As a small business owner, one of the largest challenges we face is finding ways to maximize profitability. We can typically do this in one of two ways — see more patients (increase revenue) or spend less (decrease our cost of goods).
One of the biggest ways independent practices can find success with this is by forgoing large, big brands for their ophthalmic lenses and embracing smaller, independent labs — both for the technology they have in using private label lenses, and to support like-minded small business. However, much of this comes with trepidation. How will my patients feel with different lenses? How does the quality, service, and pricing compare? Is it worth it for me to switch?
What Does Independent Actually Mean?
“Independent” is defined as “free from outside control.” How does this apply to ophthalmic labs? Adam Cherry from Cherry Optical Lab, a family-owned lab focused on making “the world’s best lenses, and the world’s happiest humans (their employees and their customers),” feels this definition has changed.
“An independent lab does not have to fit within the construct of its contracts to set prices and services, and it makes 100% of its business decisions,” Cherry said.
Sarah Collier, who founded Collier Optical Lab with her husband Ben, defines an independent lab as “independent ownership and decision-making, with little to no affiliation with big corporations.”
Taking Your Lens Business Independent
Often, we are comfortable with the “big names.” We see and hear about them in magazines, at trade shows, and have very little exposure to smaller labs.
“Independent labs are usually privately or family owned. Typically, they excel at providing excellent customer service and have an owner at the heart of their business,” Cherry said. “Independent labs and independent eye care professionals share a lot of commonalities in their purpose and mission statement – taking care of patients and providing excellent quality of care.”
Sound familiar? This is how we view our independent private practices: we value the service we provide our patients and put them first.
Collier feels the same. “Independent labs are better able to serve the ECP through a profitable and successful long-term lab partnership. They build this relationship based on trust and quality, not limited choice.”
How Can We Benefit from Partnering with an Independent Lab?
Speaking of choice: one of the biggest hesitations doctors may have about switching from a large, corporate lab to a smaller, independent lab is just that. We get used to having any and every lens available at our fingertips and believe this is the only way we can serve our patients. We may feel that our patients will leave us if we don’t carry or recommend a certain brand and feel pressured to use these in our practices. Are we truly limited with smaller labs?
“Independent labs offer lenses from across many/all lens manufacturers, while a manufacturer-owned lab would, rightfully so, nearly exclusively promote their own brands,” Cherry said.
Many optometrists are finding success using “house brand” lenses, instead of traditional “name brand” lenses that we are used to. They are finding that the lens quality is equal or superior to name brand lenses, the cost is significantly less, patients are happy, and profitability increases.
“Would you rather put a patient in a well-marketed lens, or a well-designed lens?” Collier asked. “That is the difference: marketing versus design. What we call ‘house brand lenses’ are often well ahead in technology, patient satisfaction, and comfort when compared to the major brands — and they are up to 30% less expensive!”
Improving the Patient Experience
We could use the best lenses in the market for our patients, but if the service end falls apart, our success and profitability will tank. Some of the biggest complaints ECPs have with their labs? Turnaround time, remakes, and quality of the finished product.
According to Cherry, independent labs can absolutely compete with larger manufacturers.
“Cherry Optical Lab works tirelessly to maintain and improve turnaround time,” he said. “We know where we want to be, and we are going to continually invest in our people, our customers, and our technologies to be the best we can be.”
Collier echoed a feeling many of us have as independent practitioners: “We don’t have billions of dollars to waste on bad product, poor customer service, and angry clients like corporate labs do, so we get it right the first time!”
Collier also explained that the turnaround time difference can be extreme — with products sometimes coming in weeks faster. “A truly independent lab can’t rely on easy business from insurance and knows that turnaround time impacts the ECPs’ reputations, so we make our lenses faster.”
With independent practices feeling squeezed from corporate and online competition, understanding this value can be a game changer in our practices.
Finding the Right Fit for Your Practice
As independent practitioners, choosing a business partner that enhances our patients’ experience and improves our profitability is of the utmost importance. According to Cherry and Collier, going the independent route with labs can help us achieve both of those things.
“The ECPs that will survive and thrive in the coming years must focus heavily on their private pay base,” Collier said. “Placing your most profitable patients in the hands of a truly independent lab will help practices gain and retain their ideal customers.”
“There needs to be more to the reason to go independent than price for that choice to have real value to your practice,” Cherry said. “Look for better service, quality, support, and value.”
Isn’t this the advice we heed as private practice owners? Don’t compete on price but wow our patients with our commitment to excellence in care and experience. Partnering with companies who understand these values and deliver this to us as customers will help us become more profitable and successful in our practices.