Practitioners need to size up the competition

May 31, 2012

By Gary Gerber, O.D.

It seems as American as apple pie. Over the years, everyone from the military to business tycoons to football coaches have used discreet and not-so-discreet methods to get “inside information” on the competition and, as a result, gain a competitive advantage.

Gathering competitive intelligence can also pay off for an eye care practice, supporting it in such areas as customer service, marketing and operations. Yet, most practitioners remain in the dark when it comes to knowing much about their competition, at times dismissing it as “none of my business.” That’s like a boxer getting into a ring without knowing the opponent has a deadly left jab or gets rattled after too many blows to the midsection.

What you can do

Learning about the competition begins by paying close attention to the kinds of information they make readily available. What and where do they advertise? How do their prices compare? How do they position their services?

Look at their websites. Are they user friendly? What services do they push? Do they have an online newsletter? Can appointments be made online? How large is the staff?

Mystery shopping is a good way to discover less obvious information. A staffer or professional shopper would telephone and visit other practices as a prospective patient to find answers to such questions as:

  • How is the phone answered?

Very often the first impression one has of any business is how they answer the phone (from number of rings it takes, to how long they keep the caller on hold). While your staff may simply answer “doctor’s office” on the fourth ring with all the enthusiasm of someone awaken from a deep sleep, does your competitor have a perky staffer who picks it up on the first ring and immediately engages the caller?

Something as simple as how the staff answers the phone can make a huge difference in converting prospective patients. If nothing else, it can be a wakeup call to your staff that they can no longer answer the phone as though they were doing the caller a favor.

  • What insurance plans do they accept?

If you discover that you’re the only practice in town, for example, that accepts the insurance provided by a large employer, it may be an opportunity to promote this to their employees. It also may help you realize that you offer more or different plans than the competition and have a cash-patient fee schedule lower than it should be.

  • Do they offer weekend or evening hours?

This can certainly become a point of differentiation that can be marketed – whether you already offer those hours or will in the future – especially if you learn that you accept several of the same insurance plans. Many people may assume they have no other options when it comes to making appointments with their doctor and would be pleased to learn they can see you on a Saturday morning or Thursday evening.

  • How far in advance do they schedule appointments?

If a competitor is prepared to stick a patient in the next day, is it any mystery that you’re at a disadvantage if you routinely schedule a month out? Conversely, if other practices have lengthy waiting times, it may be an opportunity to try to condense your scheduling in order to provide yourself with an edge in this department.

  • What kinds of frame selection do they offer and how do their prices compare?

Just like one athletic footwear dealer would want to know the varieties and prices of running and basketball shoes sold across town, you should know whatever you can about your competitors’ inventory. The cost of certain frames can vary dramatically between practices located just blocks apart. You may realize that your selection and prices may offer a big competitive advantage if communicated effectively (or that your prices need to be lowered in order to be competitive).

A mystery shopper should be able to appraise the competition both objectively and subjectively. This may also include obtaining information on accessible parking, waiting room decor, number of examination rooms, diagnostic tools, courtesy of staff, dispensary, staff size, office traffic, etc.

To do this right, put a responsible staffer or professional in charge of overseeing the project, which includes cross referencing the findings onto a single document that will allow for easy comparisons.

This, in turn, can be converted into a SWOT analysis that examines the competitive landscape in terms of Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. Like a football coach who knows that the opposition is likely to run on first down or has a rookie cornerback who can be exploited by his fastest receiver, it will allow you to adjust your marketing and communications programs, tweak your customer service, and make the changes in your operations that can give you a decided advantage.

Gary Gerber, O.D., is the president and founder of The Power Practice®, a practice management consulting company. He can be reached at drgerber@powerpractice.com or 800-867-9303 (www.facebook.com/ThePower Practice and Twitter @PowerYour Dream). Opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AOA.

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