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Has there ever been a better time?
In the age of opticians & hearing care has there ever been a better time to open a standalone Hearing Centre?
I write this blog for all the people out there trapped in the grind who would love their own business, but the system has them scared. The great people who the big machines swallow up and make them feel there is no survival without them. This is for you. You can do it! Go for it.
When I decided to open my own business, I was met with gasps! Then when I mentioned I was opening a retail business with a shop front those gasps got even bigger!!
Not to mention it’s a hearing aid shop and our biggest competitor gives hearing aids away for free (no we’re not talking about Specsavers). Yes, the NHS is the 3rd largest distributor of hearing aids in the world and you are going to compete against that?
Also, we were opening at a time when House of Fraser were going south and not long after Debenhams. Massive high street chains and household names almost vanishing from our high streets. Let’s not forget about BHS another huge retail and high street name which unfortunately vanished, and their ghostly resemblance can still be witnessed today on many high streets.
And if that’s not enough you are opening a standalone hearing care shop at a time when all these optical shops are looking to get in on the action!! Why would you do such a thing? Why not just get in with the optical guys?
All valid and sensible questions…. So Why did we start a retail business and why hearing aids in your own shop and not shop in shop like an optician?
Let’s start with retail. I personally think there is no better time than now to start a family business. I feel that people can’t differentiate from an average high street experience to a cheaper online experience. If you can buy product X @ £100 on the high street or £70 online and feel like you are having the same experience what would you do?
How loyal are you to a brand? And is the brand the shop or the product you are buying? I find family business that are doing well are not necessarily selling well known branded products. A coffee shop for example sells coffee but unless you are an aficionado you have no idea what brand you are drinking. It either tastes nice or it doesn’t. Yet Costa and Starbucks are everywhere but local family run coffee shops are also booming. Why? Well one reason I believe is Costa & Starbucks do a great job of raising awareness around how much we all need Coffee!! Add to that your independent coffee shop has a service and experience that tends to be completely different. Also, they’re décor if done right is engaging and welcoming and a break from the standard chain experience.
My Local Coffee shop which is called Time and is based in the town of Hamilton South Lanarkshire is always full to bursting. Why? They’re family run and they know what I want when I want it. If I am running late, they tell me to pay later. If I’m stressed, they pick me up and make me laugh. Do I get this at a Costa….. NO! But Costa has its place Time have just emulated it and made it better OH and they’re more expensive.
So, let’s look at that example with hearing aids. We are in the county of North & South Lanarkshire. We have 2 clinics in both Hamilton & Motherwell (We also have a hearingcare presence in 4 opticians, more on that later). Our main base in Hamilton has 4 yes 4 hearing clinics. The town of Hamilton has a population of 50,000 people. You can imagine when we said we were going to be the 4th clinic people said NO!! But we said yes. Based on the example above we seen an opportunity to differentiate ourselves. In fact, we thought it was a no brainer and here is why.
Competition is great!!
So 4 hearing clinics in one town why is that great? One of the major problems with hearing aids and hearing tests is awareness. Most people still think you get hearing aids from the NHS and that they are big and bulky. Let’s look at some facts gathered by Action on Hearing Loss the leading hearing charity in the UK –
- Many more people could benefit from hearing aids than are currently doing so – only around 40% of people who need hearing aids have them.
- Evidence suggests that people wait on average 10 years before seeking help for their hearing loss and that when they do, GPs fail to refer 30-45% to NHS audiology services.
With only 40% of people who need a hearing aid wearing them and GP’s failing to refer up to 40% of patients surely that tells us awareness and availability is a great thing?
What we have found in our town is people are now very aware of hearing aids and hearing loss (Just like coffee). We have encouraged people to shop around and start making general enquiries. This is great. Raising awareness not only grows our business but everyone has a boost. I’m quite friendly with my nearest independent competitor who owns businesses in Wishaw, Hamilton & East Kilbride and he’s noticed his business has went up since we opened! His own optical customers are asking him about hearing aids because we are visible to the community.
Should I fear Competition?
Absolutely not! It’s great. When we built our practice, we looked heavily at the competition. Specsavers, Boots, NHS & Local opticians. We then asked what we are going to do differently. For us it was a few things –
1 – Knowledge. Be the best studied across all manufacturers
2 – Premises – Open a premises where YOU would love to spend some time & fits the job description you’re intending to implement.
3 – Work harder – Extend your opening hours, study hard, make big local relationships
4 – Experience – Offer a completely different experience that you will never ever find in a shop that’s after thought is hearingcare.
5 – Think of expansion last – Move your ego out the road and don’t even think about being the biggest. Get your first practice right and enjoy it.
Like my Coffee shop Time we focused big on service and family. We also decided to be more expensive than everybody else. Infact we tell people we are more expensive right up front. This always generates the question WHY. This is something we want to get out and explain and so far, it has worked really well for us. It really highlights where you can differentiate and where the customer will gain most value. Remember the Which report said about hearingcare providers that being cheap does not mean good value for money.
Putting that EGO in check
We originally sat down and thought ‘Let’s be the biggest’. We quickly realised that people want to do business with us. They want to do business with my family. They want to feel like its special and not just a transaction. This is where we add value and why we can be more expensive.
Once we realised this and realised it made us as a family extremely happy, we quickly dropped our expansion plans (Not to mention starting your own business is hard harder than I believed and I’m no stranger to long hours), and focussed on getting our main centre right. Building big relationships locally and bringing the best customer experience to the county. We still work on this every day.
So here is the secret to happiness and success in your own business…… YOU!! People want to do business with you. You are who they come to see. Never ever lose sight of that and you will be ok. When you look to expand ask yourself how do we keep hold of that reason people do business with us? Will we lose that ingredient?
Trust me when I say this. If you keep your identity and that family feel people will choose you over Boots and Specsavers every day of the week.
Let’s be clear I’m not saying growth is a bad thing and you should not aim for it but just be realistic. Few people who try massive growth rapidly pull it off. It’s a special type of person who turns something small into something national. Here is the thing though…. All the ones I know who have pulled it off started and dedicated themselves to making their small business perfect then rolled it out. I know a few businesses in many walks of life who’s only focus was rapid expansion and it was a terrible struggle and generally not great endings.
Always look to be different. Make your website personable but professional. Try and come across as human. Offer services that the big chains can’t. Out of hours or in our case home visit hearing tests. Be independent. In the hearing aid world, the big companies tend to be tied in to one manufacturer so Boots will do Phonak as Phonak have a controlling stake in Boots hearing care, Hidden Hearing will do Oticon as the Demont group have a controlling stake in Hidden hearing.
If you work hard on your knowledge and be completely independent, you will have an automatic edge.
Why not shop in Shop using opticians?
The latest trend tends to be hearing care in opticians. I have some experience here around 12 years to be exact and at a pretty high level. So why with that experience would you buck the hearing aid market trend?
A few things for me. Does an optician care as much about ears as they do eyes? NO is the short answer. It’s a hard job running an optics practice. There is so much regulation not to mention competition for patients. My experience is they don’t have time to fully invest in hearing care the way it should be.
This of course is a major opportunity for a standalone hearing clinic.
Room conditions – Opticans are built for testing eyes not for testing ears. Optical testing equipment takes up lots of space. Also, optical rooms are not sound proofed. I have found myself on many occasions clambering over optical kit while doing a hearing test all the while apologising for the noise from all the chatter outside. It’s just not as professional in my book if you compare it to a well thought out hearing centre. It has its place but there is such a great opportunity to offer a better alternative through your professional best in class standalone hearing clinic.
Ear Wax Removal in questionable conditions.
Nearly all independent hearing care providers have proper purpose-built ear wax removal facilities. This is well thought out and safe. Equipment is where it should be, and the patient practitioner seating position is roomy with ease of movement and good visibility. Carrying out ear wax removal in an optical room that was not designed for it in my opinion is not best practice. Of course we can’t say this about every optical set up but the many I have seen few are fir for purpose. A well-designed hearing centre is by far a safer option than a pop-up room somewhere.
The Customer Experience
By having your own enterprise, you get to choose how your customers feel. With a shop in shop or rented room in opticians you must play in general by their rules. You also have no control over simple things like furniture. In your own hearing centre, you have full control of the experience and if you get it right It should beat a shop in shop model easy. We can confidently say this as we work in both environments. It may sound strange, but we tend to get a different type of customer in the hearing centre. A younger customer who tends to shop around or be more tech savy. People who value specialism. In fact, we quite often get people in telling us their local optician does hearing care, but they would rather choose us Why? (Not all but you don’t need all you just need some) Going by what our customers tell us they feel it’s because we are more specialist. Our shop has more information. It looks like we are only focussed on one thing which we are and that’s ears!!
We also pick up a lot of people on their 2n or 3rd pair looking for something different. They see us as different.
I’m not saying don’t partner with opticians that would make me a hypocrite. This is more a blog to the people who would love their own store. Whom have worked in Specsavers Audiology or Boots Hearing Aids like me and couldn’t bear to look at another optics room!! Who want their own dream. It can be done with genuine hard work and a genuine message.
Back to the Family thing.
Our customers tell us it’s important to them to help family businesses to succeed and if they can they will always try and do this. They also like having access to the business owners. Family is important to them so it should be important to your business.
By genuinely being a family business customer feel you will look after them like a member of their family would and guess what we do.
It feels great to be a family business. And we will never ever lose sight of that. For us we will only grow if we can make the new premises the same as the one we have. A Lot of companies run into problems chasing growth irresponsibly.
So Mr Boots Hearing aids & Mrs Specsavers Audiologists what are you waiting for?!? Seize the moment and go for it! You won’t be disappointed.
Steven Ross (MSHAA, RHAD)
58 Cadzow Street,