Article Date: 7/1/2007

Creating Patient Loyalty
o.d. to o.d.

Creating Patient Loyalty

At a time when consumers have so many choices, we must ask: What will bring them back to our practice?

BY WALTER D. WEST, O.D., F.A.A.O. Chief Optometric Editor

Creating patient loyalty and inspiring a patient's desire to return for professional services and materials is a responsibility for the optometric practitioner that has existed as long as the profession. In fact, creating loyalty and a willingness for consumers to return to any business is part-and-parcel of building and maintaining a healthy business, regardless of the nature of the business.

Advice from the "old guard"

Many strategies exist for creating patient loyalty. When I began practice in the mid-seventies, I remember being frustrated by many of the things that were referred to as "unprofessional" in optometry, yet seemed to be common in other professions and businesses.

For example, a senior, established practitioner scolded me for having business cards. It seems that in his opinion and in that of many others, to have a business card was advertising and of course, advertising was at that time considered unprofessional.

In another encounter at a local society meeting, I received a little "friendly" advise by three senior, established practitioners with folded arms and gritted teeth. It seems I had been so foolish as to quote my examination fee over the telephone (get the tar and feathers ready). The only way they would have known this was if one or all of these practitioners (with time on their hands) called or had someone call my office and about the cost of my examination. Of course, I don't have absolute proof that one of these O.D.s called as this was well before anyone but the CIA had caller ID.

Patients were loyal, but it's what's referred to as "Captive Loyalty."

I also recall in the same encounter, it was suggested that to charge $24 for an eye examination was ludicrous because nobody would pay that much when examinations all over town were $18.

This was also during the day and time that, if a patient saw an optometrists for an examination from, he pretty much had to buy prescribed glasses or contact lenses from the doctor who did the examination because no prescriptions left the office. In fact, many of the optometrists who actually wrote a prescription for glasses and gave it to the patient charged a separate "prescription fee."

So the bottom-line was that having business cards may make a consumer aware that there was another option for care and that quoting a fee over the phone allowed consumers to know what cost to expect. And the unwillingness to write a prescription, at best, didn't allow consumers freedom in eyewear selection and, at worst, created additional profit for the optometrist who released it.

The interesting thing is that practitioners who managed their practices and patients in such a way felt that patients were returning because they were loyal. I guess in a way they were, but it was what's referred to as "Captive Loyalty." It wasn't even so much that there weren't other alternatives, but that the consumer had little opportunity to know about those alternatives.

The secret of loyalty in today's optometric practice

Today, loyalty is created not by holding patients captive, but by captivating them. By focusing on patient needs — creating an enjoyable experience in a professional environment — we build relationships in which patients don't feel that they need to be on guard because they are guarded by a practitioner who is focused on their best interests.

O.K., now those of you who are red in the face, with your fingernails dug into the arm of your chair and that little vein pulsating on the side of your head can relax. I'm finished and I promise that I'm not even going to mention displaying frames in the optical with no prices on them and how much their price may vary from one patient to another — at least, not in this column. OM

Optometric Management, Issue: July 2007