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Differential Advantage – how to make patients choose you


We live in a surplus world where similar businesses sell similar products, from similar locations to similar people, at similar prices, employing similar people of similar academic and social backgrounds. Retail has by and large become boring. Most malls have the same brands and chain stores in them. Trading hours have stretched into all hours of the day and night, seven days per week. Manufacturing has become so sophisticated that we have an oversupply of product globally. There are not enough customers anymore, or so it seems. Optometry reflects a classic model seen against this background. Optometrists with similar qualifications sell from similar premises and have access to exactly the same product such as spectacle lenses, contact lenses, spectacle frames, and sunglasses. To top it all, there is an optometric practice around every corner. It is very difficult to differentiate an optometric practice today but differentiate one must! Let’s look at how the optometrist can attempt to differentiate her offering in the market place.

In order to set the stage for this discussion, a quick review of the basic concepts involved is necessary.

Marketing definition:
It is a dialogue over time, with a group of people, whose needs you understand, and for whom you have established a differential advantage over the product of your competitors.

The Marketing Concept or Marketing Orientation
A marketing-oriented business (also called Consumer Focus) is one that allows the customers’ needs to drive all the business’ strategic decisions. In other words, find out what they want and then offer it to them. To determine customer wants, the company needs to conduct marketing research. One can expect that this process, if done correctly, will provide the practice with a sustainable competitive advantage. At the optometric practice level, huge samples are unnecessary, and the process can be executed with relative ease, using temporary staff to execute the survyes.

Differential advantage:
This means giving your customer a reason to choose you over others. It has a lot to do with being different but more to do with being better. The optometrist needs to make sure that she understands what it is that the customer wants. In short, if she can find something the customer wants but can’t get, she will be in business. This could be something small such as spectacle delivery or domiciliary visits. In days gone by, when one could find a town in South Africa with only one optometrist, the need for him to differentiate was small. Differentiation is hugely affected by the demand and supply equation. As supply begins to exceed demand, it becomes a lot more challenging but also a lot more essential to differentiate your practice. In today’s climate, with four optometrists in one mall, all offering the same service and product, differentiation has indeed become a challenge. In marketing and in life, perceptions mean the difference between success and failure. A common belief in sport is that the home team has the advantage. It is this differential advantage that they use in the locker room to psyche themselves up with and it mostly works! If you and your staff believe that your practice has a differential advantage over your competitors, you will do well.

Where to start

From the above definitions, one can extract the following strategic summary:
Do the research in your catchment area to establish what it is that your potential customer wants from optometry. Study carefully what your opposition has to offer so that you can consider what value you can add. From this information formulate your differential advantage. Force your differential advantage into the minds of the public by consistently branding your unique selling proposition. Your Unique Selling Proposition could be; best service, quickest service, best value, top quality, family orientation, child vision, most advanced equipment and so on.
The key to success is to be very good at something, even if it is something small. Your product or service must be unique or better and must be offered consistently over a period of time, before you earn your stripes. You must own the differential advantage.

Selection is a form of differential advantage

This is how some of the big corporate giants have done it over time:

  • Canon – Advanced Simplicity
  • Nike – Just Do It!
  • MasterCard – There are some things money can’t buy
  • Honda- The Power of Dreams
  • Microsoft – Where Do You Want to Go Today; Your Potential Our Passion
  • HSBC – The World’s Local Bank
  • BMW – The Ultimate Driving Machine

It is important to pursue a clear strategy in order to succeed.
In optometry, there are far too many “middle-of-the- roaders” who do not pursue a clear strategy and generally find it difficult to compete. Being just another open door is not good enough.
There are four main categories of benefits that patients could want from an optometrist and therefore they provide a good basis of working out how you want to differentiate.

1. Quality – it’s not about cost – they want the best
2. Service – a high priority for emotional labour – caring optometrist.
3. Value – the Woolworths version of optometry
4. Economy – the lowest price is all that matters

The challenge – not what, but how.

The reality of trading on price is that anybody can beat a price. Optometrists cannot come up with a unique product since all optometrists have access to the same frames, lenses and contact lenses. Where opportunity lurks is on the human side of things. Clinical expertise is not equal across the profession and neither is the quality of service. The way people are treated has a big impact on the position of the practice – people want to be treated nicely. A practice with a great team in place, who knows how to deliver emotional labour of the highest order, would be very difficult to mimic. Such a culture would be a strong differential advantage. In other words, it is not the kind of service, but the quality of service and clinical delivery that matters. From the optometric perspective, we have to acknowledge that we all have access to the same products, but opportunities do exist to add value to the delivery of the product.

Be truthful and consistent

All too often optometrists will position their practices in a less than truthful way. The consumer is no fool. Don’t make yourself out to be the contact lens expert unless you are regarded as such by your peers. Be very careful to avoid words such as the only this and the only that. If you claim differential advantage and the consumer has difficulty identifying with it, you could cause more harm than good.

The obvious opportunities

The tools to differentiate, listed below, requires little explanation and is used commonly in optometry. Just make sure, if you advertise one-hour service, that you deliver in one hour, to reiterate the point made above.

  • Clinical Specialty
  • Wide Selection of frames
  • Quick serve – on-site laboratory
  • Price
  • State of the art equipment
  • Front door parking
  • Geographical location
  • Shop fitting and merchandising
On-site laboratory
State of the art equipment – Choose the best resolution

More subtle opportunities

The real need
One of the all-time great opportunities to differentiate is to understand and apply the concept of establishing the patient’s “real need” Most of us showcase our pseudo needs because we subliminally fear rejection. To illustrate, John calls his friend whom he wants to invite to a braai on Saturday evening. Invariably the phone call will start with; “Are you guys doing anything on Saturday?” Why not; “Come for a braai on Saturday and bring some meat and beers.” John puts the feelers out first because he fears rejection. Another example – Nancy, the secretary, finds her boss sitting with his feet up in his office. She wants him to sign a document. She starts with: “Are you busy right now?” Why not; ” Please sign this.” This is human nature. For whatever reason, we all tend to have this tentative approach. In the business and clinical setting, finding the real need presents an opportunity to differentiate. All that remains, is for the optometrist and her staff, to consistently identify the customer’s real need. Don’t fix the ear if she comes in with a sore toe!
For example, Nancy calls in and asks: “what time do you close?”. The answer could be “at five” delivered in an extremely polite manner. If the question “Why do you ask?” is not posed, you will never discover her real need, which is to get to you at 5.30 pm to pick up her spectacles because she can only leave her office at 5.15 pm. Another example; Joe noticed after three whiskeys that things were definitely blurry when his daughter stuck her homework book under his nose. He is a forty-two-year-old salesman who sells tractors. You find that Joe could do with +0,75 OU at near. But what is Joe’s real need? He wants to be reassured by explaining exactly what is happening to him. His real need is not to get reading glasses. Most of us, as a rule, display our pseudo needs first. Identify the real need every time and you will have made a differential advantage over those who don’t.

The Mall Look
Here is an opportunity to differentiate which many optometrists overlook. Many mall practices have a very similar upmarket look about them. They try to be different, but they are not, because they all tend to convey the same message – “we are expensive.” Being expensive becomes the perception of potential customers. This is the impression the furniture and fittings and merchandising create. If everybody else is looking expensive, there must be an opportunity here. You can create the brand by earning the reputation of being the “Woolworths” of the mall. Get the right look and offer the commensurate value-for-money product. A simple way to conduct research is to spend several days studying the shoppers in your mall. Take note of how they dress, what packets they carry and where they shop. Interview those who wear spectacles by asking: Where do you go for your eye care? Why do you go there? Have you heard of our practice?

Presbyopia should be labeled the gold mine of optometry. Yet, most optometrists want to be the contact lens or child vision specialist. Why not position yourself as an expert in dealing with the dilemmas of the presbyope. I fail to understand why our industry does not elevate presbyopia to the top of every list. Frame designers never seem to focus on the presbyope and allow properly for the optical requirements. Mostly we have non-presbyopic optometrists prescribing to presbyopic patients. Do we understand their real needs? If the bulk of the money generated in optometry comes from the age group over forty, surely this is where you want your reputation to rise above the rest. Brand yourself as a specialist in dealing with presbyopia.

The Cinderella of optometry, yet it represents a huge potential in untapped markets. The problem is, it takes more than just a dabble to earn recognition here. Visual ergonomics should be common sense to optometrists. The optometrist can guide employers as to how age and vision can impact on certain jobs. Quality control is often a direct function of clear comfortable vision. For example, a final checker in a textile factory stands on a platform and scrutinises one meter by two-meter area of material coming off a motorised roll. Firstly, this job presents a huge challenge for the multifocal wearer and secondly, it is unrealistic for someone to perform this task effectively on an eight-hour shift every day. Yet, mistakes here can cost the business big money! An optometrist will pick up on this instantly, provided she creates the opportunity to observe the situation on site.

Domiciliary visits
Providing the presbyope with first class, functional vision is all about working distances. The best way to assess the patient’s situation is for the optometrist to observe the patient at the work station. The impact of domiciliary visits on the practice can be massive. Imagine walking into a typing pool of forty people to go and check out your patient, Nancy’s, typing desk. It gets the grapevine buzzing. This example illustrates the point; A supreme court judge consults an optometrist with the gripe that after consulting three different optometrists, he still battles with his vision at work. The examination does not reveal any significant clues other than early macular degeneration and visual acuity 6/6 minus in both eyes. The optometrist requests a visit the judge’s chambers and finds, to his surprise, that the bench, resembles a throne. The judge’s seating position was elevated by three meters and he had to look down at council several meters away and below him, which meant that he was constantly looking through the reading section of his executive bifocals. The answer of course was simply a pair of “court glasses” with the reading segment dropped sufficiently. Go and see for yourself.

Personalised Marketing
The quest in optometry is to convert every patient encounter into a long-term relationship. Patients should be seen in the light of what they are worth to your practice over twenty years! The optometrist needs to demonstrate to the patient that he or she will enjoy a clinical differential advantage if they come back to you. To this end, personlised marketing, on a one on one basis, is a good strategy. If you hold fundus photos on record, it is important that the patient understands the differential advantage of this and needs to be reminded of the value of having this baseline data. Personalised re-call is another very good system. Create a template of a recall letter on the computer, but leave a space where you can fill in “the hook” The hook is some personal clinical detail of the patient, for example, a reference to early lens changes or an early pterygium that was discussed with the patient at the previous visit. There are practice software packages available which will assist with this action plan. The letter is signed by you and ideally with a postscript in your handwriting. Where this becomes standard practice, the optometrist will make a note of the hook in the patient record, to use in the next personalised re-call.


The concept of differential advantage is an integral part of marketing and business strategy. Optometrists all have access to the same product and offer, by and large, the same service on paper. The point is, that clinical ability and the quality of service is not constant.
Differential advantage can be achieved by adding value to product and service. Find out what they want and then give it to them and remember, it is the perception of the consumer that matters.