Article Date: 3/1/2003

practice management
Judge Your Practice Through a Patient's Eyes
A new marketing tool gives you objective feedback on your practice.

Poor treatment of telephone inquiries can negate all the efforts -- and expenditures -- to attract and maintain patients. Mishandling even one call per day can lead to large losses in potential revenue. Along with the lost appointment, there is the ripple effect of lost patient referrals.

The challenge

Optometrists are well aware of the need to provide consistent, quality service to their patients, yet today there is less time to train, monitor and update staff in delivering superior care. A tool from the retail industry, the "mystery shopper," could provide the answer.

The mystery shopper can help you improve your booking and optical departments by providing valuable objective feedback. While the program is labeled "mystery shopper," readers should understand that this refers to "mystery patients." The program doesn't advocate retail practices that would be considered inappropriate for eyecare professionals.



Mystery shopping

Some practices evaluate staff through use of return comment cards or recording incoming calls for review. Mystery shopping is another monitoring method that is used by retail, service and government agencies. More than 500 companies in the country offer the service with more than 200,000 independent contractors (or customer service evaluators as they are professionally known) nationwide.

Mystery shopping companies come in all areas of expertise. A potential vendor should be willing to explain how shops work. The best companies have a stable of experienced shoppers who share extensive demographic information with the company. This is important when assignments require specific characteristics such as age, gender or lifestyle.

What doctors need to know

Jason Rivera of JC and Associates, L.L.C., a shopping and marketing company specializing in service groups, says that he feels healthcare practitioners need reports that:

Focusing on phone manners

The doctor should have the opportunity to personalize the shop format. He can decide what is important to discover about his practice. In optometry and other healthcare offices, where making appointments by phone is the key to acquiring business, the telephone shop portion is usually given a high priority. Sample questions are:

Additionally, the shopper should be assigned a scenario to test how the staff answers important queries. Some sample scenarios for optometric offices include such questions as, "My daughter is 14 and wants contact lenses. How much will it cost?" "What about ad XYZ in the paper?" Or "I'm new to the area. How much are the exam and glasses?"

An actual appointment could be made and then cancelled, revealing how well the staff handles those duties.

Your office through new eyes

For the on-site portion of the shop, the prospective patient could "check out" the doctor or office, or in an optometric office, a shopper could appear with a prescription for a visit to the optical. This segment of the evaluation would start with the facility -- both inside and out. It can be extremely revealing to "see" your office through the eyes of your patients. Evaluation of the facilities could include such considerations as the comfort of the waiting room and the cleanliness in general including the rest-room, reception area and hallways.

The on-site section for optometry could be as involved as a complete vision analysis including greeting, pretest and doctor interaction to optical department. In my estimation, the best use of marketing money for most optometrists initially would be a "drop in" visit by the shopper to either investigate the office for a future visit or to have an outside prescription filled. Again the process would continue to include the greeting, the transitions to other staff members and how the optical staff handles its part. A vital aspect of this part would include the staff's presentation of options to the faux shopper.

Comments, please

Mr. Rivera adds that he gives his skilled shoppers a final segment called "overall comments," which is the shopper's impression of the interaction from start to finish. It could include:

Some alternate methods of performing similar evaluations would be for managers of like offices, significantly distant, to visit each other's offices and go through a call and an on-site visit, then exchange results and make suggestions. Another technique used by a vision care group in New Jersey was to have members of a local service club visit their offices and report findings to the manager with compensation in the form of donation to the club. Potential issues with both methods would be the validity and consistency of the research conducted, as well as the ability to maintain anonymity.

Follow a plan

Combining my experience in managing a practice with my knowledge of mystery shopping I feel the following sequence of evaluations would produce the best results for most practices:

The cost for a plan like this can be remarkably economical. According to Mr. Rivera, the industry charges between $55 to $95 dollars per shop, depending on the shop's complexity.

Shopping for a shopper

When selecting a company to conduct your program, keep in mind that the report should contain summary narratives for each report section with an overall area for the shopper to express her impressions. Each section of the report is weighted either equally or using any method the client wants.

Also, numerical comparisons should continue month to month, quarter to quarter and year to year. Finally, completed reports should be available to the doctor within 48 hours. All this, along with guidance and help designing the shop details, should be included in the plan offered by the shop company.

I can say that as a shopper in a large metropolitan region performing shops in many service areas, I have seen over time vast improvements in the quality of service delivered. Staffs seem happier, as are the clients. Healthcare practices are slow to incorporate new marketing tools, but mystery shopping is worthy of your consideration.

At a cost of less than $2,000 per office each year, the doctor can observe his practice through the eyes and ears of his patients, harvesting the rewards of reducing the loss of appointments and sales and a reduction of complaint calls to a health plan administrator, which can help keep the doctor on the plan panel. The ultimate reward, though, is that the doctor can devote more of his time to patient care without major concern about staff activity.

Dr. Goodman is retired from private practice in Vestal, NY. You can contact him at (480) 502- 9749 or at


Optometric Management, Issue: March 2003