Building long-term relationships with your patients, by going ‘above and beyond’ what patients expect, is key in maintaining enthusiasm about their ocular health as well as their business.
A recent study by the Management and Business Academy in the U.S., using customer focus groups, has revealed what patients need to hear from their optometrist. The study, sponsored by Ciba Vision and Essilor in America, questioned the experiences of four groups of participants who had recently had an eye examination. Half of those studied were contact lens wearers while the other half wore only spectacles. Participants were asked to relate, in detail, what occurred during their most recent eye examination visit and to comment on how the visit satisfied their needs. The participants were asked about their perceptions of the role of the optometrist, and practice staff, in providing information about vision correction options, as well as any displeasing aspects of their experience.
Most ‘Satisfed’, Few ‘Enthusiastic’
Nearly all the participants said they were ‘satisfied’ with the service provided by the optometrist and practice staff. Most considered the eye examination they received was thorough and that a competent diagnosis was provided. Most participants also thought they were treated in a friendly, engaged manner by both optometrist and staff.
“During the focus group discussions, it became clear what patients value most from their optometrist is the provision of long term care.”
Building Long Term Relationships
During the focus group discussions, it became clear what patients value most from their optometrist is the provision of long term care. The patients said they achieve a sense of security from having an on-going relationship with a medical professional who has an understanding of their ocular history and personal needs.
The study highlighted the importance of understanding that as people age and their vision deteriorates, an even higher value is placed on an enduring relationship with an optometrist.
It was also apparent that the human, emotional dimension of the relationship weighed more heavily in patient evaluations of their optometrist than did the assessment of technical competence. Attentiveness, warmth, and approachability were consistently cited as the traits of the optometrist that they liked most. None of the focus group participants mentioned the technical competence or the skill of the optometrist as the primary reason for remaining loyal – competence is assumed.
Patients Intend to Stay Loyal
While most patients intended to remain loyal to their current practitioner and very few had any intention to shop around for a new practice, the typical depth of loyalty to he practitioner was not very high. Few participants were able to cite any instance in their relationship when the optometrist had exceeded their expectations. It showed that for most patients, a visit to an optometrist is a routine, unmemorable event. Few participants had ever recommended their optometrist to another person.
The consensus among the patients from a metropolitan area was that a move that would take the patient beyond a fifteen minute radius of the practice would trigger a switch in optometrists. Convenience and access was the most frequently mentioned reason for selecting a practitioner.
Service: ‘Above and Beyond’
When the focus groups were asked what would constitute an ‘unexpected’ level of service from their optometrist, participants mentioned a follow-up call after being treated for an acute condition. Ready accessibility during emergencies was also highly praised. Receiving a call after a purchase of a new type of vision correction to determine the patient’s satisfaction was another example of ‘above and beyond’ service.
Addressing Patient Needs
The cues patients observe indicating their personal needs are being addressed include: being greeted by name; being asked about any changes in vision since the last visit and about satisfaction with their current vision correction; receiving understandable explanations of any changes in vision revealed by the eye examination; and, receiving a recommendation about a product offering higher performance.
When the focus group participants were asked about any disappointing aspects of the service they received during their most recent visit to their optometrist, most patients had no complaints. A few said that the practice’s frame selection were inadequate, others did not appreciate the sense of being rapidly processed through the practice. No one volunteered any dissatisfaction with the fees charged, suggesting this is not a major area of concern.
Product Education Expectations
While not a source of strong complaint, there is a gap between what patients expect to learn about new eyewear products and what they are typically presented during an office visit. In many cases there is little dialogue about products during the visit. Patients who are asymptomatic and express no problems with their current vision correction are seldom presented new options. The implicit assumption made by the optometrist and staff is that the patient will want to reorder the same type of product when updating their prescription.
Satisfied spectacle wearers are seldom offered the chance to try contact lenses.
Patients infrequently ask about new product technology, having invested little or no time to investigate options before their visit. Their assumption is that the optometrist will be their product counsellor and will bring any device that might better satisfy their needs to their attention.
Optometrist and Staff Roles
The primary relationship patients have with eye care practices is with the optometrist, who is the source of any loyalty that develops. However, the practice staff plays an important support role in signalling the practice’s concern for the patient’s welfare. Most patients put their optometrist on a pedestal, preferring not to think of the doctor as a salesperson. They strongly desire that the optometrist recommend the best solution to their corrective need, expecting the optometrist’s advice to be motivated exclusively by concern for the patient’s ocular health and functional needs. A brief product recommendation with a medical or performance rationale is almost never questioned by patients. Only if an optometrist’s recommendation appears to be inf luenced by the profit motive, does any distrust surface.
Patients do not expect optometrists to be experts on style and fashion or to discuss the vanity aspects of eye wear options.
The product advice and recommendations of staff members also are sought. Optical assistants are expected to be able to relate the reactions of other patients to eye wear options and to give advice and reinforcement during frame selection. It seems that the commercial aspects of the transaction are almost expected from practice staff, including an explanation of add-on features and bundled options. Patients are much more comfortable questioning the recommendations of staff than of optometrists.
How Can We improve?
The service provided by the average eye care professional received a solid ‘B’ grade from the sample of patients, who were satisfied, but not enthusiastic, about their most recent practice visit. There were few reported cases of remarkable service. Loyalty was shallow and referral uncommon. The typical eye care practice has considerable opportunity to upgrade its service performance and differentiate itself from competitive practices.
Typical optometric practices also do an average job in presenting new product technology to patients, most implicitly accepting the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ mentality.
Patients expect to hear about the lastest products and to receive recommendations of new technology, contact lenses and spectacle lenses from their optometrists. This expectation is routinely not met and many opportunities are being missed.
This article was adapted from, Neil Gailmard, Gary Gerber, Jerry Hayes and Dave Ziegler, ‘What Eye Care Patients Expect’, Optometric Management (March 2006) by Helen Gleave, Professional Affairs Manager for Ciba Vision, Australia and New Zealand for the Ciba Vision Academy For Eyecare Excellence. For further information on the Ciba Vision Academy For Eyecare Excellence, contact your Ciba Vision Territory Manager.