient, is intent on free replacement of the eyewear and typically assumes that “toughing it out” is the best way to achieve their goal.
Such confrontations are stressful and memorable for all concerned. In many cases, the patient is totally unaware of your policy for covering reasonable, accidental situations. Whether a child’s retaliatory tantrum or some other unfortunate happening occurred, a needless crisis is created in your office.
In fact, most practices will resolve accidental damage to eyewear within a reasonable period after dispensing, and in some cases the resolution is done pro bono even though the justification is marginal. However, there are ways to limit these problems and even build your practice if you analyze the issues and modify your policies a bit.
Most products and services are in one way or another covered by a warranty. The obvious reason for an ECP to provide this sort of coverage for eyewear is to inspire confidence and increase the perceived value of whatever a consumer is purchasing. A written warranty that accompanies a product or service is always more effective in increasing value than a warranty printed on the receipt, a sign posted at the point-of- purchase or a spoken promise.
Value is a two-way street. A seller of eyewear also benefits when a warranty is issued. If the eyewear is unsatisfactory, the patient with a warranty will alert the seller about a problem or weakness, and steps can be taken to avoid the negative publicity that might otherwise be generated. Good news travels, but bad news travels faster and endures longer. Issuing a warranty not only sends a positive message, it also enables the seller or manufacturer to correct the problem quickly and more effectively.
A LOOK AT THE DARK SIDE
Take a few moments for some introspection. Are you worried that patients will intentionally damage their eyewear just to get a replacement? Dispensers who use written warranties feel that although the possibility exists, it simply isn’t even on the radar for most patients who have a one-year warranty. All products have a use-related tipping point at which they start looking worn and lose appeal. Because of this, longer-term warranties may increase the number of claims .for replacement, especially those that are of murky origin and unrelated to the quality you provided.
For many years, ECPs used unwritten warranties. They typically worked like this: If the patient returned with broken eyewear within some reasonable period and complained, a repair or replacement was done at either no cost or a token “deductible” was charged. Often the correction and any deductible was doled out in direct proportion to how vigorously the complaint was presented. Of course, complaining patients quickly learned that being a “squeaky wheel” churned out more results, and so there was a bias for trouble-at-the-crossroads, so to speak.
Designing Your Own Warranty Program
- Tracking cost is important. Replacing an expensive warranted set of glasses can skew your perspective. Understanding the cost of a warranty program requires a longer view. Otherwise, you might be inclined to drop a very effective program over a single unfortunate incident.
- Your warranty program should be easy to understand and legal. If it’s written clearly, it will help avoid issues of buyer’s remorse and promote good word-of-mouth about your practice. It should not be presented as insurance. Issuing insurance requires a license and would subject you to a great many regulations and complications.
- The warranty certificate should glow with quality. Have it professionally designed and printed on parchment or high quality paper. It should not present fine print limitations and qualifications. It should be dated, and perhaps it should have a serial number for tracking purposes. Personalization with the patient’s name and an “initialing” by the staff member who issues it will increase its perceived value.
- By using wide margins and open space on your warranty certificate, your staff member will have room to indicate special co-pays or deductibles. This can be especially important when a child and/or parent insists on an inappropriately fragile frame.
- Warranted replacement parts or replacement eyewear should never be dispensed grudgingly. Patients in these situations can be an ambassador to other patients and your community at large if your commitment is carried out with professionalism and with good style.
- By including an EOB (Explanation of Benefits) form in your program, you will have your warranty explanation available for patients who might consider purchasing their eyewear elsewhere. EOB forms can be simply and inexpensively printed, and should not be confused with the warranty certificate.
- It’s a good idea to provide a warranty only for complete, new eyewear. If your accounting system groups family members, you may wish to make any warranty benefits subject to the family account being fully paid.
- For obvious reasons, eyewear cannot be warranted against loss. Your warranty should require that damaged eyewear be returned for repair or replacement coverage. Patients who have lost their eyewear should check with their homeowners’ insurance for possible coverage, and the order for their replacement eyewear should be expedited.
It is a rare eyewear purchaser who is not confused about the eyewear he or she is buying. Patients generally assume the lenses will work because the doc wrote a prescription for them, but patients are then confronted with decisions about lenses that darken, lenses that are “progressive,” lenses that are lighter, thinner, prettier, tinted, clearer, more break-resistant, fog-resistant, UV-blocking and scratch-resistant, not to mention the hundreds of frames from which they must choose. It is probably not a good idea to top off all of these decisions with a question about a for-cost warranty.
Most consumers appreciate their doctor’s chairside guidance because it minimizes decision-making in the dispensary, and providing a no-additional-cost warranty is another way of making their eyewear purchase decision easier. Few patients remember much detail about their eyecare/eyewear experience. Many recall only what they paid. This argues strongly for simply providing a standard, no-decisions-needed, written eyewear warranty.
CHECKING THE NUMBERS
An independent optometric practice did a three-year study of patients who were given a one-year warranty on their newly dispensed eyewear. The warranty replaced each temple, the front, and each lens one time if breakage occurred during the first year. Hairline scratches were not covered, but if scratches were sufficient to interfere with lens function, the lens would be deemed to have surface fractures, and it would be replaced under warranty. Repairs were performed at no charge as specified on the warranty certificate. Patients who had no breakage during the initial 12 month’s coverage were rewarded by giving a percent-off the cost of new eyewear purchased within the following year. A reminder letter of this benefit was sent to each patient who had no replacement parts under the warranty. This letter was sent 90 days prior to the expiration of the second year after the original dispensing.
An analysis of the usage of the warranty revealed that only 2 percent of the patients had one or more replacement parts. Most of the replacements were broken temples, but if the average retail price of the eyewear dispensed was $400, and if every patient in that 2 percent group had needed their broken glasses completely replaced, the lost retail income would have been $8 per warranty issued. As it turned out, the retail income lost was under $1 per warranty issued.
Stop a moment and think about the last time a patient returned within a year with a need for a replacement part or repair of their eyewear. Did you charge that patient full retail? In most cases, you would be far ahead to roll an extra dollar or two into the eyewear cost up front, and make the replacements and repairs at no charge for a specified period.
The question for you as a dispenser of eyewear is not whether to warranty, but how to make the most of a warranty responsibility (i.e., expense) that you are probably already shouldering. It is a rare eyewear dispenser who will not repair, replace or make right a patient’s eyewear that did not hold up during normal use for some reasonable length of time. If you are doing that, you are paying the cost of the coverage, and you should reap the full benefit of that cost. In the above example, 100 percent of the patients were made aware of the warranty benefits via a warranty EOB (Explanation of Benefits) form and a certificate they received at dispensing. Unless your patients know about your warranty, only the 2 percent or so who experience breakage will really appreciate your program.
PROFIT CENTER OR MARKETING TOOL
Patients view eyewear warranties as a benefit, but business owners must decide whether their own bottom line will benefit more from making their warranty a profit center or a marketing tool. If you choose the former, you may sell the warranty as an add-on to the purchase or you may charge a co-pay or deductible if replacement is necessary. If you choose to make your warranty a marketing tool, you will find its power is greatly enhanced if it is included in every complete eyewear purchase. You must decide which is better for your practice. If you charge for the warranty, you are labeling its value in your patients’ minds. It simply becomes an additional purchase.
If you use your warranty as a marketing tool, it becomes yet another reason for the patient to want you to supply the eyewear, and its value is the patient’s perception of value. If you check with colleagues for their experience with including the cost of the warranty in the eyewear purchase, you will probably find that the cost of replacements will only be a dollar or two at most. If you are a belt and suspenders sort of person, you might design a co-pay into your warranty, and then after a year or two, you may want to drop it and announce to your patients that your warranty has been upgraded to a no co-pay status.
LAB AND MANUFACTURER’S WARRANTIES
There are two basic kinds of eyewear warranties. You can be the entity that backs the warranty with your own credibility and reputation. The other kind of warranty is a manufacturer’s warranty for the frame, for the lens design, for the AR, or even for the prescription, which many labs back with a “doctor’s error” cost adjustment policy. It is very important not to mix these two very different kinds of warranties, especially in the minds of staff and patients.
A clear distinction should exist between your warranty program and the various warranties provided by your suppliers. If your staff muddles supplier’s warranties with their various rules and benefits with your warranty, your already confused patient may become even more frustrated.
Although vendors want you to use their special, extended warranties as a selling tool to preferentially promote their products, you may be better off to avoid consumer confusion and use the suppliers’ warranties to offset your costs should breakage occur. By designing your warranty appropriately, you can annotate extended or special benefits as the need arises.
Making Your Warranty Work Hard For You
- Announce your warranty in your newsletter, and be sure your staff mentions it when making appointments and answering callers’ questions.
- Place an enlarged copy of your warranty certificate in your reception area. And be sure EOB forms are available to patients and office visitors.
- All staff members should understand your warranty program so thoroughly that they can explain it in clear, accurate and understandable terms to patients. If your staff is not enthusiastic about the program, find out why and create that enthusiasm. If your employees consider the warranty program to be just another chore, it will never live up to its full potential.
If you sell your warranty, the benefit to your business is immediate but limited. If you use your warranty as a marketing tool, you must let every patient know that the warranty is included. If you decide to charge a co-pay, you are building in a negative inducement (“You Break ’Em—You Pay,” albeit for less), but if you reward patients for taking care of their eyewear by offering a cost reduction for future eyewear, you will be encouraging regular eyecare. This reward approach encourages both better eyewear care and patient retention.
Every reputable business is expected to make good on manufacturer defects. No written warranty is needed if a trustworthy seller sells a widget that doesn’t widge. In the case of eyewear, warranties should cover damaged and broken eyewear during “normal usage.” Is accidentally dropping a set of PALs into a wood shredder or meat grinder “normal usage?” Perhaps it is. Could patients intentionally do such a thing? Yes, but few to none will do it only to get a replacement pair particularly during the first year of wear.
Hairline scratches generally do not affect vision, and they probably do not require coverage. Deep scratches or a buildup of scratches are another matter. In most cases, you can make a judgment call and significant scratches could be termed “surface fractures” for warranty purposes. If a patient insists on a lens replacement for minor scratches, you can choose to do it, but if your warranty is for a one-time replacement of each lens and each temple and the front, you should remind the insisting patient that once the lens is replaced, it would not be warranted for a second replacement. In my experience, reason always prevailed in these rare instances.
Are eyewear warranties a good choice for your patients and your business? Only you can decide. Your clear understanding of the benefits and risks of providing or not providing eyewear warranties is needed before you can make that decision in the best interests of your patients and your business.
Contributing editor Palmer R. Cook, OD, is director of professional education at Diversified Ophthalmics in Cincinnati, Ohio.