How to Get the Most Out of Your Relationship With Your Lab

By Jeff Hopkins

Release Date: January 1, 2016

Expiration Date: November 15, 2018

Learning Objectives:

Upon completion of this program, the participant should be able to:

  1. Learn the variety of tools that labs have available for the independent and not so independent eyecare professional.
  2. Understand that calibration and precision is only one of the key factors that make up the reasons for choosing a particular lab. Learn how education and training can make a difference.
  3. Know how your lab can help improve sales, revenue, multiple pairs and overall patient satisfaction and when it is time to consider another relationship.

Faculty/Editorial Board:

In his 20 years in the optical industry, Jeff Hopkins has focused on marketing and continuing education. He has written over two dozen ABO-certified courses and presented them in venues around the country, where captive audiences are forced to sit through his attempts at comedy. He is currently the Director of Marketing at GSRx, Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Credit Statement:

This course is approved for one (1) hour of CE credit by the American Board of Opticianry (ABO). General Knowledge. Course SWJH564

In a lighthearted yet informative format, those who are lablorn can learn how to rejuvenate their relationship with their lab by asking “Dear Labby,” and if you have a good partnership with the lab, understand how to get even more help and advice to build your business. What questions would you ask Dear Labby to make your own business better?

Dear Labby,
I’m an optician with a practice in a nice, affluent area. I have a great staff, we’ve got a pretty good premium product mix, and we’re in a long-term relationship with a nearby lab. The quality of their work is good, and they’re pretty reliable about delivery times. I don’t have a lot to complain about. But there’s something missing. Our relationship has become routine, and while my lab is helping me keep my business doing well, I feel like things could be better. How do I take my relationship with my lab to the next level?
—Feeling Blah in Boise

Dear Feeling Blah,

If I had a nickel for every time someone asked her this, she would literally have $1.75, which is about what I get paid to write this column. Often I hear from practice owners who have an “OK” relationship with their lab. But they feel there’s no spark, the relationship isn’t progressing, and they feel liked, but not loved. Sometimes another lab offers them prices that are a few bucks lower, and they end a relationship that may have had lots of unrealized potential.

Today’s labs have a lot to offer you beyond surfacing, coating and finishing. They have a wealth of knowledge and tools that can help you and your staff get stronger and grow faster. But as with any relationship, your partner may not have a clue what you need and want if you don’t tell them. So the question is, have you told your lab what you need and given them a chance to provide it?

Like any relationship, you get out what you put into it. So take a deep breath, sit your lab down and communicate your expectations. Only then will you find what’s in your lab’s heart.

Dear Labby,
I recently met a lab, and it’s making me feel like I’ve never felt before. It’s young, energetic and well-equipped—everything they’ve got is high-tech and really shiny. What’s more, it really seems to care about my needs, my dreams and my ambitions. But it all seems too good to be true. How do I know that it’s not just after my money?
—Trust Issues in Tallahassee

Dear Trust Issues,

Wake up and smell the coffee! Of course they want your money—a lab’s gotta eat. What’s more, they want more of your money than they’re getting now.

The question is not what your lab wants, but what they’re willing to do for you to get it. A lab services lots of eyecare professionals like yourself. The only way THEY make money is when YOU make money. That means they don’t just want you to buy lenses, they want you to grow so you’ll buy more—and they’re usually willing to help.

Sure, every lab relationship is rocky at times. But your lab’s heart is in the right place. It relies on you, which means that you can rely on it.

Dear Labby,
I’m a successful, well-established lens manufacturer with a network of corporate and independent partner labs. I’ve worked with labs for many years, through good times and bad. But lately I’m having control issues. I feel I’m relying on my labs and lab partners more than ever, and I’m losing sleep over it. What should I do?
—Confused Inc.

Dear Confused Inc.,

Dear Labby never gets questions from big companies. Whenever I ask them why not, they tell me it’s because they already know everything. So receiving your question not only gladdens my heart, it opens up a new market for my advice.

You feel like you’re relying more than ever on your labs because you are! Why is that? Two words. Or one word, or one hyphenated word, depending on how you write it: freeform, free form, free-form.

All ECPs whose practices are not located under a rock (where the optical market is not all that good, especially when it comes to sunwear) know that free-form has opened up a new dimension in lens performance. Because the lens design is customized in real-time based on information specific to a particular patient, it’s possible to create a unique design based on the specific needs of that patient. That means wider fields of vision and improved acuity. All of that has moved the eyewear business forward.

But it has had another effect, and that’s what you’re struggling with. You used to be the manufacturer of the lens. You created the designs, made the lens molds and manufactured the semi-finished blanks to which the labs added the prescription using spherical and cylindrical tools. As free-form becomes ever more popular, you’re creating the designs and customization approach, but the lab is realizing that design on a lens puck. Plus, free-form customization allows a nearly infinite number of designs that can be surfaced to an accuracy of 0.01 diopters. That puts more pressure on the lab to maintain the calibration of the equipment and verify the lens quality with microscopic precision.

It’s only natural that you’d take that very seriously—your need to trust your lab more than ever. But as the Russians like to say, “trust, but verify.” The best lens companies don’t just hand their sophisticated, customizable designs to their lab partners and wish them the best of luck. They often require that the lab go through a rigorous qualification program. This may involve months of training for the lab staff, and the fabrication of hundreds of test lenses that are minutely inspected by the manufacturer. Many manufacturers require the lab to periodically make more test lenses to make sure that the quality is maintained.

Working closely with your labs and distributors will probably help you sleep a lot better at night. ECPs will appreciate your commitment to quality, and your direct reports will like the fact that you’re less cranky in Monday morning meetings.

Dear Labby,
If free-form is increasing the lens manufacturing burden on labs, and free-form lenses are more sophisticated and precise than ever before, how can I be sure my lab is doing them right?
—Puzzled in Pennsylvania

Dear Puzzled,

What a convenient and well-timed question! Dear Labby so appreciates that.

The most basic test of a lab’s quality is of course, the satisfaction of your patients. But what’s sometimes hard to tell is whether they’re getting the full visual potential of those lenses, hence the need for precision. So it’s worth asking your lab a few questions about their free-form manufacturing process:

What qualification process did your lab go through before it could make these free-form designs? Did it take days, weeks or months? Dear Labby believes thoroughness pays off in this area.

Who creates the actual customized design? Lens companies will often provide this service to labs in real-time, using their own highly sophisticated design engines. These create the most sophisticated customization and allow the lens designers to maintain the integrity of the design and customization approach.

Do you have a dedicated team onsite to maintain your free-form equipment? Free-form generators are complex and need lots of attention. And above all, they need to stay calibrated to maintain precision. A dedicated onsite team can make sure maintenance is constant.

How many free-form generators do you have? Because of their complexity, free-form equipment will have some downtime. And that’s a good thing, in a sense—better to have it under repair than to have potential precision issues. Equipment redundancy will allow the equipment to be properly maintained without significant delays in producing your work.

A good lab wants to earn your trust, so they should be happy to provide this information.

Dear Labby,
My optical is doing pretty well, but “pretty well” isn’t good enough for me. I want to set goals, assign monthly targets and generally increase practice revenue by making sure all of my patients’ eyewear needs are met. But truthfully, I don’t know where to start. Should I hire a practice consultant?
—Doubtful in Dearborn

Dear Doubtful,

Dear Labby has nothing but respect for practice consultants and the work they do. I’ve sometimes thought I should go into that line, but frankly it’s a lot easier to dash off a glib paragraph or two and call it a day. But before you take the step of hiring someone, why not see what sort of help you can get for free?

The first step in improving optical sales is knowing what they are today—what’s your bifocal-to-progressive ratio? How about standard versus customized lenses? What’s your AR percentage? Your lab knows, because they’re taking your lens orders, and they need to keep track of them so they can bill you accurately (shhh, be nice).

So your lab can give you a monthly snapshot of how your optical is doing, broken down into categories including materials, indexes and so forth. Now I hear you asking, “How can I tell if that’s good or not?” Your lab can help you with that as well, because they also have a breakdown of what their other ECP customers are selling every month, so you can see how your product mix compares. That will show where you have opportunities to improve.

And speaking of staff training, guess who can help you with it? That’s right: your lab.

The first source of training help is your lab rep. They are often experts on the issues you face every day. Whether their background is in surfacing and finishing, lab customer service or in managing an optical, they have probably had plenty of opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. And because what they earn has a lot to do with what your optical earns, you should never hesitate to ask them specific questions or ask them to train your staff about new products or issues facing your patients.

But wait, there’s more! Many labs will host education days featuring ABO courses and sometimes COPE courses. Having spoken at some of these events myself, I can say confidently that many of the instructors (specifically the ones who didn’t happen to be me) were leading experts in lens technology, practice management and practical dispensing. It’s a great way for your staff to keep their certification up to date and their skills sharp.

Dear Labby,
I have a patient who’s -6.00 in one eye and -3.75 in the other, and wants a rimless frame. Is that a good idea?
—Wondering in Williamsburg

Dear Wondering,

By the time you read this, you’ve discovered (perhaps the hard way) that it’s not a good idea. But guess who else knows this stuff?

The relationship of prescription, lens and frame is complex, and as with prescription drugs, the interactions among them may cause problems. Your example is an obvious case, but some are more subtle. Some dispensers don’t have the training and experience to spot all of the potential issues.

But your lab has seen it all, and they can help you in two ways. They can provide training in your office or possibly at the lab. But they can also give you advice about a specific situation, often while the patient is still in front of you. That way you can have the patient choose a more appropriate frame right away and avoid disappointment later.

But you can’t anticipate every problem. Fortunately, your lab will do almost anything to avoid making a pair of glasses that isn’t going to work for your patients. As soon as they see there will be a problem, they’ll let you know, so you and your patients don’t get an unpleasant surprise later on.

Dear Labby,
I’ve heard labs referred to as “grocery stores.” If that’s true, why don’t they ever put coupons in the newspaper?
—Smart Shopper in Schaumburg

Dear Smart,

Your feeble attempt at humor actually raises an interesting issue. Labs are like grocery stores in one way—but it would be a mistake to take the comparison too far.

Grocery stores offer you a broad range of competing products in every product category. That’s why they have every brand of mustard, every type of cookie (even the Oreo knockoffs that are nowhere near as good) and so on. Labs also make a point of offering a wide variety of product because they recognize that what’s right for one patient is not necessarily right for all. There are a number of factors that go into lens selection, including the patient’s satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with what they’re wearing now and the frame they choose. To help you satisfy all of your patients, they offer a variety of brands and individual designs, and that includes labs owned by a lens company.

There are more lens offerings than ever before, but who can keep track of them all? Here’s where labs aren’t like your typical grocery store. They see which lens works best for which type of patient, and they should be happy to make a recommendation based on the needs of the patient sitting in front of you. Their expertise allows you to focus on the other things that keep your practice going strong.

Dear Labby,
I recently opened a new practice with no established patient base. I really need to get the word out to the community that I’m here to take care of their vision. Can a lab help me with that?
—Looking for Ideas in Idaho

Dear Looking,

Do you think your lab wants you to have more patients? You bet they do. And they’re eager to help you market your services. To attract more customers, they may be able to help build your website, develop social media and provide customizable print and radio ads. In the office, they can help you educate patients about premium products with demonstration tools, patient literature and waiting-room videos. Some even offer turnkey in-office marketing and selling systems. And you shouldn’t hesitate to ask them about the practice management advice and resources they can provide.

Dear Labby,
I recently broke up with my old lab after a long-term relationship. They were a small independent, but now they’ve been purchased by a lens supplier. I just woke up one day and felt like I didn’t know them anymore. I still need a lab in my life, but I’m afraid I won’t have the intimacy and trust that I desire.
—Forlorn in Philadelphia

Dear Forlorn and everyone else who sends questions,

Believe it or not, your penname doesn’t have to start with the same vowel or consonant as your location. Just once I’d like to hear from Nervous in Council Bluffs or Fed Up in San Jose. The attempts at cleverness are wearing me out.

Dear Labby,
That’s pretty funny coming from someone who calls herself “Labby.” Now could you answer my question?
—Still Forlorn in Philadelphia

Dear Forlorn,

Fine. Be that way.

Like just about everything in the optical industry (apart from patients choosing between 1 and 2), labs have changed. Increasing numbers of labs are corporate, owned by lens and frame manufacturers. Some business trends are hard to see, but this one is plain as day. In 1992, there were no supplier-owned labs. According to the most recent Vision Monday Top Labs report, today the top five supplier-owned lab networks account for 78 percent of total net sales. And the shift continues: Over the past year, the number of lab locations operated by the top five corporate networks increased by almost 10 percent, while the number of locations among the top 18 independent labs has declined by 6 percent.

Why do lens suppliers want to be in the lab business? Two words: vertical integration. By owning multiple components of the supply chain, i.e., all of the components and services required to create the finished product, suppliers are able to lower their costs.

For example, if I own a lemonade stand, I have to pay the grocery store, which has to pay the manufacturer, who has to pay the grower. Each of them marks up the price, adding to my final cost. If I grow my own lemons and have my own processing plant, my costs are lower and my profits are higher. Similarly, the more aspects of the lens supply chain they own (frame, lenses, coatings, lab services, retail optical), the less margin they have to pay others.

Does this mean the end of small local labs that develop decades-long relationships with their ECP customers? While some have gone out of business, and many have been acquired by supplier networks, there are still successful labs with a workforce counted in dozens, not hundreds and annual sales counted in the millions, not the hundreds of millions. In fact, in recent years there have been a number of small startup labs, another indicator that this business model has a future.

But in a business sense, the real question is not the size of the lab, but what the lab can do for you. It’s true that you may no longer talk to a customer service agent you’ve known for 20 years, but that doesn’t mean the person on the other end of the line isn’t an expert. And you may not be able to speak to the guy on the shop floor who knows exactly where your job is at any given moment, but digital tracking means that the agent you’re talking to may be able to locate it just as precisely and just as fast.

One thing, though, is constant for every lab, whether independent or corporate, large or small. They all want to keep your business, and they all know you can take it somewhere else. Failing to satisfy you is not an acceptable outcome.

Dear Labby,
Recently I have experienced longer delivery times from my lab, and I’ve had to send several pairs back. Is it time to switch labs?
—Anxious in Anytown, USA

Dear Anxious,

I’m pretty sure you don’t really come from Anytown, USA. I grew up in Anytown, where everyone knows everyone else, and I never met anyone named Anxious. (In fact, almost everyone there is named John or Jane Smith.) Nonetheless, your question deserves an answer.

Every relationship goes through rocky times. There isn’t an optical lab in the world that never makes a mistake. Getting a pair of sophisticated customized lenses done just right requires a lot of moving parts to mesh perfectly. An instrument goes slightly out of calibration, the humidity increases slightly in the coating room—stuff happens. And remember that the lab isn’t the only place where things can go wrong. A slight error in the refraction or a PD measurement that’s a little off can also cause an unsatisfactory result. And sometimes a job can be late because the lab spotted an error and had to redo it—annoying perhaps, but way better than you having to catch it.

The question you should ask yourself is, “How has the lab performed over the whole span of your relationship?” I wouldn’t be surprised if your recent disappointment is the result of the standard they’ve set previously for consistent performance. Remember why you started the relationship in the first place, and why you’ve stayed with it over the years.

As in any healthy relationship, open communication is vital. When a problem arises, a good lab will contact you as soon as possible to tell you what happened, how it’s being fixed and when you can expect it to be resolved. Of course you don’t want to hear bad news, but give them credit for being forthright about it. And remember that it’s up to you to communicate your expectations to the lab, and to let them know when they are not being met. How can they do better if they don’t know what’s wrong?

I said at the outset that all relationships require work from both parties. Your job is to use the lab’s resources to the fullest. Their job is to help you become more successful, so they can be more successful. I wish the two of you many more years of prosperity and happiness.