New practice launch calls for applying vision, strategy, tactics

February 1, 2010

For many optometrists, operating a practice cold is a frightening thought. Still, being their own boss is too exciting to ignore.

When Nicholas Belill, OD, opened the doors to his new optometry practice 4 years ago, he wondered if it would survive. Belill Eye Care was located in Clio, MI, a suburb of Flint, which was hit hard by the auto industry's financial troubles.

He had zero customers. Zero staff. Zero income. Dr. Belill questioned his choice to go solo.

As it turned out, he made all the right moves. The practice now supports four full time staff and earned $600,000 in gross sales in 2008.

Taking the plunge

For many optometrists, opening a practice cold is a frightening thought. So many things can go wrong, especially from a business perspective.

Still, some ODs become disenchanted working in a commercial environment. The idea of being their own boss or even building a practice from the ground up is simply too enticing to pass up.

Often with limited business knowledge and experience, these novice entrepreneurs blindly forge ahead, soon realizing they're in over their head and need a professional consultant to develop perfect business vision.

Dr. Belill readily admits that he wasn't aware of the hundreds of details that needed to be addressed.

"I had no idea about the logistics, finances, legalities, setting policies, staff personalities, fees, picking frame lines to carry, on and on," he said.

Dr. Belill once thought his practice would reach a level where it could be on autopilot.

"After 6 months, I realized that was never going to be achieved," he admitted. "I needed to accept the fact that there were always going to be new things springing out of left field, situations that you never think of, anywhere from how to handle somebody quitting to a patient who's trying to reverse her credit card charges against you."

Learning curve

Although the best consultant in the world may be hired, a practice's success is directly related to implementation, said Richard S. Kattouf, OD, DOS, owner of Kattouf Consulting Services in Bonita Springs, FL. By not following through on the consultant's advice, optometrists won't get the full bang for their buck.

As an example, he points to volume techniques. Dr. Kattouf taught Dr. Belill an internal marketing technique called intra-office recall, which persuades patients who receive eye exams to schedule a visit for a family member for the same exam before leaving the office.

Dr. Kattouf explained that most patients know nothing about preventive eye-health care, which he refers to as the "empty-cup syndrome." He said optometrists have an obligation to educate, motivate, and enthuse patients about taking better care of their eyes. He said that every time patients sit in the exam chair, optometrists need to explain what they're doing, why they're doing it and, equally important, why the procedure needs to be performed annually.

"You're filling their cup by educating them about preventive eye-health care," Dr. Kattouf said. "If you can convince them that they need it, wouldn't they want that for their loved ones?"

While ophthalmologists excel at this technique, which is also called, "using the power of the doctor," optometrists fall short, he said. Many ODs are uncomfortable being bold or aggressive or creating opportunities that boost patient confidence in them.

Dr. Kattouf drafts a script for them to practice that reads something like this: "Mary, I'm looking at your family record and notice that your children have never been examined in our office. Before you leave today, it's very important that you make an appointment for them for the same reasons why you must be evaluated every year."

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