Article Date: 8/1/2007

How to Become a

How to Become a

This seven-step plan can make you the go-to practitioner in your neighborhood.

JENNIFER KIRBY, Senior Associate Editor

A practice without sound marketing is like an excellent film without Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie. Without the audience draw — in this case, a bankable star — a movie can bomb. Similarly, great clinicians can thrive or dive depending on how they draw patients, or market.

Although each optometric practice differs in size, financial state, location and "personality," the following seven steps can help any practice become a blockbuster.


This applies to both new and established practices.

"A recent graduate who opens a practice may wish to be considered the high-end eyewear optometrist," explains optometrist Richard Hom, O.D., M.B.A., of San Mateo, Calif. "Or, an established practitioner may discover a newfound affinity and skill for contact-lens care and decide to use this specialty to attract patients."


Your patients' needs play a larger role in the success and growth of your practice than do your skills.

To assess this demand, go to the U.S. Census Bureau's home page (, as it provides information on the age and income levels of the local population. This can help you identify the demand for such services as high-end eye wear or presbyopic correction, Dr. Hom says.

Also consider talking to the local Chamber of Commerce and real estate agents, he says.

"Think of services that meet the specific needs of the locale," Dr. Hom says.


Competing practices also play a large role in the success of your practice, so send a staff member or friend to every other local optometrist's office to get input on each practice's offerings, Dr. Hom says.

"If you're interested in high-end eyewear, tell your 'spy' to pay special attention to each practices' dispensary, in terms of lens- and frame-type and how each practice displays and dispenses the products," he says.

Dr. Hom warns that if competitors do a fine job, it's difficult to get patients to switch.

One way you can pull patients away: Do something different, says optometrist Gary Gerber, founder of the consulting firm The Power Practice in Franklin Lakes, N.J.

"It's always easier and more effective to offer a different mousetrap instead of a better one," he says. "So, resist the reflex of being better."


Make sure the inside of your practice reflects that particular service or services before you market externally.

Send a staff member or friend to every other local optometrist's office to get input.

So, if you decide you want to treat children, for instance, scattering some Golden books on a child-sized table in the corner won't cut it.

"Separate the child-friendly area with a glass enclosure, so children can play and be noisy, yet not bother others in the reception room,"says Peter G. Shaw-McMinn, O.D., an assistant professor at Southern California College of Optometry in Fullerton, Calif. who teaches practice management courses and runs two practices. "Also, fill this room with age-appropriate toys and video games for the older kids, and consider putting cut-outs of cartoon characters on this reception room's walls."


Even if your interior meets patients' expectations, you could still lose them if your staff doesn't reflect your service or services, says Dr. Shaw-McMinn.

"Set parameters on what you expect to take place at each patient-experience point," he says. "If your main service is pediatric optometry, for example, you may want to tell your staff to wear cartoon-character scrubs and to greet patients at the reception desk — the first patient-experience point — with a lolly-pop, as both convey child-friendly."

Dr. Gerber suggests taking a page from The Ritz-Carlton.

"The Ritz-Carlton tells its staff that hospitality is like the theater in that staff is always on stage," he says. "This analogy works for an optometric staff, as it sends the message that regardless of what they wear, say or do, the patients' eyes are always on them. You have to be a missionary in continually supporting and selling this message."


In the "Management Tip of the Week," Neil Gailmard, O.D., Munster, Ind., explains that the most effective type of marketing is word-of-mouth referrals from patients (see /mtotw/tip.asp?tip=106). It "is the hub of all marketing in the practice, and it must be developed first," he says.

What causes patients to talk about and recommend your practice? It is the secret to every business success story that has ever occurred, says Dr. Gailmard. "It is outstanding customer service."

While volumes have been written on the subject, here is the take-home message: Internally, you and your staff must develop a practice that creates enthusiastic patients who recommend your practice the same way they would recommend Disneyworld or Nordstroms.

When your practice and staff are in line with the services you provide, you're ready to market externally. Your budget should be between 2% and 3% of your gross — the industry standard — says Susan M. Abramovitz, president of Ideopia, a Cincinnati-based advertising, interactive and brand strategy agency with a special focus on the ophthalmic field.

Dr. Gerber, however, says that spending the standard amount might only net you the standard amount.

"If your marketing is working, keep spending, and think of expanding your budget, even if it goes beyond 3%," he says.

Plan to launch an array of external marketing tactics during specific times throughout the year, Ms. Abramovitz says. "Advertising works by repetition, and those practices that stick with a well thought-out plan for the year do very well financially."

According to all those interviewed, your practice must have a Web presence.

"The Internet, not the phone book, is where patients now go to search for doctors," says Dr. Shaw-McMinn. "Your Web site should not only contain information about you, your fellow practitioners and the services you provide, but information about the latest research in eye disease, products and treatments, as this will make you stand out from other private-practice Web sites that simply list contact information."

Examples of external marketing tactics you should use consider include:

direct mail. Dr. Gerber recommends direct mail because it's easy to track, and it allows you to test different offers.

"Let's say you can't decide between offering $30 off a pair of name-brand frames that you've had for months or nothing off a new pair of frames that look just as cool," he says. "To make your decision, you can send a mailing with each offer, as randomly as possible, and see which gets a better response."

Says Dr. Shaw-McMinn: "If the service or services you and your competitor offer are comparable, the patient is going to look at location. I would argue that unless you have an optical chain that's within a mile of your practice, you're the most convenient location," he says. "Therefore, market to this population the most, and with direct mail, you have the ability to control who receives your advertisement. Of course, if a competitor is within the same distance, you'll need a competitive advantage, such as offering longer hours."

Direct mail won't work unless it has the right look, and you do it at least four times a year.

Direct mail won't work unless it has the right look, and you do it at least four times a year (education takes repetition), as this is the industry standard, says Dr. Shaw-McMinn.

"Your piece doesn't have to be flashy, it just has to educate the receiver. I find that post cards are very effective in direct mail because the patient doesn't have to open anything," he says. "It [the postcard] just has to have one phrase, such as 'Are you protecting your eyes from the sun?'"

e-mail. This is an effective, low-cost way to inform patients about new services and products, says Dr. Gerber. Still, be sure and ask your patient's permission to send them e-mails before doing so, as you don't want to be seen as a "spammer" and alienate them.

advertisements through various media. Newspaper, radio, TV and billboard ads are all effective forms of advertising when done consistently and correctly, according to all those interviewed.

"To stand out in a print environment, for instance, your ad should be clean, meaning it should convey one or two major points, your Web site and contact information," says Ms. Abramovitz. "It should also have some white space around it, as the eye seeks a place where it can register something."

When advertising on the radio, you need to have a captivating audio headline that breaks the stream of consciousness from everything that preceded it, says Dr. Gerber.

An example: "When I was in practice, we ran an ad that had no music in it on a soft-rock station to make the listener focus on our message," he says. "The ad was 30 seconds, and it began with three seconds of silence and then a male voice said, 'Close your eyes.' Then he paused and said, 'Really, close your eyes. This is what a person with untreated glaucoma sees.' The ad was very effective for us.'"

Grab the attention of your listener, but don't focus on being too catchy, Dr. Gerber warns.

"If you come up with something incredibly catchy, the listener will remember the catchiness and not the actual message," he says.

When advertising on TV, sell one thing, and make sure that one thing is in-sync with the service or services you provide, Dr. Gerber says.

"So, if you're really a high-end, high-touch practice, it doesn't make much sense to run a commercial on two-for-one glasses," he says.

Keep in mind that the success of TV ads is also contingent on location.

"To reach patients in large metro areas, for instance, you could easily spend $2,000 to $3,000 for a 30-second spot," Dr. Gerber says. "Given what we (O.D.s) charge and make per patient, you're most likely not going to get a good return on investment (ROI) if your practice is located in such a place."

Solve The Mystery With Mystery Shoppers
One effective way to measure the success of your internal marketing: Use mystery shoppers, says Mr. Weber. "The job of the mystery shopper is to do a critical analysis of your practice and to submit a formal report based on, but not limited to, a list of issues you'd like assessed," he explains. "So for instance, 'did the inside of the practice meet his expectations in terms of your advertised service; was staff courteous and attentive on the phone and at the reception and check-out desks; were you, the practitioner, attentive during the exam; did the shopper receive clear and adequate information about his vision and the recommended eye-wear, etc."
To obtain a mystery shopper, contact the president of a local service club, and let him know you'd like to have one of his members visit your office, anonymously, as a new patient and that you'll reimburse this person for the exam cost, charge only the acquisition cost, should this person decide to purchase something from the dispensary, and you'll make a donation to the service club for its help, says Mr. Weber.
"This tactic actually benefits your practice in three ways: "You'll receive input that's less inhibited but more focused than you'd receive from a patient-satisfaction survey, which will enable you to make appropriate changes," he says. "In addition, the mystery shopper may refer his friends and family to your practice if he's enjoyed the visit, and by donating to the service club's community efforts, you'll elevate yourself in the eyes of its membership, which could lead to an increase in patients as well."

Billboard advertising gives you about one to two seconds to make an impression. Your billboards (you'll need multiple for consistency) must support the service or services you provide, says Dr. Gerber.

"Just putting up your logo won't cut it and neither will a lot of copy," he says. "You need a very well-crafted, well thought-out and memorable message that causes the prospective patient to contact you. Because writing good copy and designing content for billboards is very difficult, you should leave it up to the pros."

giveaways. Dr. Shaw-McMinn distributes a free calendar and holiday cards every year to the closest 3,000 homes to his practice.

"I find that doing this keeps the practice in front of the prospective patient year-round, and should they need me, they know where to find my contact information."

He also gives out T-shirts, citing them as "walking ads."

Dr. Gerber says giveaways are a good idea if they help your overall marketing mission.

"If you have a pen or refrigerator magnet that said, 'Starbucks,' but you know nothing about the company or it's services and products, you're not going to become a customer," he says. "The Starbucks logo generates an immediate emotional response because you're already familiar with the company. If you show it to someone who's never seen it before — if there is such a person — however, it means nothing."

lectures and seminars. Contact your local chamber of commerce or community center to obtain a list of community clubs and organizations to contact with a letter that ties your optometric service(s) to the club or organization, says Dr. Shaw-McMinn.

"If your area has a local recreation center, for instance, contact its head, and mention you'd like to talk about sports vision and vision therapy at their next meeting," he says.

trunk show. This is an excellent way to show off, in a very low sales-pressure environment, your eyewear products, says Gil Weber, M.B.A., a practice management and managed-care consultant, located in Viera, Fla. Close the clinical side of your practice for a few hours, and open your dispensary to the public.

"You can do a trunk show in one of two ways," he says. "You can plan an event that showcases all frames and lenses designed for certain age groups, such as a back-to-school event, or you can have your head optician talk with one of the company sales representatives about sharing the cost of the expense to showcase their specific product."

To attract patients, place posters in your reception and dispensary areas, and send out a mass e-mail or postcard, all of which include the time and date of the show and what you'll be showcasing, Mr. Weber says.

"Brand building takes time and is germane to the look and content of the particular external marketing, and until a certain trust level is achieved, the ROI is small," says Dr. Gerber. "So, initially, you could spend $2,000 and get $0 back. But if you hang in there, that $2,000 can eventually return $10,000 to $20,000."


It's your job to educate the patient about what's best for him, says Dr. Shaw-McMinn. Do this through the five patient-encounter points:

reception room. Make this an educational room. Give your patients opportunities to learn about your practice and what you may be discussing with them, in terms of treatments and recommendations, during the exam, Dr. Shaw-McMinn says.

"Display counter cards, posters, reprints of articles, videos and anything that's attention-grabbing," he says.

Dr. Shaw-McMinn says that in his practices, his staff provides new patients with information packets that include services and biographical information on each practitioner.

"We customize each packet based on age. So the packet for a baby-boomer would include information about cataracts and age-related macular degeneration, brochures from companies about the latest polarized lenses and anti-reflective coatings and other pertinent information," he explains. "The packet educates and begins the process of instilling trust in your recommendation."

You also want to provide the patient with a medical history form, which contains questions that identify vision problems, Dr. Shaw-McMinn says.

"You can help in ways the patient isn't aware of," he says. "Having specific questions, such as 'do you experience problems with glare,' will make your patients, your staff and yourself aware of other potential problems that you may be able to solve or alleviate."

pre-testing room. The pre-testing room is a place for dialogue, says Dr. Shaw-McMinn.

"Here, your tech, with history form in hand, can begin discussing the history-form answers," he says. "For instance, she can say, 'I see here that in addition to blurry vision, which is the reason for your visit, you've experienced discomfort after using the computer for two or three hours. You know, there are new lens designs that make using the computer much more comfortable. When we're done, the doctor will examine you and see whether these lenses would benefit you.' Then, the tech can give the patient a brochure about the different computer, or variable focus, lenses available."

exam room. Make sure the exam room contains posters on eye disease as well as ophthalmic medications, so the patient continues to learn, Dr. Shaw-McMinn says.

"Once you arrive, continue the educational process by scrutinizing the patient's history form and chart and then talking to him about your findings," he says. "For instance, if during biomicroscopy of a patient older than age 40, you encounter cataract-type changes, explain this finding. He'll appreciate you taking the time to educate him, and doing so will prepare him for your recommendation of sunglasses, which you'll explain can help slow these changes."

Dispensary. Once you explain the best solution, walk the patient to the optician, who should then demonstrate this benefit and explain costs, says Dr. Shaw-McMinn.

"Contrast this step-by-step educational process with a patient who isn't educated and hears 'yeah, you would benefit from this. It's only going to cost you $500.' The educated patient is most likely to say, 'I don't care what it costs. I want this because it's going to be good for me.'"

Patient History Form Answer Choices
To ensure you find out how your patients really heard of you, so you'll know which external marketing tactics have paid off, include the following answer choices on your patient's history form, says Dr. Gerber.
• from a friend
• from a family member
• from a co-worker
• from my insurance company
• from the Internet
• from a radio advertisement
• from a newspaper advertisement
• from a postcard/direct mail piece
• from another doctor (if so, who?)
• other (Please explain.)

Patient check out. Place two business cards in the patient's hand when he's about to leave, and say, "Thank you for coming to see us. If you know of anyone else who needs eyecare services, we'd love to help them," says Mr. Weber.

"This not only lets the patient know that you truly appreciate his patronage, but that you've thought so much of your encounter, that you want to see patients with whom he's associated. This makes a big impact," he says. (See "Solve The Mystery With Mystery Shoppers," page 34.)

To measure the success of all these marketing tips, make sure your patient-history form includes the question: "How did you first here about the practice," says Dr. Gerber.

"'How did you hear about us,' isn't specific enough. For example, we've found that Yellow Pages ads often don't work," he explains. "But some practitioners say 'several of my patients said they heard about us in the phone book.' What we've found is that the patient who's answered this way has insurance plan X, and he's asked a co-worker to recommend an eye doctor, and then the patient looks up that practitioner in the phone book …" (See "Patient History Form Answer Choices," left.)

"Don't become married to a marketing tactic. If it isn't working, you need to know about it, so you can pull the plug on it, and invest in something more effective," Dr. Gerber says. OM

Optometric Management, Issue: August 2007