One thing we can be sure of in 2021 is that the business world is quite different to 2020. But how and what might that mean for your practice?
For the most part, optical businesses and, in particular, optometry practices, are resilient creatures. This has always been known by some, but now should be apparent to everyone. Most optometry practices have pulled through what would have been viewed, two years ago, as a ‘worst-case scenario’ in pretty good shape.
This is encouraging and something to be proud of, but let’s not get complacent lest the Devil ‘farts in our face’ one more time.
The desirability of being an ‘agile’ business has been spoken of, and many businesses have achieved this under the circumstances of COVID
TIME TO TAKE CONTROL
The staff in your business have changed. They went through a pretty difficult time and there have been different responses. More leadership is needed and now is an excellent time to review your relationship with your employees and set some new parameters for how they do their jobs and what is required of them. Staff will need to be more adaptable, flexible and engaged, but will also need to know there is a plan and someone in charge. In what has been a very stable and dependable sector of the business world, change can happen quickly when you least expect it. A clear way forward will help your people feel psychologically safe enough to do their best work.
PLAN, PLAN AND PLAN SOME MORE
Planning for the future and contingency always was a vital part of operating a practice, but in case this was not obvious, COVID should have left that lesson in the middle of your desk with a bell ringing. This means actively considering what might be a threat to your practice and how you will respond to that threat. How many times have you heard about the importance of working on your business as well as working in it? Well, now we know why. Sure, you made it through, but this is not over and what’s next?
Some of the best practices had good financial resources that allowed them to at least be comfortable in knowing they could keep going for a while, even without JobKeeper. They had staff who were prepared and knew what needed to be done to keep the practice afloat. If at any time you asked yourself “what are we going to do?” you need to think about planning. A contingency plan will minimise business losses, improve confidence, and help you get back to where you need to be quickly.
COMPETITION IS ON
Competition has not changed. If anything, it has escalated as corporate and larger businesses try to recover lost revenues and profits. Many independent and smaller practices have come back nicely from COVID with stronger revenues and more patients, but the race is on for market share and having an active program of engagement with the market for your practice is not an option. Work actively and constantly on your marketing and communications.
PATIENTS ARE NOT THE SAME
Your patients have changed. When the government forced several retailers to shut down, consumers adapted to digital shopping faster than a new strain of COVID. For many people, online shopping became their primary method of receiving goods.
In a normal business climate, with oneday or two-day shipping returns, this will become the default purchasing method, shaping consumers’ expectations of all businesses. When someone reaches your website, they expect service and attention – you do have a website and social media pages… right? You will need to be more responsive and proactive to meet the needs of digital shoppers and browsers.
It’s possible that the buying behaviour of patients has also changed. There has always been a strong element of trust in medical purchases generally, and in optical particularly. In times of uncertainty, consumers become more conservative and more focused on quality and value for money. This is an opportunity for some practices to restate their position and emphasise their low-risk, quality driven, value for money proposition.
There is also the practical aspect of how to physically access services while minimising exposure to large numbers of people. The preference for how, when and where patients get to see an optometrist might have changed. What might this mean for you?
LOCAL SOURCING MAKES SENSE
Careful strategic decisions need to be made about who we buy from and what we buy.
Consider, for example, off-shore manufacturing, which has been a big thing for many companies. Sourcing products direct from China and other places might be a good idea if nothing goes wrong but… sometimes the best option is not always the cheapest option. Right now, the threat to international trade is clear and present. According to a USA survey of 878 North American manufacturers, 64% reported they were likely to bring production and sourcing back to North America.1
Are your suppliers stable and able to support you? If their business is fragile, so is yours. There is already a trend for smaller suppliers to fold or be absorbed by larger companies, which is limiting supply options. COVID has made the existing businesses more susceptible to change and competition. We need diversity in the supply chain and a variety of products and suppliers – supporting the local and smaller suppliers is in everyone’s interest. Naturally there are many benefits on many levels for sourcing locally.
Support from suppliers in these complicated times is even more important. It is essential that all parts of the supply chain draw a direct line to the end customer, the patient, and ensure that they work cooperatively and carefully with the front end of the chain. More than ever, patients will be focused on knowledge and value.
DATA IS YOUR GUIDING LIGHT
We know that the landscape can and will change quickly and if the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that data is one of our most valuable tools. So, keep on top of your practice information. Ideally, the data you work with should be as close as possible to real-time so you can identify problems and changes, make decisions and forecast. Most optical providers have access to a very good range of data and monitoring this, understanding what it means and responding to change is now essential.
PLAN TO BE AGILE
The desirability of being an ‘agile’ business has been spoken of, and many businesses have achieved this under the circumstances of COVID. But planning is also required. Potentially contradictory, but not necessarily so, we need to accommodate both of these attributes in our practices. The main points of this article have always been important. The most successful practices know this and have done it. Some got by without, but you can’t afford to any more.
Mark Overton is the CEO of Ideology Consulting. Mr Overton has science and business qualifications and, for over 30 years, has consulted to or worked with clients that include optometry practices, major public hospitals, federal government, medical research institutions, and professional associations. Mr Overton lectures at Flinders University and Queensland University of Technology.
1. www.supplychaindive.com/news/manufacturingreshoring- pandemic-thomas/577971/