Succeeding from a distance

Manufacturers and suppliers for the optical industry have had to switch to supporting practices remotely throughout the pandemic. With analysts suggesting the remote model is here to stay, OT  spoke to companies from across the sector to hear their thoughts

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The lockdown in the UK necessitated a move to virtual communication for many professions, particularly for those in business to business (B2B) sales.

This has accelerated digital trends that experts believe were already gathering steam ahead of the pandemic. Surveying seven sectors in 11 countries, McKinsey & Company found that, by April, almost 90% of sales had moved to a remote model.

Surveys from August, meanwhile, found that digital self-service and remote sales representatives are “likely to be the dominant elements” of interactions going forwards.

B2B interactions within optometry have moved away from the traditional format of face-to-face meetings to remote models, first supporting practices through the lockdown, and continuing as they try to work through the backlog of patients.

The right thing

Like many, contact lens manufacturer Alcon’s sales team have been delivering remote account management, in lieu of in-person visits, since April.

“Initially, it was simply ensuring customers knew we were here for them, and that we were listening to what they needed from their partners,” explained Graham Firth, Alcon’s head of sales.

Now that practices are finding their feet once more, the team have begun shifting back to conversations around products.

“We have enabled a more visual feature via iPads, which allows the customer to see exactly what is on the account manager’s screen, as if they were there in person,” Mr Firth explains.

Operating remotely has had its benefits for the team, being time and cost-effective, as well as more environmentally friendly. Customers have also been more proactive in reaching out to the team, realising that operating remotely means the account manager can be more accessible.

The team has not yet seen a strong demand for in-person sales, Mr Firth said: “There have been a few questions of ‘when are you coming to see me?’ It is nice to know we are welcome.

“But for now, the right thing is to continue our ‘safety-first’ approach for our employees, customers, their staff and patients – and I think our customers appreciate this approach,” he added.

Enhanced flexibility

While some practices are open to re-establishing face-to-face meetings, others have been too busy managing the backlog of appointments – something many of the suppliers noted when speaking to OT – recognising the need for squeezing conversations in before or after a practice is open, or between appointments.

Chief commercial officer for eyewear frames designer and distributor Inspecs, Steve Tulba, explained the sales team has kept “as engaged as possible” whilst being mindful of the varying effects of the pandemic and lockdown on different businesses.

To offer enhanced flexibility in the way their customers can be served going forwards, Inspecs has launched a B2B e-commerce platform. Designed with independent practices in mind, the platform enables salespeople to engage with customers remotely.

“What we have tried to do is give options to people, so that regardless of their time and how they wish to approach the procedures of dealing with COVID-19 at a retail level, we’re there to serve them.”

Looking at how sales interactions will be carried out in the future, Mr Tulba suggests there will be an “omni-channel approach.”

He explained: “Customers may want to view collections and order them entirely online, but with a salesperson talking them through, while others may want to do that entirely independently, and others might want to see a salesperson and look at a product face-to-face.”

Getting creative

The need for flexibility in arranging meetings has been a key takeaway for the team at specialist ophthalmic contract sales company, Positive Impact. Managing director, Maxine Green, suggested to OT in the summer that face-to-face meetings would be unlikely to happen “in any big way" in the near future.

Webinars have played a key role. This approach was something that the company already had in place, but that it has found particularly useful for sharing information with customers over the past few months.

With the potential limitations of the traditional format of inviting practitioners and speakers together for a physical demonstration, director of marketing and professional services, Nick Atkins, commented: “We’ve all wondered why we weren’t using these platforms – particularly webinars – a lot more previously.”

The team has also had to take a creative approach to presenting products, as trade shows around the world have been cancelled. The business has instead been creating video versions of the product demonstrations they would typically have given at exhibitions.

“With no trade events we have had to get quite clever to find different ways of getting the message out there,” Ms Green explained.

Working together at every level

Manufacturing operations at eyewear, lens and equipment manufacturer, Rodenstock, remained open on a revised structure and limited range through the pandemic. The company also set up emergency packages, which offered a quick turnaround for customers who remained open for essential services.

With the business now returned to full operations, David Baker, general manager for Rodenstock UK, explained the team has worked on creating and enhancing tools to support remote product engagement. This includes enhancing its platforms for digital discussion and selling, such as an application that displays the company’s ranges, allowing customers to view them in 360 degrees and explore all the product details.

“It’s up to us to give our partners as many options as possible and utilise the opportunities we have to ensure that the recovery is strong and solid,” Mr Baker commented.

Looking ahead, Mr Baker said he believes communication between supplier and customer will take more of a ‘multi-level’ approach.

“The old buyer-and-seller mentality is old fashioned and outdated. What we have to do, as we do with our partners now, is set agreed mutual objectives and then we work together to make those happen,” he explained.

Suppliers now have to work “at every level” with their customers, or partners, Mr Baker suggested, adding: “We support partners with marketing, systems, patient relationships, shop fitting, communications to patients, even diary management.”