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At the service of independents and their communities

Whether it’s digital marketing, succession planning or practice acquisition, an increasing number of independents are turning to Eyecare Plus to ensure the viability of their business in an ever-changing optometric landscape.

Hansen Optometrists – Eyecare Plus is the oldest continually run family group of optometry practices in Australia. Based in the regional New South Wales towns of Orange and Parkes, the two-practice business was established in 1886 as a jeweller shop where they made and sold spectacles before later performing eye tests and prescribing spectacles.

Despite having a good reputation and enviable legacy in their local communities, principal optometrist Mr Nick Hansen sees the benefit of his practices being part of a marketing group under the Eyecare Plus banner. He’s been a long-standing member of the network, serving on the board for more than 12 years.

“One of the reasons why we originally joined, and have stayed with Eyecare Plus, is because of the support, marketing and buying power we receive being part of a large group of likeminded independent and non-competing optometry practices,” he says.

“It has become increasingly difficult for independent optometry practices to compete and stay viable in the ever-changing Australian optometric and IT landscape. A big reason why we have stayed a member of Eyecare Plus for more than a decade is because the group is at the cutting edge of professional optometric services in Australia.”

Today, Hansen Optometrists is among a 150-strong close-knit community of Eyecare Plus optometrists who meet at the bi-annual conferences, regular ‘boot camps’, and overseas educational meetings to share knowledge, information and ideas.

Founded by optometrists for optometrists, Eyecare Plus provides the opportunity to run an independent practice in an exclusive location. This is backed by a large range of resources, programs and promotions giving members the flexibility to choose whether they participate and the extent to which they do so.

Eyecare Plus general manager Simon Lewis says winning the Canstar Blue awards is vindication of the network’s commitment to clinical optometry and local service.

Between these initiatives, for Hansen Optometrists it was during the COVID-19 peak that the value of the group spoke volumes. He believes his practices are well-placed for the future.

“Head office gave us localised support, advice, and material help, as it did for all members. No matter what the future holds I believe that as a member of Eyecare Plus I am in a much better position to survive and thrive more than a lot of other independent practices in Australia,” Hansen says.

Five-star rating 

A way Eyecare Plus has been able to validate the value it drives to practices and their communities is the Canstar Blue Awards where it has consistently outperformed corporate competitors.

In 2020, the Canstar consumer survey again awarded the network a five-star rating for overall satisfaction and after sales service, as well as four stars in all other categories, including range of products available, quality of advice, customer service and value for money.

Eyecare Plus is the only optometry group – and one of only six businesses nationwide – to be recognised with a third consecutive Canstar Blue Award. With this most recent award, it ranked ahead of optometry chains such as Specsavers, OPSM, Optical Superstore, and Bailey Nelson.

“This is such a strong vindication of our members’ commitment to clinical optometry and local personalised service,” Eyecare Plus general manager Mr Simon Lewis says. “Our members do not have big marketing budgets, but they do have a big commitment to excellence, so it is great to see that being acknowledged by the public.”

For the awards, Canstar Blue commissions professional market research companies (Qualtrics, Colmar Brunton and Iview) to ask Australian consumers about their experiences with products or services. Awards are given to brands rated by consumers for their satisfaction level on a scale from one to 10.

Eyecare Plus Wagga Wagga in New South Wales.

It was a welcome relief for Lewis following the stresses of 2020.

“Our practices have had a tough time managing their businesses and doing the best for their staff to help patients through drought, bushfires and COVID. To be recognised with a Canstar Blue Award for the third year in a row is a thrilling result for us all,” he says.

Lewis adds that achieving five stars for after sales service and overall satisfaction is evidence Eyecare Plus optometrists are “creating the right impression and doing the right thing by their patients – and that consumers appreciate local service providers”.

“The difference a local business provides is that people can be welcomed by the same staff and be seen by the same optometrist every year – our practices are part of the local community,” he says.

Marketing plus 

To help its optometrists compete with the large marketing budgets of the corporates, Eyecare Plus has a specialised marketing team working from head office to offer multi-levelled marketing services and solutions.

Marketing Plus is its marketing and communications support service providing practices with marketing tools including digital assets, from creation to implementation. The service is designed to help free up more time for practices to focus on their patients.

During the past few years, Eyecare Plus has also invested in digital marketing activities across many platforms, including Facebook, Instagram and Google Ads, aimed at connecting with current and prospective patients.

It says digital advertising has been an effective, targeted marketing tool used to reach patients based on their location, interests, and demographics.

“Our ‘Always-On’ campaign is a location-based marketing activity employed continually throughout the year to reach patients within each location of Eyecare Plus member practices,” Lewis explains.

“These national digital advertising campaigns have delivered positive results. Cluster campaigns have enabled practices within regional and metro areas to share resources and, therefore, reduce the cost of running consistent year- round digital advertising campaigns.”

Practice benchmarking and business planning  

Eyecare Plus is in the process of introducing a new benchmarking tool which practices will use to monitor and lift their performance.

Lewis says it’s well understood that patient demographics and preferences differ greatly between regional and metro locations.

“Our practices will be able to compare their performance to others in the same turnover category, metro or regional and by state as well as of course national,” he says. “Benchmarking is a great tool, allowing owners and practice managers to review their practice performance monthly.”

In terms of business planning, Lewis notes that COVID-19 has posed challenges for the optical sector, but it has also allowed time to think about current processes and practices, and how to improve them.

He says many practice owners may have written business plans when they started out but few would have revised them annually. An up-to-date business plan can improve a practice’s ability to meet its objectives and provide a guiding path to future success and personal reward.

Lewis points to three elements of the Eyecare Plus Business Plan:

  1. Situation analysis (where you are) – an examination of key performance indicators (KPIs) and comparing them to industry benchmark figures, together with an incremental growth demonstration tool to show how small changes can have a big impact.
  2. Goals and objectives (where you want to be) – identifying strengths and weaknesses to formulate objectives that help optometrists achieve
    their goals.
  3. Strategies and tactics (how to get there) – deciding which actions need to be followed to achieve goals and objectives for improved practice performance.

“A business plan must be a ‘living’ document. It must have meaning to you and be the guideline by which you manage and develop your business,” Lewis adds.

Succession planning 

Eyecare Plus has helped many owners, from within the group and also externally, to sell their practice or acquire another.

Eyecare Plus National Office can assist owners to transition out of practice ownership, by helping to find a buyer or business partner. And for members wishing to expand with additional practices, it can help too. Lewis says succession from any business should be well planned, with some key considerations including:

  1. Plan ahead for future sale – To help prepare for a future sale, buyers will need to see three years of figures, profit and loss records, and operational stats. The sale (or handover) of a practice can take 18 months or more from the time expressions of interest are initially sought.
  2. Succession plan: prior to sale – The succession plan needs to commence three to five years prior to the desired selling date in order to help the seller get the best possible return. There is a process to follow prior to going out to the market.
  3. Finding a buyer – Finding a buyer who will meet expectations is not easy, especially if the selling optometrist is to be their employee for a set period as they transition out. “Working in the practice for an agreed time will help transfer goodwill to the new owner and will give them confidence that they will be mentored through the process,” Lewis says.
  4. Contract clause warning – Eyecare Plus advises against signing clauses relating to exclusivity or worded as “ceasing negotiations with other interested parties”. This clause, it says, disadvantages the seller’s position and leads to a narrowing of the potential buyer market.

Lewis says the national office can prepare a summary of the practice that can be passed to a potential buyer to determine their level of interest. It can further vet the potential buyers, to avoid spending time with “tyre kickers”.

Looking ahead, Eyecare Plus is aiming to continue to expand and develop new ways to improve patient engagement for its practice network.

To this end, the organisation is now developing an e-commerce solution to help practices improve the patient journey.