It’s all about the experience
Optometrists-come-practice-owners Conor Heaney and Anthony Clarke talk to OT about building their businesses
When it comes to exceeding patients’ expectations in practice, for optometrist and practice director Conor Heaney, it is all about an experience that starts for the customer before they even walk through the practice door.
Mr Heaney (pictured above) first entered practice ownership in 2005 when he jointly opened Seen Opticians in Manchester in partnership with fellow optometrist Tareq Moustafa.
It was during this venture that Mr Heaney realised that there was so much to business ownership that he did not know about and was not prepared for.
“[Owning a practice] is about much more than just what goes on in the testing room or when you dispense spectacles, and I very quickly realised that,” he told OT.
A clinician by training, he set about building his business knowledge and know-how through a combination of reading, attending events and seminars, going to trade shows and “generally taking an interest in things outside of the realm of optometry,” he explained.
Specifically, Mr Heaney references the importance of learning about customer service, how to lead a team, creating a culture and marketing.
I knew that in order to succeed we had to create a whole experience for the customer that began before they walked through the door
Building a business
Today, Mr Heaney owns Jones and Co. Styling Opticians, an independent practice based in Manchester.
Having opened the practice a decade ago, the businessman shares that the day he realised that the practice was not reaching its full potential was the first day of trading. “I knew that in order to succeed we had to create a whole experience for the customer that begun before they walked through the door,” he said.
Mr Heaney’s aim was to build a high-end practice that offered something different to other opticians on the High Street. Its unique selling point would be its eyewear and dispensing experience. Today its average dispense ranges between £800–£900.
“We are for people who want to look good and feel good in their glasses and we talk about this through our marketing consistently,” he highlighted.
Mr Heaney shared that when embarking on this journey, after investing in himself, he realised that it was equally as important to invest in his practice team. “Your team must understand and buy into the practice’s mission too so they are passionate and able to deliver on the experience that you aim to provide,” he said. “Trying to deliver on an experience is pointless if you are the only one who gets it,” he added.
We decided to take frames off display to eliminate this pain point for our customers and offer them a 45-minute styling consultation instead
For Mr Heaney, developing a successful practice that meets and exceeds patient expectations does not happen overnight and change is constant and gradual.
When asked about the changes he made that helped him towards his goal, Mr Heaney shares the example of taking frames off display as an eventual gamechanger.
“From a customer experience point of view, choosing glasses is difficult and most people hate the process because they don’t know what fits or suits them. Recognising this and how it fits with our philosophy, we decided to take frames off display to eliminate this pain point for our customers and offer them a 45-minute styling consultation instead,” he shared.
The consultation is designed to allow the dispensing optician to learn about the customer at a casual pace after which they handpick a small selection of frames for the customer to try based on their lifestyle, prescription and style.
Mr Heaney admits that the change was not an overnight success and initially people would question why there were no frames on display, but he persevered. “People would also get nervous about having a consultation and we had to figure that out, but we stuck with it and now our average dispense rate is very high and clients regularly give us five-star ratings,” he said.
When asked if there was a pivotal moment when he felt that things begun to change, Mr Heaney admits: “It was probably a chaotic process. There is a saying that success is cooked up in a messy kitchen and you have to try lots of stuff to see what works.”
For Mr Heaney, the measure of success came through the practice turnover, which has increased consistently over the last decade.
Happy to share his experiences with like-minded independents to help them succeed in practice too, Mr Heaney established the Optical Success Academy (OSA), an organisation that provides coaching and training on all aspects of running an optical business.
Optometrist and Clarke & Roskrow Styling Opticians practice owner, Anthony Clarke, is a member of the OSA and advocates the support that it provides him and his business.
Mr Clarke became a practice owner in May 2014 when he took over what was then K&G Roskrow Opticians in Market Harborough.
Describing the practice that he purchased six years ago, Mr Clarke said: “It was a long-established practice that had been in the town for 40 years. It was a second-generation family practice; it was quite old school and was on a downward spiral.”
Seeing the potential, Mr Clarke took the leap and made the purchase because in his mind he knew the type of opticians that he wanted to create: a mid- to high-end business that offered clients a unique eyewear experience that was different to what was available at other opticians in the area.
“We knew that there was a gap in the market for an optician in the town that could offer something unique and something special,” he shared.
However, the optometrist realised that he did not know how to get there. “I had a clear idea in my mind of what I wanted the final goal of the practice to be, but it quickly dawned on me that my clinical skills alone would not be enough and I didn’t know how to get there,” he said.
The practice is designed to be engaging and the time spent in the practice is enjoyable – everything is done at a much slower pace
Mr Clarke wanted customer service to be the bedrock of what the practice offered its customers, while unique and quality eyewear that could not be found anywhere else was also key.
With support from the OSA, Mr Clarke was able to hone his ideas, build his business knowledge and in 2017 the practice embarked on a seven-month transformation, reopening across all three floors of the building.
“You wouldn’t recognise us as an opticians,” Mr Clarke shared.
During the transformation, Mr Clarke decided to house eyewear on the second floor of the practice meaning that it is not immediately visible to passers-by. “The biggest compliment that we have been paid is that we look more like a boutique hotel than an optician,” he said.
“Differentiating ourselves and showing our clients that we are different was the goal,” he added.
Since the practice refit, Mr Clarke has spent time educating his clients about the practice and its ethos which is about making eyewear attractive, appealing and aspirational, and business has since blossomed.
When discussing how the practice is exceeding patient expectations, he shared: “I think it boils down to taking a genuine interest in the client who is sitting in front of us. The practice is designed to be engaging and the time spent in the practice is enjoyable – everything is done at a much slower pace.”
“We’re engaging with our clients on a level that they have probably never experienced before and providing a personalised shopping experience,” he closed.