GIVEN HOW MUCH time we tend to spend in our heads, it’s strange how few of its extraordinary powers and abilities most of us actually take the time to cultivate — when we’re not actually succumbing to its pitfalls: the quicksand of bad habits, negativity and reactivity. As an eyecare professional, having a psychological “toolbox” of go-to “mind tricks” to keep your head in the game in a positive way — by finding your confidence, trusting your knowledge, conveying your authority, and developing that all-important good rapport with customers and patients, as well as staff — is invaluable.
There is no shortage of expert opinion out there; some of it appears in the article you’re about to read. But there’s no substitute for the road-tested knowledge of experienced colleagues who’ve been through — and drawn their own lessons from — the countless challenges this complex industry, so reliant upon trust and communication, throws your way every single day.
We reached out to our Brain Squad of independent eyecare business owners and managers to get their best “mind tricks” not just for dealing and coping, but also for thriving, and boy did they live up to their name. We’ve distilled the following 17 tips from their wisdom to help you keep your mind where it needs to be.
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Before you walk into the office, take stock of the kind of energy you’re bringing through the door. David Greening, optical manager at Astorino Optical Center in Newport Beach, CA, says this has become part of his routine since he started practicing mindfulness. Previously, as an extremely time-conscious person, he would always rush himself into work. “I would then bring these twisting tendrils of stress in with me… This would then be transferred into situations like missing that first point of connection with the new patient or being short with a staff member. I learned that allowing myself just 10 minutes in the parking lot before heading in gave me that extra time to de-stress and refocus.”
THAT’S SOMEONE’S MOM…
At the Center for Children and Women in Houston, TX, Dr. Brook Komar’s trick for getting in the right frame of mind is a powerful one: She conjures her mother. “I treat everyone in my chair like they are a family member. How would I speak to my mom about the need for a retinal consult?” For John Bruening at Geauga Vision Group in Middlefield, OH, it’s just doing what comes naturally. “No tricks,” he says, “just be empathetic to them, and picture yourself as the patient. They don’t care what big words you know, just that you understand their needs, and have solutions for them.” If you want to be old-fashioned about it, you could just call it The Golden Rule. For Caitlin Neal at San Juan Eye Center in Montrose, CO, it’s a matter of “continuing to be sympathetic and greeting them with the same energy they have. Making sure they understand that we are here for them and to care for them — not to do anything to hurt them but to help them see better and to care for their eyes just the way that we would want our own eyes cared for or our own family to be taken care of.”
One way to enhance your professional abilities and relationships is to practice daily positive affirmations. These are basically positive messages or mantras repeated to yourself for a few minutes before work or during a break. For instance, if you say and believe, “People trust my recommendations” before you walk onto the sales floor, or “My colleagues view me as a valued member of the team,” or simply “I am confident,” you can improve your performance.
According to the Indeed Career Guide blog these can be used to improve skills, sharpen your focus, work on relationships, manage stress, refresh your overall perspective, and boost job satisfaction. Harvard Business Review advises that mantras are particularly effective for people in leadership positions tasked with team-building by helping them “to consciously refocus on positive thoughts and feelings toward dissimilar others before interacting with them … Repeating a strong, simple mantra like ‘I’m glad you’re here,’ ‘We’re all in this together,’ or ‘I love this team’ silently to ourselves can produce the kinds of inclusive, affirming, nonverbal behaviors we aim for.”
According to the US Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, patients who feel their doctor is listening to them and taking their concerns seriously are more likely to be satisfied with their care. It advises against a phrasing such as “Do you have any questions?” as most patients will respond to this by saying “No,” even if they do have some. A better option would be, “What questions do you have?” the agency says. “This specific wording creates the expectation that they should ask questions.” BJ Chambers at Carrera Optical in McQueeney, TX, finds it beneficial to be “Asking a lot of questions on how a person uses their eyes. What is a typical day like for them? What do they do on weekends? Hobbies, etc.” Being inquisitive can be good for business, too. Asking about hobbies might lead to a chat about polarized lenses for a fishing enthusiast. It’s always good to stay curious. “I stay up-to-date on sports, which is important when the patient is wearing a team hat,” says Dr. Texas Smith at Dr. Texas L. Smith & Associates in Citrus Heights, CA. “I have patients that have a Super Bowl ring, World Series ring and a Bassmaster Classic ring. I have their pictures in the office, which easily starts a conversation if my patient is interested in baseball or bass fishing.”
According to Bizfluent, a blog for small business owners and entrepreneurs, “Open-ended questions are useful in retail sales because they invite the customer to engage and help identify areas of opportunity” and “can help salespeople build rapport with customers, qualify leads, and uncover pain points.” Tamara Walker of Lakeway Eye Physicians and Surgeons in Lakeway Eye, TX, has this down. “I open the convo with an open-ended question like, ‘What can I do for you?’ When they tell me what they think they want, I expound on that … let them be in control of the conversation initially, then take control with great suggestions about where to go next.”
When we asked our Brain Squad to tell us their strategies and mind tricks for communicating with customers, in amongst all the positivity was this brutally frank little gem from Lisa Smith of Precision Eye Care in Vancouver, WA: “Appeal to their vanity.” It’s sound advice. While most of us are perfectly aware, at the conscious level, that a kind word from a salesman has an economic motivation, the praise lingers on as what researchers call an “implicit attitude” in our subconscious. According to Harvard Business Review, these unconscious ideas are “stickier” than conscious ones. The Review’s Andrew O’Connell says consumers feel more positive about businesses who pay them compliments, even if consciously they know the praise wasn’t “sincere”. “The stickiness of gut attitudes should be part of everyone’s calculations,” he writes. “Flattery…has an insidious ability to worm its way into the unconscious, where it creates persistent feelings that could affect the outcomes of all kinds of business interactions, from job interviews to sales to boardroom presentations.” Robert Ray of M.A. Schwartz Optometrist and Associates in Sterling Heights, MI, sees it this way: “You have to tell them what they want to hear, while still managing to get them into what they need.”
Sometimes though, it’s not enough just to ask questions. Be alert to micro signals people send your way. In a study for Stanford Medicine, Donna Zulman and Abraham Verghese listed “Exploring emotional cues” as one of their “Five Practices to Strengthen the Physician-Patient Relationship.” They found this is best achieved “by reading a patient’s verbal and nonverbal cues…and reflecting and validating perceptions of a patient’s emotions.” This, they said, is “associated with positive patient outcomes.” It’s a sensitivity Pablo Mercado of Highland Eye Boutique in Atlanta, GA, possesses. When he needs to get mentally prepared, he told us, “I remind myself why I do what I do and remember that patient ‘objections’ are mostly disguised requests for more information and I treat them as such.”
SWITCH IT UP
Melody Wilding, a performance coach and human behavior professor at CUNY Hunter College in New York, identifies “under-challenge burnout” as one of the three main types (the others being “overload burnout” and “neglect burnout”). What does Jeff Grosekemper at Casa De Oro Eyecare in Spring Valley, CA, do to ward off boredom or crankiness when it threatens? “I switch jobs with my co-worker. Right now I’m pre-testing and she is selling.”
“Patience,” says Danielle Doniver of Heritage Optical in Detroit, MI, “is my superpower!” And sometimes it can seem like super-human strength is required, particularly when dealing with troublesome customers or coworkers. Cultivating mindfulness can be very useful here. Instead of succumbing to reactivity, take a leaf from the book of Astorino Eye Center’s Greening. “When that one patient says something disparaging your temper can flare quite easily. You may want to step back and assess the situation and use your wise mind,” he reminds us. “Maybe they feel bad about themselves and need reassurance. Not everyone is out there to make you feel bad; sometimes people just feel low and agitated for reasons outside ourselves.”
“Look patients in the eye, educate them at their level and be open to questions,” is the approach that works for Dr. Robert Easton Jr. OD, FAAO, in Oakland Park, FL. It’s a strategy shared by optician Chris Clark at Advanced Eye Care Optical Shoppe in Panama City, FL, whose most powerful mind trick is “Talking matter-of-factly. You can convince anyone of anything by knowing the facts and explaining them in common speak. Yes you can throw in a few ‘medical’ terms but speaking in layman’s terms is much more effective.” Indeed, in a healthcare setting, one of the main impediments to communication and compliance is the intimidation many people feel — the sense of being in the presence of experts, with the patient’s “job” being to convey that they understand and will obey.
One study by Texas A&M University even found distinct similarities between the behaviors of patients and victims in hostage-taking situations. According to a Reuters Health article on the study’s findings, patients sometimes feel they are “bargaining for their health,” frequently second-guessing what they think the doctor might want to hear, or possibly too intimidated to ask questions about the treatment prescribed. “Unlike consumer services such as dining out or attending a concert…medical services often create a ‘need’ and unequal power balance… When hostage bargaining syndrome escalates, patients may feel helpless and see no relief or escape, which can lead to neglect, passive reactions, loneliness and depression.”
It’s an approach that can be useful in the optical as much as in the exam lane. “I always tell them I’m salary, not commission, and that I’m a consumer as well,” says Susan Kantor of Central Phoenix Eyecare in Phoenix, AZ. “I will only honestly recommend what I feel will give them the ultimate vision. Usually they quit looking at me like a salesman.”
TELL A JOKE
According to Dr. Dave Schultz, owner of Urban Optics in San Luis Obispo, CA, “The three components of a perfect eye exam are: Humor/Exam/Humor.” He adds: “Humor is king! Relax the patient and they will listen.” There’s no doubt humor can be a powerful tool for building rapport. Even if you don’t think of yourself as funny, you can still lighten things up by placing a few joke books around your waiting area, or, as was suggested on the American Medical Association’s website, a sign that reads “On a scale of 1 to stepping on a Lego, how much does it hurt?” Just remember to be yourself, get a sense of a patient’s personality first, keep it good-natured and don’t overdo it.
“I tend to use humor in most situations,” says Dr. Cynthia Sayers at EyeShop Optical Center in Lewis Center, OH. “Even if I have to ‘yell’ at a patient to get across the severity of a diagnosis, I tend to use humor — not to make light of a situation but to put them at ease. I find common ground — kids, dogs, work, etc. — to make them feel comfortable and then go from there.” For Schultz, joking around is just a natural extension of his personality, and his patients get a kick out of it. “When patients come in, I’ll go out to call them in, and the patient will say, ‘Do you need my glasses?’ and my response will be, ‘No, thanks, I already have a pair of my own.’ But there’s another reason for his comic routine at the office: It keeps turnover low. “I’ve had staff members leave and make more money doing something else and then come back and ask for their jobs back,” he says.
PLAY THE FOOL
One way to motivate your staff without spending money is to promise to ritually humiliate yourself if they reach a goal. Kathy Maren, the optical manager at Combs EyeCare and Eyewear in Western Springs, IL, challenged her team to reach a certain sales target, pledging to perform a cartwheel at the front desk in front of a crowd of patients if they succeeded. They did — and she got to cartwheeling! Self-deprecation has a special power all its own.
Vince Lombardi famously observed, “Confidence is contagious. So is lack of confidence.” The subtext, of course, is that you have a choice in the matter. The go-to mind trick for Dr. Ben Thayil at Lifetime Vision and Eye Care in Miami, FL, is simply “Understanding attitude is a choice. Choosing to approach any situation with a positive attitude ensures a positive outcome.” Frances Ann Layton of Eye Associates of South Georgia in Valdosta, GA, concurs: “Confidence. That is my superpower in this office. If either a coworker or patient is wavering, I swoop in and the confidence I instill…usually makes everything copacetic.” Just don’t lose sight of the line between confidence and being a jerk. Dr. Jason Klepfisz at Urban Eye Care in Phoenix, AZ, says, “Being confident without being condescending goes a long way.”
BANISH BAD VIBES
Morgan Bartel, the owner of Collins Diamonds in Liberal, KS, told our sister publication INSTORE that “It’s store policy that we have no bad attitudes, conversations regarding politics, religion or anything that could cause any negative vibes. We believe in the law of attraction, which means that whatever thoughts/words we put out there or allow to be said within our store bring about either good or bad feelings. We have given numerous customers the opportunity to step outside and rethink their attitude. Some have immediately changed their tone, while others took their given opportunity, started looking at the bright side and then re-entered our store with a much more positive spirit!”
LEARN THE ART OF
THE GENTLE NUDGE
Sometimes a patient or customer needs a little help realizing what is best for their eye health. This means finding a way to ensure they’re aware of the consequences of non-compliance, without causing the kind of panic that can actually make it more likely. For Dr. Deanna Alexander at Eyecare Associates in Fort Collins, CO, this means stressing the importance of being preventative. “I usually say I want them to see well for the next 20-30 years — when they are [already] 65-75. This gets a chuckle out of them as they doubt they will live that long, but I tell them it’s no fun getting older and it certainly is less fun if you are blind.” Neurovision specialist Dr. Kathryn Collins likes to appeal to rationality. “I sometimes say, ‘You were having a problem and came to me for help. If you follow my treatment plan, and things get better, then you win. If you continue on the same path, you will never know.”
For Dr. Marc Ullman at Academy Vision in Pine Beach, NJ, it’s all about slowly building awareness and avoiding sudden surprises. “I try to mention mild problems early so the patients get used to hearing them, so when we move on to treatment they are familiar with the diagnosis. I hand out pamphlets on blepharitis regularly and mention how they may have negligible cataracts so there is no shock in the future and they are amenable to treatment.”
Jennifer Yerden, optician and owner of Sights and Shades in Canandaigua, NY, ran us through the speech she has ready for customers who seem to have ideas that conflict with those of their optometrist. “You are going to do what you want to do…but I have seen XYZ happen to people because they chose to ignore the doctor’s advice.” As always, there’s a caveat here, though. You don’t want to be too blunt. Throwing around words like “blindness” too soon in a discussion of glaucoma can cause panic, which tends to exacerbate non-compliance. The trick is to establish trust, stressing what you can do for the patient while also making them aware of the consequences of not following through with treatment.
DEVELOP THE POWER
Dr. Douglas Holle of Sunset Eye Care in San Angelo, TX, responded to our reach out for mind tricks and special powers with a reading tip: “Not that I consider myself a great motivator,” he said, “but I thought books on persuasion by Robert Cialdini were helpful.” Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology Of Persuasion (and campaign adviser to Barack Obama), is a veritable gold mine of information on the psychology of influence and persuasion, and its use in marketing and business, but some of his ideas include the notion that “People seem to be more motivated by the thought of losing something than by the thought of gaining something of equal value,” the importance of scarcity — that people are more likely to want something if they think it is in limited supply — and the value of a sense of authority, i.e. the usefulness of emphasizing credentials of a salesperson or doctor in building trust and credibility.
DRESS TO IMPRESS
According to a study conducted by the University of Michigan Medical School, more than half of the 4,062 patients surveyed in the clinics and hospitals of 10 major medical centers said that what physicians wear is important to them, and more than one-third said it influences their satisfaction with their care. But it’s not as simple as banning tattoos and piercings. You know your patients and your community, and what they’re comfortable with — if you’re in a hip urban enclave or surrounded by motorcycle clubs, tatted techs might even help to build a certain rapport. The bottom line, of course, is to be clean and presentable, but also mindful of how you appear; dressing thoughtfully helps you convey competence, build trust with patients and support the image you’re trying to create for your business. Dr. Schultz at Urban Optics has been wearing shorts — or “short pants” as he calls them — to work every day for at least the last 20 years, to the point that they’ve become something of a sartorial signature. In fact, his motto is, “Life’s too short for long pants.” His shorts set the tone for the whole office, he says, loosening things up while never appearing less than professional — the shorts are matched with a tie. He finds this relaxed environment makes his patients more relaxed, too. At the end of the day, this is one for the commonsense file. As Dr. Scott Mann of Invision (no relation) in Christiansburg and Salem, VA, sees it: “The basics still work: Dress professionally, communicate clearly with confidence and recommend what’s best for the patient and how it will help.”