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Growth
Business Observer Friday, Oct. 29, 2010 10 years ago

Ocular Opportunity

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One of the Gulf Coast's largest eye-care practices seeks more growth — without relinquishing its obsessively tight grip on its vaunted customer service approach. It's a delicate balance.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

REVIEW SUMMARY


Business. Center for Sight, Venice


Industry. Health care


Key. Practice considers its customer service first mentality a key to recession survival.



James Dawes sells eye surgeries, facelifts and hearing aids.


But he could just as easily be selling beachfront hotel packages and champagne-splashed weekends. That's because Dawes, chief administrator of Venice-based Center for Sight, says the customer's experience is his top and guiding priority.


“Our vision is to create an experience that is much more like a luxury resort,” says Dawes. “When we compare ourselves to others, we want to match up against the Ritz-Carlton and the Four Seasons, not other health care providers.”


The strategy works. The practice, initially founded in 1986 in Venice as a cataract surgery facility, now provides a full range of eye care, cosmetic skin care, dermatology and hearing services. It has grown from one facility in Venice to seven offices in Sarasota and Manatee counties, plus an eighth branch in Sun City.


“We are typically the first in the country to do something,” says Dawes, who cites the center's all-laser Lasik surgeries that eliminate mechanical cutting tools and a new version of artificial lenses that allow patients to see multiple distances as two examples. “We've raised the bar on a lot of procedures.”


By several measures, from its 175 employees to its 21 physicians to the more than 100,000 patient visits a year, the Center for Sight is one of the largest eye care facilities on the Gulf Coast and in Florida. Dawes says the practice has seen a year-over-year increase in patients and surgeries performed from 2009 to 2010. He declined to release annual revenues.


“We haven't seen a downturn,” says Dawes. “I think that's because vision is so important to people. If you can't see, there are so many things you can't do.”


Nonetheless, there is plenty of local competition to go around, given the majority of the eye care industry's customer base leans elderly. For example, in the Sarasota-Bradenton area there are several multi-doctor practices, such as the Manatee-Sarasota Eye Clinic, which has nine physicians. Several multi-doctor facilities dot the Tampa area, too.



Experienced enterprise


Center for Sight founder Dr. David Shoemaker anticipated a competitive industry when he founded the practice, which is why his initial strategy was to build through volume. Prioritizing customer service would get the clients coming back, Shoemaker figured.


“Experience matters,” says Dawes. “The patient's experience matters and our experience matters.”


And few say experience better than Shoemaker, who was recently chosen to be an inaugural member of the Crystalens Millennium Society by eye-care company Bausch + Lomb. Shoemaker earned the distinction by being one of a dozen worldwide cataract surgeons to implant at least 1,000 Crystalens lenses. The lenses are the only FDA-approved lens for cataracts and presbyopia, which impacts a person's ability to see objects up close.


Meanwhile, the customer service initiatives at the Center for Sight revolve around a philosophy that details matter. The steps are subtle, yet meaningful.


For example, a Center for Sight employee stands in the surgery room during every procedure to hold the hand of a patient — whether it's a 10-minute quick fix or a two-hour operation. “It makes a world of difference,” says Frances Wilhelm, the center's director of sales and marketing, mostly because an eye operation can be a nerve-racking experience.


Relatives and friends of the patients can watch the procedures through an observation room and every cataract surgery comes with a personalized narrative DVD. Those features are well regarded in patient feedback surveys, say Center for Sight executives.


The center also has a fleet of 10 vans to transport patients to and from their homes. “We are just like Enterprise,” quips Dawes. “We will pick you up.”


The lobby of the center's main office, on Venice Avenue, a few miles east of Interstate 75, likewise operates on a customer service first mentality. It features oversized chairs, large ceilings and wood wall panels, all designed to provide a comfortable feel. Moreover, bathrooms and the lobby are cleaned daily by an outside service.



Superior service


Still, even the best customer service initiatives can be wasted without the right people to deliver on the promises, acknowledges Dawes, an Oklahoma native who was raised on a ranch.


The Center for Sight hiring process, therefore, has become a fine-tuned combination of art and science. Dawes considers hiring his number one constant challenge and he commits a lot of time, money and effort to get it right the first time.


For starters, in non-clinical roles, especially the ones who see patients on a regular basis, Dawes will look to the hospitality and retail industries for potential hires. Surgeons, meanwhile, come from the nations' top medical schools, says Dawes, a team of doctors he calls number one draft picks.


New employee training is essential, of course, but just as important to the Center for Sight way is a series of continuous training programs. In fact, all employees go through the program every two months and, much like the Ritz-Carlton, departments have specific managers in charge of monitoring customer service.


One final angle to superior customer service, says Dawes, is to track how the employees are doing and recognize good work immediately — and in specific detail. “It has to be meaningful,” says Dawes, “and it has to be public recognition.”


The Center for Sight created a star game to accomplish that task. The contest begins anew every year, when each employee gets a star pad. The employees give out stars to other employees based on the center's 12 Characteristics of Excellent Customer Service. Since the recognition is peer-to-peer, the game builds teamwork and trust, says Dawes.


The top stars of the week and month get an opportunity to raid the company vault and pick up prizes, such as $50 restaurant gift certificates, gas cards and free car washes. The top stars of the year, judged by doctors and department heads, get a shot at $500 and $1,000 bonuses.



'Improve access'


Dawes says he has no doubt the Ritz-Carlton approach to customer service gets clients to return to and refer the Center for Sight to others.


But Dawes says to get clients to come through the door in the first place is a significant challenge, second only to hiring the right people. Indeed, the company's strategy to deal with the recession and any impact of federal health care reform has been to find creative ways to increase the client count.


“Our response to the recession has been to improve access and to improve low-cost access,” says Dawes.


One big move in that regard occurred this past summer, when the center implemented eye-care kiosks in Sweetbay Supermarkets in Venice, Bradenton and Ruskin. Similar in size to self-test blood pressure machines, the free kiosks, called EyeSite, allow users to take a five-minute eye exam.


Dawes says the kiosks have surpassed expectations, both in usage and in drawing people into the center for a more through exam. About 25 to 30 people a day use the EyeSite kiosks.


“Vision changes can go unnoticed for years,” Center for Sight Medical Director Dr. William Lahners says in a press release touting the kiosks. “Our goal is to raise awareness of eye health issues, beyond vision correction, and to take steps to minimize these long-term risks.”


Another new program combines the goals of improving access with figuring out health care reform. For that, the center has begun going directly to local employers to offer a discounted vision-care package to supplement — or in many cases replace — employee health insurance.


“Vision tends to be the first [program] chopped,” says Dawes, a trend only likely to grow under new federal health care rules.


Center for Sight recently signed up Venice-based window maker PGT to the program, a company with 800 employees and at least 2,000 dependents. “We expect this will be one of the things to help us,” says Dawes. “It's a simple and innovative program.”

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