Article Date: 11/1/2000

Have you ever wanted to try your hand at consulting but weren't sure how to cross the threshold into this area?

The conventional wisdom held by many optometrists is that consulting is limited to the sports jocks, large optometric practitioners and contact lens researchers.

Not necessarily. Indeed, those O.D.s are prime candidates to receive consulting offers. But hundreds of "ordinary mainstream" optometrists consult.

Here, I'll discuss how you can get started consulting, and who can benefit from your expertise.

Consulting opportunities

Unlike when I started consulting more than 30 years ago, opportunities abound today. Here are just a few of them:

         Expert witness. Legal cases provide a unique form of consulting. This work involves giving depositions on behalf of a client, reading depositions from the opposing side, advising the defendant's or plaintiff's lawyers on strategies and facts, and, of course, appearing at trials. In our litigious society, occasions to be expert witnesses are frequent. Most of the O.D.s I spoke with began working with clients they had a personal relationship with. If you're in a large, urban area a letter to law firms expressing an interest in consulting is helpful. Attorneys keep those letters on file.

         Industry consultant on a project basis.A number of companies outside the optical industry may not think they need your expertise, but they could benefit from it.

o       Firms that require employees to work in hazardous situations need a consultant to advise them on safety eyewear.

o       Businesses that compel staff to use computers most of the day need a consultant to give advice on lighting, glare, ergonomics and vision.

o       Firms that require employees to do close vision tasks or just want to increase efficiency need a consultant.

         Industry consultant on a retainer basis. Many of the businesses listed above might want a consultant on a retainer basis -- someone who's paid an annual stipend and is on call for advice. This differs from an employed status and is common these days, particularly with contact lens and laser vision correction firms. Retained industry consultants are generally private contractors. Jerry Legerton, O.D., of Campbell, Calif., who retired from practice to do full-time consulting in the ophthalmic market, says that "the experienced doctor of optometry can become a highly regarded consultant to the ophthalmic industry in the areas of strategic planning, marketing, clinical research and product development."

         Athletic team advisor. While the number of professional teams is limited, the number of nonprofessional athletic teams that need optometric advice is infinite. That advice runs the gamut from routine vision testing for student athletes to vision therapy to improve athletic skills. School systems and other groups would benefit from optometric advisors.

         Practice selling/buying consultant. Most O.D.s and M.D.s are as uncomfortable buying or selling practices as they are working on the business of running practices. How to set a realistic value on a practice, how to structure a financial package for sale or purchase, and how to negotiate a fair and equitable deal are three areas just crying out for expert consultation.
Major credentials to be a consultant here: Understand optometric practice economics and know how to put them to work.

         Practice evaluation consultant. An optometric practice needn't be up for sale to be evaluated. Business-minded O.D.s have their practices evaluated regularly if for no other reason than to advise their spouses what the true practice value is in case of death.
If more optometrists were aware of the many consultants available who can, and will, take their practice data and appraise them, they'd willingly invest in this service.

         Practice operation consultant. One step beyond practice evaluation is the advice so desperately needed by optometrists and other professionals on how to run practices efficiently, effectively and economically.

Promoting yourself

Some consultant jobs materialize"out of the blue." A local lawyer thinks you have a good reputation, so she asks for your advice in a litigation case. A high school athletic director reads an article on sports vision and asks you, his eye doctor, for help. A colleague wants to improve his bottom line.

These calls are unfortunately few and far between. To increase these opportunities, you can't be bashful. Visit industries in your locale. Prepare a short, well-phrased letter addressing the value of good vision and good binocular function on the job, being as specific as possible to the company. Include with the letter a brochure on the subject. Getting the proper person to whom the letter should be addressed is a key point -- it's always better to name a person than a position.

Call and invite the plant manager or CEO to lunch and explain the value he'll add to his company with a good vision program. Arm yourself with data and materials -- and be sure to leave something that he can read at his leisure. Finally, follow up every visit with a letter.

Making yourself better known will also help your consulting business. Dick Kattouf, O.D., of Warren, Ohio, says that optometrists and ophthalmologists have discovered his consulting services "through his lecturing, writing and client referrals -- not advertising."

Publishing articles or lecturing about clinical or practice management subjects will also boost your consulting business. People respect those who can write or lecture intelligently on business or clinical subjects.

Making yourself "an expert" in certain areas also helps. For example, you could focus on ergonomics in the workplace, vision training for ball players or vision safety in industrial plants. Put items on these subjects in your office newsletters frequently, always ending with the statement "our office is available to consult on these matters."

Charging for your services

Want to know what to charge clients when you consult? Pick a number. But pick one that has some logic to it.

Figure out what you'd normally make working in your own offices. According to the latest data from the American Optometric Association (AOA), the average per hour overhead cost for an optometric office is more than $60 per doctor. So every hour you're out of your office you have to generate $60 just to pay the overhead. The hourly income for an O.D., again using AOA median figures, is between $45 and $50.

In light of the above, the minimum rate you'll need to charge just to break even is $100 per hour. However, is this a fair amount for the time and knowledge you'll need for the specialized work and advice required for your consultancy? Absolutely not. So you'll need to add an amount above the $100.

Dr. Legerton tells O.D.s who are seeking consultants that "you should be pleased with paying the same daily or hourly rate you pay your valued attorney or accountant for business advice."

And when you're figuring your fees, remember there's a great deal of difference between a consultancy and working as an expert witness. Often the fees for expert witnessing are higher. The last time I was an expert witness (3 years ago), I charged $300 an hour for advice; $150 hour for reading depositions; and $1,500 plus expenses for a day out of the office giving a deposition and the like. That was probably cheap.

Paul Farkas, a retired O.D. now living in Florida, told me that he charged $1,500 as an expert witness that took him out of the office for a day. And that was in 1989! A fee of $2,000 per day is probably a fair fee for an expert witness today.

For more general consulting -- to local industry and to other professionals -- the fee might properly be a little less, say $1,500 a day (for 6 hours) plus expenses. Broken down, it shouldn't be less than $250 per hour. If the price tag isn't sufficient to do a good job, the incentive to do a good job won't be there. And doing a good job requires more than giving opinions off the top of your head.

Treat it like a business

O.D.s who've consulted find that a great many "freeloaders" exist. They're your colleagues who want you to "do a favor," or an investment firm that requests data on a product and your experiences with it. And, of course, there are the focus groups that treat you to an evening of conversation and sandwiches with a "thank you" and a $100 check. If you're in the consulting "business," treat it as such and, like any other business, there are financial rules to create and obey.

The biggest potential for consulting is with O.D.s and ophthalmologists who are looking to buy optometric practices or add dispensaries. History has shown that O.D.s are "more comfortable" paying fees to non-O.D. management experts than they are to O.D.s who offer similar services. Don't let this upset you; just recognize it as being true.

Over the years, I've had the good fortune to consult in many of the areas listed above. And so have many of my optometric colleagues. In each instance the fees varied, often considerably.

Are you right for the job?

Now that you know the basics, realize that consulting is a lot more than just giving advice.

"Just because someone has an optometric degree and a busy practice doesn't necessarily mean he'll be a good consultant," notes Brad Williams, who heads the Williams Consulting Group, Topeka, Kan. "A consultant is more like a practice partner, interested not in just teaching you something but in helping bring it to fruition."

Harriett Stein of Baltimore, Md., a well-respected consultant to O.D.s, says there "must be a level of trust and honesty for the consulting to be successful." She feels that a successful consultant must be a person who the client feels comfortable with, "someone who doesn't intimidate, someone with whom a client can discuss her fears and dreams." Good advice.

How I Began Consulting

It seems like yesterday that I got the phone call from Bill Cameron of Titmus Optical Co. Yet, it was more than 30 years ago. Mr. Cameron had just been retained by Titmus to market a new French ophthalmic lens, called Varilux. One of his first assignments was to line up some consultants. Our phone conversation went something like this:

BILL: "Dr. Bennett, I work for Titmus Optical in Petersburg, Va., and we're introducing the new Varilux lenses in the United States. I understand you're familiar with this product. Would you be interested in consulting with us on their marketing?"

ME: "Well, I hadn't thought much about it, but I guess I would."

BILL: "How much do you charge for consulting?"

ME: "$50 per hour." (Keep in mind I'd never consulted with anyone before, and at that time there were very few O.D.s who did any consulting with the optical industry.)

BILL: "$15?"

ME: "No, $50 -- a five and an O."

BILL: "Gee, I just talked with Dr. (name withheld) from The Ohio State University and he agreed to consult for $15 per hour."

ME: "Bill, you have to understand, that doctor is a Ph.D. and I'm an O.D."

BILL: "Oh. (Pause) I'll have to get back to you."

Bill Cameron did get back to me and, yes, he did hire me as a consultant. That was in 1965. Considering inflation, the $50 that I was paid would be $200 today. Not bad.

-- Irving Bennett, O.D., F.A.A.O.

Consulting to Grow Your Practice

Sometimes consulting for free can help build your practice. It's "not really free," says Jack Runninger, O.D., of Rome, Ga., who's advised many an athletic coach on vision matters.

"When you consider the public relations you may get from consulting with a local high school sports team as a community service," Dr. Runninger notes, "it's a no-brainer."

In cases like this, he suggests, it's important to let the coaches know that your consulting fee is normally $200 per hour, but for the community's sake you want to donate your service.

Robert Koetting, O.D., of St. Louis, Mo., says that "during my years in practice, I was far less concerned about individual fees than about raising my profile in the ophthalmic community." He felt that companies and individuals wishing to engage a consultant are likely to ask peers for recommendations.

Dr. Bennett is the founder of the Irving Bennett Business and Practice Management Center at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry in Elkins Park, Pa. He frequently writes and lectures on practice management topics.

Optometric Management, Issue: November 2000