By Barry Santini
Ask any eyeglass wearer, “What makes a great pair of glasses?” and you’re likely to get a variety of answers. Some will say that visual clarity, comfort and frame styling are most important. Others will point to frame quality, price and value. Some will cite product prestige and exclusivity. And for many, peer approval is an underlying concern.
Are the qualities that make a great pair of glasses the same for everyone? Or is it so personal it’s not even fair to ask anyone? Does it hinge on the total dollars spent or the perceived value received? Or is it really about the delicate relationship based on mutual trust that exists between buyer and provider? Does their experience with their last pair matter the most?
Of course, we opticians see things differently than our customers. Presumably, we’re much better informed about optics, lenses, frames and style considerations than they are, so we tend to focus on those elements when evaluating eyewear.
But opticians and other sales staff in your store or practice must be able to listen patiently to the concerns of their patients and if needed, quickly pivot their approach to ensure the patient’s eyewear satisfaction. Expressed in simple business terms, it’s all about making people happy. But with the increase in sales channels competing for the same eyewear customer, brick-and-mortar opticians must be able to listen to their customers. Overhearing any conversation about what makes a great pair of glasses is enough to get any industry veteran’s head nodding and gears grinding. It’s a topic that can seem simple at first, yet only when fully unpacked does it reveal its deeply complex nature. Let’s begin with the discussion of what we can do to make a customer satisfied.
A SATISFIED CUSTOMER
Some say that fully satisfying any customer is best described by an absence of complaints. Others say it is an ideal balancing of all factors for that buyer. Still others see satisfied customers as a large, ill-defined group: On one side are the tolerant souls who appear happy but are not fully satisfied and on the other are those who are enthusiastic about their experience, but not disposed to review it or talk about it with friends or family. This latter group is important because it is under leveraged and overlooked. Therefore, it is insufficient to target an absence of complaints when gauging satisfaction. Today, one must go beyond to more intimately discover how the personal values of your target customer are being met. Determining whether any pair of glasses is great also requires knowing who’s doing the asking—patient or practitioner. The patient’s experience is about style, vision, comfort and price. Of course, friends and family will happily weigh in on the topics of style and price paid, so be ready for a dissenting opinion or two. Over a term of single pair ownership, how well a frame fits, needs adjustment and how easy to clean and scratch-resistant the lenses will color both the impression of value received and value perceived. This ongoing value appraisal continues throughout the ownership period, with the amount of professional attention required always factored into this value appraisal. Accidents with eyeglasses will always happen, and in this respect, glasses are close relatives of umbrellas: They break, get sat on, stepped on and are often left behind at the most inconvenient times. How effectively a provider responds to these spectacle events impacts the bottom line of buyer satisfaction. In-person and after-sales eyeglass services are perhaps the most differentiating opportunities for brick-and-mortar offices compared to any other optical sales channel.
SATISFACTION THROUGH RECOMMENDING THE BEST
Any successful eyecare professional should have a bit of Apple founder and visionary Steve Jobs in their DNA. When Jobs first presented the iPad tablet, it was greeted negatively by the press and tech-savvy public because it had no memory, expansion or printer ports, and no keyboard and mouse. Yet, little more than a decade later, that same product is credited with firmly establishing the tablet market. The original iPad wasn’t what buyers expected. But after experiencing it, they began to love it because it exceeded their expectations. The moral here for all ECPs is always to present, discuss, suggest and even recommend the best for people’s eyewear, even if some buyers will push back on the price. Only by leading your customers can you create and maintain the essential bond of trust discussed above. Selling up is a great way to ensure satisfaction and give that “great glasses” feeling. Flexibility is critical. However, proper handling of this dialogue will vary from patient to patient. It represents a meaningful set of essential soft skills rarely taught in today’s optical schools.
HEADS UP ON VALUE
Be careful regarding value. Eyewear’s price-performance value ratio is a volatile and fluid entity, and with the higher prices typically asked today for many upgrades and options, buyers can react unpredictably. It comes down to how the product/benefit story is presented, and it is guided by the amount of trust between the parties. A sure path to success may appear to be targeting a price less than what you think they’re willing to pay. This is also accomplished through timed sales and discount offers. But this discount approach is already standard with companies that dabble in the B2C channels. It makes sense if you think about it: What else does an online channel offer to induce a prospective customer to transact? But discounting in a brick-and-mortar channel guarantees you are devaluing all the extra value you bring to the eyewear experience. Delivering a great pair of glasses experience is not easy, and mastering it requires understanding how a buyer calculates the value received and appreciation for everything you bring to the table to make a great pair experience.
THE MAKING OF A GREAT PAIR
Five main factors are involved in delivering a great glasses experience:
The pre-sale experience can begin anywhere. Some patients will find you via word of mouth. Others will search the web and come upon your reviews, while some might still be seeking specific products or services you feature, such as glasses to help with migraines or emergency eyeglass repair. Others might be people local to your office, and they simply wander in. In every scenario, they should be greeted with a broad smile and an enthusiastic “Welcome!” It shouldn’t matter where they bought their eyewear. Ditto for any pair needing repair. Even if the customer is a bit reserved and “wants to look,” your job is to welcome them to their experience without prejudice or profiling. (There will be time for that later.)
Your product stories regarding the frames, lenses or treatments you feature are important. But equally important is your story, i.e., where you’ve come from and how you arrived here. Your office story should find a place on the landing page of your website to raise its overall importance and impact on the visitor. Write it out clearly and write it well. It should express your values and be consistent with everything you do and how you present yourself. But this story should be about much more. Try to convey the personal depth of knowledge and experience you bring to the eyewear experience. Your story is also written anew daily as you interact with a new client and is often a dialogue overheard by other waiting clients. They will listen to all the comments, problems, objections and compliments, and quickly calculate who you are. All this should be consistent with your intended story.
Another part of your story is about how you uncover and understand their story. This is reflected by the nature and type of questions you ask and whether you are a good listener. Here is where you enter into a profile of your prospect mentioned above. Without profiling, you’re at the same as an online vendor and are less ready to understand their wants, needs and desires fully. Profiling prepares you to engage, learn and recommend in the most tailored way possible. And if you lose them because you misunderstand them, it can erode the essential trust needed for a great pair experience.
Stories are great, but without great products, this story is diminished. It’s easy to reach for a low price to quickly ratchet up perceived value. But avoid limiting the price range of your offerings because you feel it’s too expensive or even too cheap. I keep a line of terrific value acetate frames whose primary purpose is not for extra pairs but for when a broken frame arrives, and an emergency remount is needed. At $80 retail, I can quickly fit almost anyone’s lenses into one of these in about 10 minutes. The story behind these frames is that they are a great product, suited for their intended purpose and attractively priced.
As the price range moves to the higher side, the best way to create product excitement is to have the whole brand story practiced and on the tip of your tongue. This applies to lenses, treatments, coatings and even cases. Whether the product is a national brand name or an artisanal piece from a smaller supplier, you’ll do both product and patient right by knowing and conveying the whole product story. Great glasses cannot be made through a great product alone, and the product story is an essential characteristic of a great pair.
Typically, the period after delivery of the eyewear, the post-sale period, includes all the time after a pair is completed and dispensed in your office. It may also include servicing eyewear not initially purchased in your office. I often encounter push-back from ECPs with this open approach, but the most crucial currency in any business is your relationship with your customer. Today, in an ever-expanding multi-channel world, your primary business goal should not be to steer, capture or prevent customers from shopping elsewhere. Instead, it would be best to position your office as the place for anyone to come when they want an elevated, informed and more skillful experience, one where they know they will pay more. This is not different from a family choosing a select restaurant for a special meal or gathering. You want a better experience, and you expect to pay for it. This is precisely how you should strive to position your practice: a place of elevated importance and specialty, yet welcoming to anyone at any time for anything optical.
Trust is the most important currency for any consumer purchase. With TVs, cars, electronics and home improvements becoming ever more complicated, it’s nearly impossible for the average consumer to be sufficiently well-versed in any area to ensure they will spot incompetence or even fraud. And today, eyeglasses are becoming more complicated than ever. Consumers rarely have a functional grasp of ophthalmic optics or even how to read their prescriptions. Most consumers are unaware whether they are seeing the best they can and often describe their vision with phrases such as “I see fine.” Every ECP should remain mindful that consumer trust in the quality of optical goods and services they receive is inherently fragile because of their lack of knowledge on the subject. If glasses scratch, frames loosen or screws fall out too frequently, a revised value appraisal usually commences. Integral to this appraisal is ease of access and the cost of after-sales service. So choose the products you carry carefully, and do everything possible to ensure adverse ownership events are minimized, such as locking or securing all screws, edging the lenses properly and curating the quality of the products you carry. But even a perfect pair lives in an imperfect world, and guarantees and warranties will and do matter to every buyer. Most importantly, every brick-and-mortar optical must have compassion for life’s unexpected accidents. Not everything has to have a dollar-value, fee-for-service profit target. If you count pennies, the consumer will count dollars when ready for their next pair. The essential glue holding this whole business relationship together is trust. And trust in one’s eyewear is a crucial element of what makes for a great pair.
RUN TO DAYLIGHT
It’s easy to see that the online channel’s most significant advantage over brick-and-mortar is that they are never closed. But this can be countered by brick-and-mortar’s advantage that optical stores are located nearby most consumers. The first hurdle facing a new customer in an optical office occurs when they’re asked, “Did you buy those glasses here?” But it’s only a problem if the store makes it one. The smart ones see an opportunity in servicing glasses bought elsewhere, whereas the others see the same as a liability masquerading as a freebie. I find that most services needed are simple, and charging even a reasonable fee can feel like a nickel-and-dime approach. I find roughly 80 percent of people requesting outside service will tip far more than any reasonable fee you might ask. And the most important thing here is that they’re happy to do so. Anytime you can leverage happiness, you are on the way toward building the relationship needed to make their great next pair. So, a happy post-sale experience nicely sets up the pre-sale for a truly great pair.
DELIVERING THAT GREAT PAIR
A great pair must have it all: Style, optics, fit, fashion, comfort, status, value, peer approval and an owner’s expectation that whatever life doles out, their favorite optical shop will have their back. Any costs incurred here should be assigned to the marketing budget rather than seen as a profit-robbing expense. The great pair experience is rewarded by the type of trust and loyalty rarely seen in the retail landscape today. It’s the type of loyal client patronage that’s the optical shop’s to lose. But that doesn’t have to happen if you keep one overarching principle in mind: As the Simon and Garfunkel song says, all you have to do is “Keep the Customer Satisfied!”
THE 360 DEGREE EXPERIENCE OF A GREAT PAIR
Between consolidation, intense competition from multi-channel vendors, many of whom simultaneously play in B2B and B2C, the optical consumer’s infatuation with all things online and the active legislative movement to cancel the licensing of opticians, the optical market appears to be a hot mess to most offices. The key to succeeding in such a volatile market is not to become defensive under a false belief that the consumer can be steered or controlled. Instead, your approach should be founded on losing control, i.e., seeing every eyeglass owner as a potential customer. Now, the products you carry, insurance plans you accept, services you offer and the prices you charge will act as a natural filter, qualifying the people who come through your door as potential prospects. But making great glasses means you must make enough profit to offer the best products, hire and retain a skilled and enthusiastic staff, and make your business one that feels rewarding. With this goal in mind, consider expanding your service offering to include one or more of the following specialty services designed to enhance the overall eyewear buying experience:
- Full in-house edging lab, including rimless frames and sport eyewear.
- Varied and deep inventory of all types of prescription lenses, including finished single vision, multi-focal and spherical progressive lenses.
- Full in-office frame repair capabilities, including welding and soldering, hidden-hinge repair and sufficient spare parts to quickly repair most eyewear.
- A curated selection of frames and sunglasses, including nonprescription sunwear and an inventory of frames well suited to providing an immediate transfer of Rx lenses as needed.
- A willingness to say “Welcome” to anyone requiring an optician’s services, whether they bought their eyewear from you or not.
- A willingness to respond via texts to customer inquiries during and after regular business hours.
- Recognize that training in style or fashion, even though it’s never been part of any optical school program, is an essential soft skill in today’s evolving market.
THE ESSENTIAL INGREDIENT IN EVERY GREAT PAIR: FASHION AND STYLE
Unlike 60 years ago, today’s optical consumer first wants to be seen wearing a fashionable pair of eyewear. This can range from choosing a strong or novel color, to a frame with asymmetrical coloring or shape or frame that innately connects to a wearer’s personal sense of style. To become a well-versed frame stylist—a term formally looked down upon by the optical establishment—will take more than a “trust your gut” approach. An effective eyewear stylist knows how to quickly profile and gauge an individual’s fashion sense, i.e., their awareness of the universe of eyewear fashion and style. A true frame stylist has a vested interest in curating the frames being offered in the shop. Once again, it should be apparent that comprehensive style profiling is a task that is very hard to do—if at all—if the eyewear is bought online. Without the fun and energy that accompanies a well-chosen frame style, there is little chance that the style selected will make it a great pair of glasses.
Contributing editor Barry Santini is a New York State licensed optician and contact lens fitter with Long Island Opticians in Seaford, N.Y.