There was a time in the 1980′s that independent opticians could open their doors, have a full list of customers and knew that a large majority of them would spend money on new products. How times have changed.
With the advent of the web, cut price chains and more money savvy consumers, the independents are having to rapidly change their culture to ensure they are ahead of the game and every team member makes the most of every opportunity.
This sector is generally an old fashioned breed, with practices working out of the back of homes, still closing over lunch, outdated equipment and window displays faded by the sun. Then there is always an exception to the rule.
I first met Barraclough and Stiles after a conference speech I made in 2008. At this speech I played a number of answer phone messages to illustrate businesses have to be alert 24 hours a day. Barraclough’s was one was on the list. Barraclough’s was not the worst – at least they had a personalised message but the tone was lacking. It is attached for you to listen to.
So when the directors (all of which worked in the practice) asked for some help one of the key challenges was to get some enthusiastic tone into the business. With six branches they had been a powerful force in the south east for 45 years….but times were a changing. The key challenges at this stage were….
- How do you get long serving and loyal staff to change to the new climate?
- How do you ask an optician to make sales suggestions to clients, whose eyes they had studied for 25 years and in the majority of times suggested “no change required”?
- How do you get the senior team to work “on” their business and not “in it?”
Well to start with I was lucky. The four directors wanted to change and could see the tide in the sector was changing and they agreed to a series of meetings on a regular basis to make it happen. There have been hundreds of improvements but for me, standing on the outside,here are the big five..
1. Get the Directors to behave like Directors rather than opticians. So we developed a management structure. Jeremy became the MD responsible for HR; Sindi became the Customer Services Director, Tony the Finance Director and Nigel the Product Director. They also decided that they would work less in the practice and focus more on the new roles and over a period of time as new business developed they managed to extract themselves to spend time in HO rather than the consulting room.
2. Renew the brand. Everyone in East Sussex knew Barraclough and Stiles, well that is if you are over 50. So renewing the brand had to appeal to the younger part of society, as well being relevant to their existing loyal customer base. With more social media, branches being updated and staff learning new service techniques the business now really looks the part for the future.
3. Culture change. You must go carefully and slowly with fantastically talented and loyal teams when you want to make sweeping improvements. The introduction of name badges was the first one…..it’s about making team members accountable. Then came the lunch hours…. Let’s stay open! After all this is when the majority of our younger customer group like to come and see us. Performance appraisals then flowed in and proper HR procedures which are consistent and “business focused” followed. They now even have a qualified HR Manager in the business.
4. Visibly Measure Performance. I remember the first time we mystery shopped the branches. There was uproar. We were becoming too like Specsavers! The truth was it challenged the old ways of doing things and while it may have been painful, it is now part of everyday measurement and focuses on every aspect of the business. If it be the phone, after hours, a walk in enquiry about a new service, a full sight test experience, it all had to be measured and if the team do well they get rewarded. But I knew were making big progress when Jeremy the MD stated that he wanted to introduce visible measurement tables on optometrists conversion rates. Fantastic – we now had accountability at the sharp end of the business and the place where the customer trusts us most, in the sight test room, is to become the place where we start to help the customer to buy. Surely this is the future!
5. Financial accountability. In 2008 financial results were slow to be produced and there was no real handle on branch performance. Now figures are produced within two weeks of the month end and real focus and the ability to drill down to new levels is at the Directors’ finger tips.
There is still a lot to do and the challenge of being ahead of the pack is on the Directors’ minds 24 hours a day – as it should be – but as I walk the high streets of Britain it’s not hard to see which independent opticians will survive to 2016 and which will fall by the
Like the legal sector, acquisition and throwing away the keys are going to be the big news in the optical sector. The question is are you up for the challenge of change?
MD Shopper Anonymous UK Ltd