I received a question recently from an OD about how to manage an optician employee who is not doing very well with optical sales. This optician does an excellent job in other respects: she is reliable, hard-working, loyal and has strong technical knowledge about optical products. The employee is very well paid and the OD/owner has provided her with numerous courses and books on sales in an effort to improve her sales ability, to no avail. The office manager has met with the optician numerus times on this topic.
The first reaction by many ODs when faced with an employee who is not very good at selling is to structure an incentive or bonus program. The reasoning makes sense on the surface: if you reward a person with enough money, surely they will sell more. But relying on bonus programs to take the place of good staff management and training won’t yield the best results. A bonus program could be helpful, but my first response is to ask about the one-on-one discussions the OD has had with the employee.
I’m amazed at how many times I speak with ODs who are unhappy about some aspect of an employee’s job performance, only to find out that they have really not talked to the staff member about it. Maybe some practice owners are not comfortable with confrontation or maybe they don’t know what to say, but communication with employees is the key to building a better staff. Here are a few points on how to meet with staff members with the goal of getting them to improve.
Have the meeting in private. Job performance reviews are personal and could be embarrassing, so ask the employee to step into a private room and close the door. It is fine to have a manager in the meeting also, but that is not mandatory and you also want to avoid the perception of ganging up on the staff member.
Telling the whole staff that some aspect of the practice needs improvement is not as effective as telling the main person who has an issue with it. It is fine to talk with all staff at some meetings, but when an issue is really with one person, set up a private chat.
Start the first chat very carefully. Ask questions at first: how is the employee doing? Be prepared to hear another side of the situation and give the employee a chance to speak early. There are always two sides to every story and it is best to listen first.
Staff members are quite sensitive to criticism. Mention some of the positive traits of the employee first. Project an attitude of caring and patience as you explain the factor that needs some work
Try to have some general data to back up your criticism. If this optician’s sales are not good, how do you know? Do you track sales for all employees? Is it based on sales from the prior year?
Keep some notes of your discussion in a file with dates. The employee does not need to sign your notes or even be aware of them, but you can’t rely on your memory and you need a record.
At some point, you have to tell the employee what the problem is. This may seem basic, but you can’t dance around the issue and never get it out in the open. Also, be sure to let the employee know that this is an important part of his/her job.
Read on about how much of this to delegate to a manager.
I view office managers as a boss and one of their key duties is to train staff, so it is fine for office managers to hold the chat with the employee. It may even be preferable to the OD doing it. This is especially true when the talks are working and progress is being made. But if an issue with an employee becomes serious, I think the OD/owner should dig deeper and get involved.
In some ways, when an employee underperforms, the manager is implicated too. It may be partly the manager’s fault, or maybe not, but I would be wondering and looking into it. It may be appropriate to retrain the manager at the same time you are working with the problem employee. In this way, the manager may be able to handle it next time.
Be an expert yourself
Providing outside resources like courses and books are fine, but I also believe it is my responsibility to simplify things and just tell the employee how to improve. It is up to me to be an expert first. It is up to me (and the manager I delegate to) to train the staff.
In this case about anemic sales, I would reflect on the key elements of selling. I would read a book myself if I needed help on a topic and then I would boil it down to become our system. I would not tell an employee they need to improve their selling techniques; I would tell them how I want them to improve their selling techniques. Then we can supervise the employee’s efforts and provide feedback.
As part of my preparation for an important meeting and to train the optician the best way possible, I would listen (covertly) to him or her doing a frame selection with a patient. What does he say and do? What would I do differently?
For example: How to improve sales
So, how do we sell glasses? We sell by asking questions. That would be a key factor I would look for when I observe the employee.
If we ask questions about the patient's life, we will sell more glasses and more premium products. Many opticians do not ask questions at all, but they simply start telling the patient what their options are and why some products are good. Telling is not selling. Here are some examples of questions to ask:
How do you use your eyes at work?
Do you participate in any outdoor activities? Tell me about them.
Do you have any hobbies or a secondary career?
Do you use a computer, iPad or smartphone?
(For multifocal patients) Do you watch TV? How do you sit?
Another factor to observe: Is the employee rushed (often needs to get to other patients/walk-ins) and does not have time to bring up the idea of a second or third pair of glasses? Does she always bring up the idea and recommend a second pair when you listen to her? Once you know the reason why sales are poor, you can find the remedy. If an optician is too busy to sell multiple pairs, you need another optician.