Optical practices shared insights at Optix

Optical professionals heard from a raft of high profile keynote speakers at the Optix 2023 conference, which was held at Celtic Manor in Newport on March 13-15.

The three-day event armed independent optical practices with the business tools to succeed at marketing, leadership and customer service.

Marketing strategist Jeremy Hemmings presented David vs Goliath: Going toe-to-toe with a marketing giant; which advised how to approach marketing on a local level.

Hemmings spent over 25 years in the advertising industry and worked with established brands, including BMW, British Airways, Renault and Reuters.

He told Optix attendees that although multiples had big budgets, independent optical practices could thrive from creating their own marketing plan.

Hemmings said whatever definition of marketing was used by a company, the central pillars were the same: understanding your customer; why they should choose your product; and creating interest.

Hemmings then busted some common marketing myths, such as spend on marketing being wasteful. He said spend could be wasteful if a company does not target the right people and the message does not work. ‘Think of marketing as an investment, not a cost,’ he added.

Great service or products do not necessarily sell themselves either, he said, and asked if no one knows about it, how will it sell?
Lastly, the big guys do not always win. Hemmings said David beat Goliath because he used his advantages. ‘He was agile, fast and smart. Don’t feel intimidated by big competition as they can be outmaneuvered,’ Hemmings commented.

Independents could create successful marketing plans by understanding their market, establishing realistic goals, finding their silver bullet and partnering with other local businesses.

‘Customer-centricity is king. Take the consumer-in approach, it’s about who you are for rather than who you are. Don’t exclude the brand-out approach but consumer-in is more meaningful,’ he said.

‘There’s nothing to stop any of this working at a local level,’ Hemmings said before sharing examples of local businesses who had made marketing work for them while competing with industry giants.

Hemmings also said that independents need not go it alone. He said to utilise tools like Optix, empower others in the business and establish local collaborations.

Hemmings concluded with a quote from Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop: ‘If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try going to be bed with a mosquito in the room.’


A growing organism

On the second day, returning Optix host Gyles Brandreth welcomed attendees by sharing the secrets of happiness and the key to a successful life and career.

He told attendees to keep their life and work interesting and make sure they tested themselves. ‘Cultivate a passion that sustains and stimulates you out of work,’ Brandreth added.

Brandreth shared an analogy and said all individuals were a singular leaf on a tree. All leaves are unique but needed to be part of a wider, growing organism to survive.

Trevor Rowley, director at Optix, then provided a stakeholder update and said 370 people were in attendance at this year’s conference.
Rowley said this represented steady growth, as it was a 10% increase on 2019 but was 15% down on the conference in 2021, which experienced a post-Covid bounce in attendance.

He told attendees that Optix 2 has been tested in practices and was not far from launch, but the company wanted to ensure the software was at a point where it was fully functional before becoming widely available.

Audix, a new system for optical practices with audiology services, was officially released after it was tested at 70 sites.
Rowley said Optix as a business has grown and employed eight more developers since the last conference.

Casting his eye over the current state of the optical industry, Rowley said there was a clear move to private, which he believed would continue so long as general ophthalmic services remuneration was insufficient.

Rowley noted that consolidation was occurring across the industry and costs were increasing. ‘You have to get better and sharper just to stay still,’ he said.

Despite cost increases for practices, Rowley said over 70% of prices in Optix product catalogues have not been touched in two years. He told attendees to put their prices up because rent, energy and staff costs have increased and patients expected costs to go up.


Creativity for change

The day’s next speaker, former headteacher Sir John Jones, shared anecdotes from his time as a leader of three secondary schools over 17 years.

Jones noted how rapidly the world had changed and challenged attendees to think differently and create their own change to improve the world.

He said the crazy ones among us who thought they could change the world, often did so and cited Apple’s ‘think differently’ approach to challenging Microsoft in the technology industry.

Jones said creativity changed the world and noted how making mistakes was at the core of creativity.

He shared how children had challenged him to think differently and displayed ingenuity in their thinking, which made him a better leader.

Jones asked attendees to think about how a world-changing event like the pandemic had challenged their approach, and what lessons they learned from Covid-19 that would stand them in good stead? ‘What will your legacy be because of the type of leader you are?’ he asked.

An afternoon breakout session explored how to use the new Audix system, which operated within the same program as Optix and integrated the audiology system Noah that was used by all audiologists.

Audix was tested for two years at Viewpoint Opticians in York and was now being used by 70 optical practices with audiologists employed in-house.

After a live demo, attendees heard from Claire Shipway, HR director at Rawlings Opticians, who introduced audiology services after the last Optix conference.

She said the 10-strong group did not want to stand still and audiology offered a way forward to grow the business. Shipway commented that Rawlings aimed for customer service excellence and decided to offer audiology in-house after trying other methods and failing to get staff on board.

The practice started its search for an audiologist in May 2022 and recruited one by November 22, but soon realised one person to cover 10 practices was insufficient and have employed three audiologists in total.


A taste of excellence

Fred Sirieix, TV personality and hospitality industry expert (pictured right), explored how the basics of creating a customer-first culture were universal in his presentation, the Art of Service.

Fundamentally, Sirieix said, the guest was king and whatever service was offered, it was about making people feel special.

He shared how he first learned about service excellence as a child when listening to his parents discuss their responsibilities as healthcare providers.

‘Excellence isn’t a one off, it’s a habit that is achieved repeatedly via practising,’ Sirieix said, while explaining that what you do and how you do it are important.

Sirieix taught attendees to see, smile and say hello before the guest sees, smiles and says hello to you because the first contact with a guest is paramount to creating a positive experience.

He said there were 10 golden rules to create a culture of service excellence, which included one person being in charge at any time, help only comes if you ask for it, and treating others how you’d wish to be treated.

Sirieix said the first line of defence was a first impression, which often happened before entering the business, such as social media, website or window display.

He highlighted the importance of briefings to ensure performance is in line with vision and then role-played a meet-and-greet with Optix attendees on stage.

Jo Fairley, co-founder of Green & Blacks, encouraged a lively Q&A session with promise of chocolate for the best question, which went to a practitioner who asked about the challenges of working with a spouse, as Fairley had done in her career.

Fairley launched a chocolate brand in a recession and went on to sell the brand to Cadbury’s in 2005 for a reported £20m.
She shared business lessons that she had learned during the creation of Green & Blacks. Fairley explained how she wanted to create a chocolate company that sounded like an established British brand.

At the time, it was the darkest chocolate on the market at 70% and the idea behind the brand’s distinctive packaging was to signify an affordable luxury brand.

Fairley spoke about getting ahead of competition, which could be achieved by entering industry awards to showcase a symbol of excellence.

When building a brand, Fairley said if you have a great product, give people a taste. She acknowledged it might be hard to do in eye care compared to free chocolate, but said testimonials were valuable in giving people a flavour of what makes a practice different.


Forward motion

On the final day, Steven Bartlett, founder of social media marketing agency Social Chain, was interviewed on-stage by Brandreth about his life and career.

Born in Botswana and raised in Plymouth to his Nigerian mum and dad from Coventry, Bartlett told attendees how he started his first businesses at school where he organised Halloween and Valentine’s Day events.

He had an agreement to advertise on a wall and split the money with the school, which he said saved him from being expelled for poor attendance because of the money he made the school.

After trying university for one day, Bartlett worked in call centres for two years, which he said was a pivotal experience because he learned about sales.

Eventually, he launched an online notice board for university students and utilised social media to build pages and communities, which became the social media and marketing company, Social Chain, where he worked from the age of 21 to 27. When Bartlett left in December 2020, he had taken the marketing side of business from £0-200m.

Today, aged 30, Bartlett is the youngest entrepreneur to join Dragon’s Den and has invested in companies, such as Flight Story and Third Web, as well as being a board member of Huel and host of the Diary of a CEO podcast.

Bartlett told Optix attendees that in order to be professionally happy, you need to have a challenge that is worthwhile subjectively. He said to find a sense of forward motion as it provided satisfaction and to increase your rate of failure by testing everything and sweating over the details to get ahead of the competition.