eCommerce as an Extension of Your Practice

Monday, November 23, 2015

Dr. Mary Anne MurphyGen X, Gen Y, Millennials: Are you tired of all the stereotyping and artificial grouping? Do you understand these groups? Who came up with these groups and who defines them? Do you know where you fit in? Do you fit in anywhere? Do you truly identify with any of them?

If you’re anything like me, the real question is, “Does any of this have any impact on my everyday life?”

As I have so graciously entered my 40s, I have reached the conclusion that while I may be considered Gen X, I truly do identify with many characteristics in each of these groups. I embrace technology (Gen Y), I live a digital life (Millennial), I expect excellent customer service and enjoy forming relationships with people I trust (Gen X). If you asked me which of these was the most important in my day to day life, I would have a hard time selecting just one. I expect that many of my optometric colleagues feel the same way. I expect that many of my staff and my patients also feel the same way.

All of these components fit together in a way that allows us to live in a way we find enjoyable, efficient, and easy. Most of the time I don’t feel like I am making conscious decisions about how I am doing something, but rather why. I bring this up because I believe our patients feel the same way about how they purchase contact lenses.

Case in point when it comes to contact lens eCommerce. If a patient chooses to purchase their contact lenses online, do they do it because they do NOT value the excellent customer service and relationships they enjoy with your office, or do they do it because it is convenient and makes their lives easier?

Would it be easier for them if they had to call and request a written copy of their contact lens prescription, which they had to pick up in person, or would it be easier for them to log in to their patient portal and extract an electronic copy at any time? Which of these situations, which I can control, will result in a happier patient? I believe the second scenario, providing patients their medical information at their fingertips, will soon be among the most basic expectations that a patient has of our offices.

Do I worry about the financial impact of such activities on my practice? I would be silly if I didn’t. However, I have learned that for those patients whom you make this process available, they become your best advocates. A patient that purchases contact lenses online is also the patient that tends to embrace technology, be Internet savvy and be active on some social media platform. These patients, after a good (or bad) experience are likely to tell their network about their experience with your office.

This is a perfect opportunity to use the services that you provide in your office as a way to differentiate yourself from other providers and an excellent way to build your brand. Practices that offer the opportunity for their patients, through links on their OWN website, a method for purchasing contact lenses online, build yet another avenue that patients can use to purchase materials at any time of day.

Four years ago, in our practice, when patients did not have this choice, we had many outside contact lens prescription requests. We decided to embrace the opportunity of eCommerce, tell patients about it when they were in the office, and initiate reinforcing communication with them often throughout the year to remind them of this benefit. In the past four years, we have seen a sharp decline in contact lens prescription verifications and a steady increase in patients shopping online. We know this because they are doing it through our Website and we receive compensation when the lenses are delivered to our office.

As a small practice, we will never have the funds to compete on an advertising level with some of the larger outlets, so we have decided to partner with those vendors that keep us in the loop, keeping us engaged in the purchasing lifecycle of our patients, reinforcing the importance of our care and directing them back to our office when care is due.

Each day we are faced with choices about how to best provide care for our patients. I believe that care extends far beyond what we do in the office on the day of the exam. Giving our patients options and access is a reality. We expect this in our own lives. We engage in conversation that acknowledges the existence of other eCommerce entities. We discuss the reasons why choosing to support the vendors we recommend is in their (and our) best interest.

Ignoring the reality will not make eCommerce go away. It is here to stay, my friends, and you have the choice to go along for the ride or stand and watch as others enjoy the thrill.

I say ride. It’s exhilarating. I believe you will be pleasantly surprised with the results.

Avoiding Disruption

Monday, November 16, 2015

If you have any question as to how fast the eye care industry is changing, just read the headlines. In just the past few weeks: CVS Pharmacy made the decision to add eye care to its healthcare offering, and has begun a five store pilot; Essilor announced the purchase of the PERC Alliance Group; and Luxottica announced an agreement to put LensCrafters in 500 Macy’s stores.

Holy moly! As an independent eye care professional (ECP), we can’t help but feel a bit uneasy about all this.

New players, new teams and new allies are the order of the day. Combine that with the profit-centric motivation of ever-increasing private equity investment, and you have the potential for industry disruption.

How is it possible for the independent ECP to chart a course through such an ever-changing landscape? In the words of that great philosopher Dr. Seuss, “Sometimes the questions are complicated; the answers are simple.” At the end of the day, we must understand our patients and remember that it always comes down to providing excellent patient care, delivering responsive customer service, and creating high-perceived value.

Professional optometry has grown and prospered because of our excellence in patient care. We are recognized for our skill and expertise and for outstanding patient outcomes. Access has meant opportunity to provide service and we have delivered. However, in this changing industry, we must be careful not to take patient perceptions for granted.

The ploy of the disruptor is to attack the value proposition of the incumbent. In our case, we need to aggressively counter “low price, good enough” messaging. We know our patients deserve far more than a minimalist offering and we must make an ongoing commitment to presenting the facts.

And, finally, we find ourselves in an industry with many alternative practice venues. I believe one of the real secrets to long-term success is to help make sure that doctors can make independent choices on behalf of their patients regardless of practice venue. If we can ensure high professional standards across the board, everyone benefits.

As I see it, change is all around us and will continue. It is critical for the independent ECP to understand their patients and that they continue to work hard to keep their message front of mind. If we are prepared to aggressively combat any disruptive force which may seek to devalue our offering, and if we press for professional autonomy for all doctors, then all boats rise. All patients deserve the best we have to offer.

When it Comes to eCommerce, Patient and Provider Education is Key

Monday, November 9, 2015

Dr. Stephanie KirschbaumHow many of you have had patients already with an idea about which online site they will be using to order contact lenses or glasses based on the recommendation of a friend or neighbor? And when asked why, simply said the idea of cheap is appealing to them? I bet I’m not the only one.

Like many of my peers, my preference is not to have patients order glasses or contacts online. We are all well aware of the many reasons why. However, I’m also aware that there are some patients who find online shopping appealing for a number of reasons and it is my job to educate them on the pros and cons so they feel they can make a well-informed decision.

I find it incredibly important for me, as the doctor, to be a part of these conversations in addition to my staff. When it comes to ordering something as precise and refined as prescription glasses, of which I have prescribed, I want to ensure they view their glasses as a medical device first, and fashion statement second.

We are then able to take the time to walk our patients through the types of materials, quality of frame manufacturing and alignment, lens materials and designs and more. This type of education is the best tool to enlighten patients about the different things to take into consideration when thinking about purchasing glasses or contacts online. While we can retain a certain percentage of these patients, some remain adamant. So then what can we do?

One option is to let them do their own research and select the online optical site to order from and cross our fingers it is a horrible experience that drives them back to our practice with open arms, saying, “You were right!” That might be an ideal option for us, but is that the best option for the patient? And who can guarantee they’ll come back to our practice?

The option that I recommend is to do our own research to identify online optical sites that best align with how we run our practice. For me, this would be promoting the doctor as a key component of the experience, compensating the doctor for when they provide services and offering quality service and materials that become an extension of, not competition to, my own dispensary.

Obviously the most ideal way to ensure this is to create our own online optical boutiques. However, this isn’t an easy or viable option for many of us. While there aren’t many online sites out there that align with my full expectations, I have found ones that I will support and recommend as needed. In the interim, simply taking the time to be a part of the conversation, educate and inform my patients who prefer to shop online and provide great customer service will ultimately benefit both of us in the end.