Article Date: 9/1/2002

Dispensing Tactics
Using All of the Tools in Your Dispensary
Build and maintain a successful dispensary with four simple tools you already have.
BY RENE SOLTIS, Whitehall, Pa.

You'll find the key to ensuring patient satisfaction right in your dispensary toolbox. I'm not referring to a shiny set of state-of-the-art screwdrivers, pliers and hand drills. The critical tools necessary to building and maintaining a successful dispensary are:

Every dispenser must acquire and nurture these skill sets and use the appropriate bells-and-whistles technology to provide each patient with the information he needs to have a positive experience when purchasing eyewear from you.

ILLUSTRATION BY LAEL HENDERSON

The most important tool

You're the most important tool in this equation. With patients being inundated with so many options in both eyecare services and products, it's critical that their personal interaction with you be unique, informative and valued. In this age of technology, the choices are numerous, confusing and complicated.

To build the ultimate patient/ dispenser relationship, you need to start with a solid foundation. The first tool to reach for is excellent communication skills.

COMMUNICATION

Most dispensers are familiar with the term "lifestyle dispensing." Simply put, it means matching eyewear solutions to a patient's needs. It sounds easy enough, but the disturbing truth is that dispensers either don't do it at all or they make it so complicated that it takes too long and the patient loses interest and feels scammed into spending a lot of money.

Asking the appropriate questions to obtain the information you need to introduce eyewear solutions is a critical component of effective communication. If you have a lifestyle form, make sure it's up to date and reflects the products you have available (glare and sun protection, computer or reading glasses, etc.). Then, use it! If you don't have a lifestyle form, consider creating one or designing a few verbal questions to ask every patient to help you determine their needs.

The two things you need to know about every patient are:

1. How they use their eyes for work and for recreation.

2. How they feel about their current eyewear.

This information opens the door to patient/dispenser dialogue. Just keep in mind that communication is a two-way street. One half is sending a message and the other half is receiving a message. Pay attention to what your patient's needs and desires are and create custom solutions by recommending the appropriate products.

Additional methods to communicate with current or potential patients include: newsletters, e-mail, new product/service information during on-hold messages, advertisements, and community outreach activities such as offering your expertise and getting your message out through the local TV network or in newspapers.

Once you've tuned your patient communication skills to perfection, you need to analyze your patient education methods.

EDUCATION

In what ways do you provide specific product information? Are you using your waiting room, contact lens fitting area and other patient spaces to their full potential to educate and introduce products to patients? Do you fill the reception area with 2-year-old magazines, or do you showcase brochures on the latest lens and frame technology and eyewear fashion trends? The reception or waiting room is a perfect spot for planting the seed of curiosity and providing your patients with useable information on eye health and eyewear.

These areas should provide both product-specific and general-knowledge materials. The Optical Laboratories Association (OLA) has an excellent generic product "lens menu" that explains the various lens styles to patients. The Vision Council of America has a series of top-quality eyehealth brochures on a variety of topics as well as a sight- saver test. These materials are part of the "Check Yearly, See Clearly" campaign designed to raise vision health awareness. As with the material from the OLA, all "Check Yearly" materials are product generic in nature.

An alternative method to printed materials are VCR topical video loops or -- the latest -- a series of CD ROMs geared to specific areas of interest for your patient that you can run on any monitor. Work closely with your manufacturers, labs and optical organizations to gather a wide variety of materials and resources to meet your patient education needs and to showcase your product offerings.

Two points of caution: Less is more! Be tasteful in organizing your patient education materials. An overabundance of counter cards, posters and point-of-purchase items confuse your patients and give your waiting room that cheesy service station atmosphere.

Second point of caution: Read, watch and understand all information before you place it in your patients' hands. Nothing undermines the patients' trust in you more than your unfamiliarity with a product you're promoting.

Now that you've laid the foundation with communication and built a strong framework of information, it's time for the demonstration phase of constructing eyewear solutions.

DEMONSTRATION

When building a house, your contractor doesn't just let you know that you have a choice of three different grades of carpet and padding. He gives you samples and discusses the features of each and lets you touch, feel and see the differences for yourself.

Seeing is believing and is quicker to earn patient buy-in than a savvy verbal sales pitch. Most manufacturers have materials available to demonstrate the features, benefits and value of their products.

By placing lens centers strategically in your dispensary, you can effectively manage all of the new designs, materials and enhancements available. Be sure to include demos for new materials, specialty lenses, AR coatings, cosmetic tints, polarized lenses, progressives, variable tints and more. Also effective are frame demos that showcase features such as flexibility, durability, comfort and functionality. Craft a script for each product that describes the features and lets the patients understand what's in it for them.

Most patients are terrified of how they'll look in their new eyewear. Consider using video imaging cameras. Some have software designed to retain a patient's prescription and face shape, then select appropriate frame styles based on patient/dispenser input. These cameras have become the "wow" technology in dispensaries today. A lot of people have a tough time seeing what they look like while trying on eyewear, so this piece of equipment will likely get the most oh's and ah's from patients.

Some dispensers use a digital camera and desktop computer terminal to capture and review images. This is one way to help people see what they look like in different frames, but it doesn't offer the software to analyze and compare selections.

Using computers in your dispensary not only impresses your patients, but it helps you manage your dispensary as well. Accessing patient information and product availability on the computer is much more time efficient then placing a call to your vendors to check sizes and colors.

Product demonstrations are quite effective in helping a patient understand the value of her purchase. Just make sure to highlight the benefits during your demonstrations by stating how the specific product or its options will benefit her.

Now that we've explored how to communicate, educate and demonstrate the value of various eyewear solutions using your toolbox of skills and some tangible patient pleasers, let's take a look at your role.

RECOMMENDATION

The final phase of our project is to ensure a well-informed, satisfied consumer of our products. We want our patients to leave our dispensary feeling like they know what they got and why they got it as well as understanding the value of their purchase.

To do that we can't just leave them with 10 brochures, three samples, a camera and a wall of frames. We need to make recommendations proactively. All of our patients want and deserve the best. And they want to know that what the "expert" knows will work best for them both visually and cosmetically.

The best way to close a presentation with a patient is to review the dialogue from the top using the personal tools and demonstrations you used throughout the entire interaction. Use key phrases such as, "Based on what you told me, I recommend . . . ." Nobody really cares what you think -- they want to know what you know! State facts such as, "This product will . . . ," not emotions such as, "I think this will work."

When a patient experiences sticker shock, review why you made the recommendation, what the specific benefit is and ask her which features she'd be willing to do without. Make the experience interesting, informative and fun. Your patient should leave feeling that you're the "go-to" destination for their eyecare and eyewear needs.

Maintain your toolbox

People don't buy something if they don't know about it or understand the value of the product. Take stock of your current methods of getting messages about your product and service options to patients. It's an important investment you just can't overlook.

The next time you're wondering, "Where have all my patients gone?" you may want to evaluate whether your dispensing tools have become dull and out of date. If so, it's time to sharpen the saw -- attend an educational conference, read trade journals, check out new technology at trade shows and mirror other successful retailers. The bottom line is: Keep your dispensary toolbox well maintained and make changes in it to reflect your patients' needs and desires.

Ms. Soltis is the national training consultant and spokesperson for the Vision Council of America. She is a dispensing optician with more than 27 years of experience and has developed and implemented numerous public education and practice-building programs throughout her career.

 



Optometric Management, Issue: September 2002