Customer service: Are your optometric employees savvy about it?

Running an optical shop requires business skills, which are not taught in optometry school. Training staff on customer service best practices can help increase a loyal customer base and keep current customers faithful. By helping employees learn and apply a few basic skills, the bottom line may never look so good.

Key Points

My last eye exam was almost 2 years ago. My eyeglass frames were so old they could be a museum attraction. So one afternoon, I walked into an optical store for a scheduled eye exam and to purchase new frames that would last another decade.

Although my vision is far from 20/20, so was the store's customer service. No one greeted me. I waited 1 hour for my exam. The assistant manager, who was helping me find frames while I waited, never uttered those magic words, "Thank you" or "I'm sorry." She never smiled. She never made eye contact. And I'll never return.

Lost business opportunities are quite common in any retail setting. But no business can afford to lose customers, especially during a struggling economy. So why do some optical stores flunk at delivering quality customer service?

Training your staff on best practices in customer service can help increase a loyal customer base and keep current customers faithful. Some optometrists believe it's more effective than advertising, yet others ignore its long-term value. But by helping employees learn and apply a few basic skills, your bottom line may never look so good.

Manual of arms

Some optometrists go so far as to quiz their employees. At New York-based Moscot Eyewear and Eyecare, new employees must study a manual that instructs them on how to behave in situations ranging from greeting customers to handling complaints, said Harvey Moscot, OD, an optometrist and president of the 95-year-old family-owned business.

"I quiz them about customer service situations to make sure they're in line with our philosophy," he said. "When I hire new staff, I also look for emotional intelligence. You can teach a person about the technical aspects of an eyeglass frame but you can't teach them to be emotionally receptive to a customer's needs."

Likewise, Dr. Moscot encourages his employees to use a little bit of psychology and lots of empathy. Although patients aren't always right, his employees make them feel as if they are by responding with key phrases such as, "I'm sorry that happened," or "That's terrible that your glasses left those marks on your nose."

Dr. Moscot said these techniques are partially responsible for boosting his customer return rate to more than 80%.

Fixing blunders

From making scheduling mistakes to ordering the wrong-sized frames, most employees commit a customer service faux pas every now and then. But do they know how to correct them?

"You have to teach your staff how to do recovery for service blunders," said Karen Leland, president, Sterling Consulting Group, Sausalito, CA. "Most staff don't know how, are terrible at it, and make it worse."

When mistakes do occur, she advised considering following these steps:

Apologize regardless of who is at fault.An apology isn't an admission of guilt but an acknowledgment of the stress, aggravation, or inconvenience the customer is experiencing.

Fix the problem. Oddly enough, this is the most-overlooked step. An apology is a good start, but if the problem isn't resolved, that customer will shop elsewhere. For example, if a person's eye exam is scheduled for 1 p.m. and it's 1:30, find a way for the patient to see the optometrist within the next 5 minutes or, if that isn't possible, offer to reschedule the exam at a time that's convenient for the patient.

Provide a recovery token. Although the first two steps can score big points, if you really want to hit a home run, offer something of value to the customer. For example, waive the cost of an eye exam, offer a discount on frames, or do something simple such as giving them an upgraded glass case can help make amends.

Just telling employees to be customer-service focused or to smile when working with customers is not enough and is almost useless, said Leland, also author of Customer Service In an Instant: 60 Ways to Win Customers and Keep Them Coming Back.

"You have to empower them with the tools they need to produce excellent customer service," she said. "It's your job as manager or owner to train, coach, and educate them in how to use those tools."

Consistency rules

One of the most difficult parts of delivering excellent customer service is ensuring that all employees treat customers with the same level of respect and professionalism.

To ensure consistency, Emerging Vision Inc., which operates nearly 175 franchised and company-owned Sterling Optical and Sight for Sore Eyes stores, developed 20 "Sterling Service Standards," said Sam Herskowitz, chief marketing officer at Emerging Vision and also president of its franchise division in Garden City, NY.

One standard, for instance, requires employees to be prepared for customers before they walk through the door.

Herskowitz said he believes that optical stores have a distinct advantage over other retailers. Because many customers schedule eye exams, employees know who's coming that day, can review their records for personal information, and can talk to them like old friends. Nothing impresses customers more than when employees remember them or their family, he said.

"If a customer mentions something personal like her son is heading off to college, jot it down in that person's record," Herskowitz said. "So when she returns 2 years later, employees can say, 'How's Mark doing in school?' It's such a simple thing to do and really changes the whole level of service in the store."

Other service standards include treating customers and coworkers with respect and dignity, not allowing personal concerns to affect professional performance, and sending customers thank-you notes within 3 weeks of their store visits.

"Employees have very different personalities," said Herskowitz. "I want my standards and best practices-not their personalities-to represent my brand. The ultimate goal is for everyone to adopt the same behavior."