Article Date: 11/1/2000

As we've all experienced, revenues in an optometric practice usually slow in this month and in December -- in some cases, dramatically. During this time of year, consumers spend a large portion of their disposable income on gifts and holiday activities, leaving little left over for what they may perceive as optional care, such as eye exams.

However, strategies exist for keeping busy and preventing the slow periods from hurting your practice.

Protection

If a slow period is common in your practice, then it's important to take some steps to protect your cash flow. One thing you need to do is keep a tight rein on buying new inventory these last two months of the year. You should also arrange flexible expenses, such as insurance premiums, annual and semi-annual note payments and staff bonuses so that they don't fall in December.

Another clever cash management trick for doctors who rent is to write your lease so that you skip the month of December. Yes, you'll pay a little bit more in the other months, but you won't be quite so tight at the end of the year.

It's also important to lower your marketing budget in December. Most people aren't in the mood to spend discretionary income on eye exams and eyewear. While it may tempt you to advertise more during a slow period, most experts advise that you don't spend a lot on marketing when your best prospects aren't buying.

However, you can build volume by target marketing to your established patients during the holiday months. My traditional non-advertising practice had a very successful holiday promotion. We offered a special "thank you for your business" holiday coupon that gave established patients $25 off the purchase of glasses or new contact lens fits from Dec. 15 to Jan. 15.

We promoted the special by mailing a coupon to our patient mailing list on Dec. 1. It was something we did over the course of several years, and it drew a bigger and bigger response each year.

Filling your schedule

Don't forget to recall college students around holiday time. Consider sending a reminder notice to their parents so they'll know to schedule their children for appointments when they're home for Christmas break.

December is also a good time to schedule "discretionary" visits for patients. If you follow patients for ocular disease or contact lens wear once or twice a year, try to work one of those visits into normally slow times, such as December.

Perhaps the best practice building idea I ever implemented didn't get patients in during the holiday season at all. I used this down time to have my staff pull the file of every patient we hadn't seen within the last 2 years.

We created a list of these patients and mailed them a "past due for your eye appointment" card during the first week in January. We kept track and called everyone who didn't respond within 30 days. Responses will vary widely, but this little exercise has helped us to get our year off to a good start many times.

Time off

Of course, December is also a great time for you and your staff to schedule vacations and personal leave. You may even want to get in the holiday spirit by treating your staff and their spouses to a little dinner party and handing out awards or giving special recognition.

Do all you can to stay busy, but in the end you may want to just accept the fact that being slower in November and December is a normal part of the eyecare business cycle. You can only do so much about it. Just reflect on the positive things that happened during 2000, and keep your spirits up. Busier times are coming.

Dr. Hayes is director of the Center for Practice Excellence. You can direct practice finance questions to him by fax at (904) 273- 1224, or by e-mail at askjerry@e-dr. com.



Optometric Management, Issue: November 2000