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In the first days of the coronavirus pandemic, as states and municipalities began issuing shutdown orders, optical retailers and optometric practices across the country went into shock. With many offices closed and eyeglass shipments disrupted, the situation was chaotic.

“When everyone literally had the rug pulled out from under them, no previous systems you had in place were going to be helpful when you’re winging it,” recalled optician Ruth Domber, who co-owns 10/10 Optics, a popular optical boutique and optometric practice in New York City.

“I called up Scott Pearl [managing director] at ABB Optical Labs and he set up our accounts so we could get deliveries at home, because the Post Office was not delivering on a regular basis. We were able to get things overnight. He waived certain fees for us so we would not get penalized, because he saw that we were doing a certain amount of volume. The communication was almost daily, and any time there was the slightest problem, one phone call resolved everything. The service was extraordinary. It was the best customer service I’ve ever seen from a lab.”

This story illustrates the vital link that exists between optical retailers and eyecare professionals and the wholesale laboratories that serve them. That link is characterized by a symbiotic relationship based upon the interdependence of buyers and sellers.

Yet that relationship is often much more than just transactional, as Domber attests. In fact, labs often go to extraordinary lengths to make sure their accounts get what they need, as well as when and how they need it. A good lab can be indispensable to an optical shop or eyecare practice, and can contribute greatly to its success.

The most essential service that labs provide is fabricating and fulfilling prescriptions for patients. But labs typically provide their customers with technical support, sales and marketing programs and staff education as well. In return, the lab’s customers, or accounts, support and sustain the lab with a steady stream of work that ultimately translates into loyalty, provided the lab’s work is satisfactory.

This symbiosis is most evident when it occurs between independent wholesale labs and independent eyecare professionals, as well as at labs that are owned and operated by lens suppliers. However, versions of it also exist within optical retail chains, eyecare practices with multiple locations and managed vision care companies that represent “closed loop” systems that operate their own labs to service company stores, dispensaries and clinics.

Independent labs as well as those owned by suppliers differentiate themselves from competitors based upon the quality of service they can provide. They are typically judged by their quality of workmanship, ability to deliver it consistently and on-time, and their expert knowledge.

What constitutes good service for optical labs in today’s ultra-competitive business environment? What do eyecare professionals and optical retailers need from their labs in order to fulfill the service expectations of their customers and patients, many of whom are accustomed to the consumer-centric approach to service epitomized by Amazon that emphasizes speed, choice and personalization? And how is the added stress of the COVID-19 pandemic affecting the relationship between labs and ECPs?

Vision Monday explores these timely questions in our special feature, “At Your Service: How Successful Optical Labs Meet Customer Needs and Expectations.” Through interviews and proprietary research we present the voices of lab owners, managers, company executives, equipment vendors and eyecare professionals who explain how modern labs are using technology, training and market knowledge to meet the new service requirements of their customers.

Hiring and Training Customer Service Staff
The customer service staff is on the front lines of the lab-practice relationship, and often their interactions with customers call for quick problem resolution. Finding the right people for this sensitive task is key, but labs take different approaches to finding those people.

Borys Goldrajch, president of Pasch Optical a lab in Sheridan, Colo. that is partly owned by Nikon, believes strongly in the value of optical knowledge as a prerequisite for his customer service organization. “It’s very important that when somebody calls they can actually answer right on the phone without putting somebody on hold.Most of the questions we get are about lenses, and a lot about dispensing also.” He noted that some of the lab’s customer service personnel have been with the lab as long as 16 years, providing both a depth of optical experience and a long-term relationship with customers.

Scott Pearl, managing director of ABB Labs, headquartered in Coral Springs, Fla., said that the lab’s customer service people are almost always hired from within the ABB organization. “About 40 percent to 50 percent of our customer service people actually started in operations. They come with a really valuable perspective for customer service in an optical laboratory, which is an understanding of processing lenses.”

For others, different factors take priority. Yvonne Wolbeck, head of customer service for Zeiss Vision Care’s laboratory network, said, “I’m looking for personalities. You definitely have to be a people person, and you also have to be one that isn’t afraid to think outside the box and see what’s best for the customer.”

Wolbeck said new hires go through an eight-week training course, which “goes through anything from basic optics, all the way through what the ‘Zeiss experience’ is, and what we want to deliver on,” after which “they also sit for two to four weeks with another agent” before answering calls on their own.

Javan Diaz, managing director of Simplify Optics in Santa Clarita, Calif., values optical experience, but said, “We don’t just hire based on that. The people we have on the phone generally come from service-oriented businesses.” He noted that he hired one staffer who worked at one of his favorite sandwich shops, because “he bent over backwards for us, and would do the same for one of our customers.” New hires “go through a process of learning the different departments that we have, even if they have experience it’s important that they understand our culture and believe in it before getting on the phones with our customers.”

For Bill Heffner, IV, director of IT, marketing, and sales at FEA Industries in Morton, Pa., people with dispensing experience don’t necessarily make the best customer service personnel. “In that setting, you are used to spending time with a single patient face-to-face, where in lab customer service you can get bombarded with calls from many different customers in a short period of time. It’s better to find someone with a skill set geared toward call center-focused service, and then train them in the optical knowledge that they will need.” This includes basic optics and product knowledge: “They not only need to know what types of lenses we sell, but the benefits of different materials, how frame choice affects a lens, and a number of other, similar topics.”

Kaiser Permanente’s Los Angeles lab, which services its Vision Essentials clinics, makes sure customer-facing personnel have ophthalmic training. To accomplish that, Kaiser has created a new job classification: optical lab clerk.

“We have training and have converted all of our general clerks to this new classification,” said lab manager, Michael Hassel. “In the new classification, ophthalmic knowledge is required, thus creating a better problem-solving team for our Vision Essentials clinical staff.”

Some labs have customer service personnel work in lab operations, not just as part of their training, but on an ongoing basis. Ken Lin, president of X-tra Lite Optical in Huntington Beach, Calif., is an advocate of this approach. “The whole goal was to have people be able to do multiple functions, to keep them fresh, to keep them up-to-date on what we have in our lab.”

This also gives customer service people the ability to help out with urgent jobs. “Sometimes if there’s a rush job, we want customer service people to handle it themselves. That way, there’s more of a personal touch to the job.”

This approach is also used at Simplify Optics, according to Diaz. “We’ve overstaffed our customer service to allow them to be on phones and spending the time with the customer, but also being in production as well. They’re touching the jobs. It means something more [to our customers]. It’s not just a typical person that’s behind a screen.”

Creating a Customer Service Mindset

Each lab has a dedicated customer service department, but the reality is that everyone in the lab is in the business of serving customers. Keeping lab operations people focused on that fact is a priority for many lab execs. As Heffner explained, “When you’re running production in a lab, it can be hard to see that you’re making any kind of difference. When they are so far removed from the end customer, it becomes very easy to get tunnel vision; you aren’t making a medical device that is going to change someone’s life, you are cutting hundreds of thousands of pieces of plastic a day.”

In order to combat that, he said, “We try to instill in them the fact that what they are doing matters to our customers.” This is partly done through the lab’s efforts to provide eyewear to charitable organizations. “We receive postcards back from those individuals that have had their lives changed” by the eyewear they have been given. “This helps reinforce the idea that what our staff is doing matters to people, and that they are making a difference in the lives of others on a daily basis.”

Similarly, Diaz described the need to “humanize” what the production people are doing. He likes to share videos with the staff of people who have been given the gift of sight through the glasses made in the lab. He also encourages the staff to see things from the ECP’s point of view. “We will ask our customers to come by and give us a little bit of their experience on the front lines: ‘How it is to be in front of a patient? How do you talk to them?’ They give us real-life scenarios.”

Barry Lannon, head of lab operations and supply chain for Zeiss, said, “One of the things we’re trying to instill is what we call a ‘medical mindset.’ We’re making medical devices—it’s not just a piece of plastic going into a frame.” A central theme in onboarding training is, “What we’re making and for whom. Every single lens we make is for a named person.”

According to Scott Pearl, “Great operations create great customer service. It’s a harmony. It is a complete team. To make it so takes a lot of thread between the customer service group and the lab group.” Some of this thread is provided by operations people known as expeditors. “They communicate by phone and email over 350 times a day with our customer service team so we can convey good information to our customers. Customer service cannot work on an island.”

Pearl also noted that providing a career path for staff members increases their commitment to serving the customer. “If we continue to develop, invest in, and be attentive to our staff, then we provide our best chance to support the customer. An ABB employee that has been trained, promoted through a deliberately structured HR and management process is a satisfied employee who will do a better job of handling our relationships with customers. Operations enable great customer service.”

Lab leaders recognize their key role and maintaining this mindset. Goldrajch said, “I’m on the floor every day, and so is my general manager.We answer the phones a lot. if there’s two rings, somebody has to pick up the phone. It’s important to set an example.”

Ken Lin recognizes that the buck stops with him. “As the owner of the lab, I’m here to answer the phone.” He feels that being a small, family business, like many of his customers, makes it easier to meet special needs. “There’s less hierarchy,” he noted, adding “We’ll do whatever it takes to keep our accounts happy.” Diaz said that he often gives out his cellphone number to customers, and “Our customer service manager and our team have followed suit.”

Establishing and Maintaining the Customer Relationship
The relationship between practices and labs goes well beyond the transactional. It can be close and personal, based on the fact that the organizations depend on each other for success. Of course, the trust a practice has for a lab depends largely on their ability to deliver quality work in a timely manner.

As Scott MacLeod, president of McLeod Optical in Warwick, R.I. noted, “It’s that first job that often determines if they’ll become a regular customer.” But the relationship goes far beyond that.

The right attitude is key, according to Diaz. “We’ve always had in mind that this is a long-term relationship.” Even with practices that aren’t current customers, he said, “the biggest thing I want to be is a resource, because as a resource, that’s how I can begin to build trust with the person on the other line, and I think it’s important to know that I’m not just seeing green with them.”

Relationships are maintained through all customer-facing personnel, including customer service and sales. Pearl described a three-tier structure at ABB labs. “Closest to the customer, we have our lab sales organization. That organization is supported by a group of positions that we call Lab Advisors, and the third is a larger group of lab customer service people.” While the customer service team takes orders, and provides ETA updates and “light technical guidance,” the Lab Advisor role is “concierge-level customer support. It’s a blending of customer service and sales.”

Heffner noted that “We really try and customize the lab experience for each customer, so that way we offer them the exact level of support they need.” For some practices, “we will have direct sales representative involvement—following up, seeing what we can do, and things like that. Others just want us to take an order and leave them alone otherwise. It’s a lot like dating—we have to figure out each other to see what is going to work for both of us.”

Zeiss Vision Care operates a centralized customer service organization that serves practices around the country, which creates special challenges for maintaining customer relationships. According to Wolbeck, Zeiss has addressed this challenge by dividing the customer service team into nine regional groups. “I want the accounts to call in and be able to talk to the same agents day in and day out. Each ECP office has their own needs, and I want my customer service team to understand what those needs are and be able to accommodate them.”

For Goldrajch, the key to the relationship is “trust; that people trust that you can do what they need you to do.” He believes that the longevity of Pasch’s customer service staff helps create a sense of familiarity that is important in maintaining a close relationship. “We’ve always tried to act like we are a smaller laboratory, just to prove that we know [our customers]. Basically, we know people when they call in, without even asking them for their account number. In most cases, my customer service people that have been with me for a long time, they recognize the voices of the people, so I think that makes people feel good.”

Providing Exceptional Service
Good customer service means providing quality, on-time work under normal circumstances. But truly exceptional customer service occurs when circumstances aren’t normal. As Barry Leonard, OD, of Dr. Barry Leonard and Associates of Panorama City, Calif. said, “Real customer service is when things happen—glitches or complex cases, or you need something quick—that’s what separates the really good from the average.” Or, as Dr. Jennifer Khem-Castillo, owner of Eyepeople in Montibello, Calif. puts it, ”Number one is ensuring that all of our problems are met. They are solved in a timely manner, they follow up with you.”

Urgent or emergency jobs are one area where labs are often asked to go above and beyond. According to MacLeod, “Even if a customer calls on a weekend or off-hours, we’ll find a way to get the job to them. We’ll arrange for special deliveries.” Another unusual circumstance occurs when “we’re asked to find a discontinued frame. That takes work. We might call 10 customers before we find it.”

Diaz said that “we don’t work on the weekends, but we’ve had doctors call on Saturday saying, ‘I really need this job.’ We’ll open the lab up, even if it’s just one job, and we’ll drive it out wherever they are to help the customer out.”

Similarly, Lannon said that, “If something is needed on a Saturday morning, we’ll find somebody in the lab who’ll be willing to drive—it could be two hours—to deliver something to somebody.”

Problem jobs, often involving very strong prescriptions, are also a challenge for practices, and give labs the opportunity to excel. Dr. Moes Nasser, owner of three Vision Source practices in the greater Houston area, described one such circumstance. “There was a patient recently with an outside prescription from an ophthalmologist with 15 prism diopters. It took Zeiss two or three days to research, and finally they agreed that they would be able to do it…obviously that’s not their bread and butter lens—it’s not a lens that will make them money either.”

Jennifer Ebner, owner of Aspen Eyewear in Boulder, Colo., says that Pasch Optical helps her out with patients in need. “We try to do jobs for the needy whenever we can, and Pasch is always willing to work with me on lens prices, and deals when I’m just trying to get someone who needs glasses, who can’t maybe afford what they really need.”

External events can also challenge a lab to go above and beyond in serving customers. Mike McNally, vice president of operations and engineering for Hoya Vision Care, described Hoya’s actions in anticipation of Hurricane Laura. “In our New Orleans lab, which is right near where the hurricane came through, they talked to every single one of their customers before the hurricane hit, and coordinated with them and asked them, ‘which jobs do you want us to do now, which ones do you want us to hold, what do you need so we can help you out?’”

The biggest recent external event to impact the industry is, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has posed many challenges for ECPs, along with opportunities for labs to respond with exceptional service. During the shutdown, when lab business was down by 90 percent or more, many labs maintained extra capacity just to make sure customers were served.

Lannon said, “We didn’t shut any facilities at all…we needed to stay open, because there were some customers who had to be serviced. We could have done it with one lab, but we said we need to keep all labs open to serve customers locally and across the country.”

Pearl described a similar approach. “Operationally, we made decisions in the middle of this to hold key staff, to keep buildings at a low [level of] productivity as opposed to shutting them. Our lab group, our manufacturing teams, our customer service teams and all of our support teams operated straight through this.”

Diaz said, “We never closed these doors even in the depths of the pandemic. My partners and I said even if all our people are out, if all three of us are healthy, we’ll stay here every day and make sure those jobs go out.”

A particular challenge arose when many practices were shut down, but patients needed glasses that had already been ordered. As a result, many labs had to become more flexible in their shipping approach. Dr. Nasser faced the problem of fitting and dispensing completed eyewear to his patients when his offices were essentially closed.

The solution: “We had the [Zeiss] lab ship us all of our glasses to the practice administrator’s home, so every day he would make appointments with patients at the three offices… without any hitch, no problem at all.” The Zeiss lab also shipped glasses directly to patients, according to Lannon.

Roberta Thompson, manager of Bloom Family Eye Surgeons in Dayton, Ohio, also credited a lab with helping the practice through a COVID-related crisis. “When COVID-19 hit our world, Bloom Family Eye Surgeons was completely turned upside down,” she recalled. “For safety concerns, we went from a staff of 28 to a staff of five. We had no way to fabricate lenses during this time, however, the need was still there. Patients still needed to see.”

Thompson called R&D Optical in Cincinnati, Ohio and asked if they would be willing to help. “I explained our position and without hesitation they offered to help us in any way they could. They edged and fabricated any orders I sent them, they communicated if there were any issues—and I can honestly say there were none—they made all our jobs usually the day they received them, and they got them sent back out to me the next day.

“Because of their customer service, their willingness to help us without hesitation, their overall communication and the feeling they give off as a small, honest business, they have forever earned our business,” Thompson said.

In the unique circumstances of the pandemic, labs found new ways to serve their customers that sometimes went beyond the labs’ normal role. Diaz said that Simplify Optics helped some of their customers with the often difficult process of obtaining a Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) loan. “We helped a couple of them even get connected with the bank that we were using when it was really difficult to get that PPP loan from the bigger banks.” He also recalled a customer who approached him and said, “‘I’m helping out with frontline workers with exam fees and even with frames. Would you be willing to help with lenses?’ So we said ‘absolutely.’”

Pearl said that the shutdown put financial stress on both practices and their patients. “We found opportunities to provide cost relief in partnership with many of our customers. ABB labs now offers the ability for a customer to choose a stock lens instead of a manufactured lens. Because ABB has a significant stock optical business we’re able to pass through stock lens pricing with minimal handling and edging charges to be able to provide single vision prescriptions for a fraction of the surfaced price.”

Training and Educating the Customer’s Staff

As important as it is for a lab to educate and train its customer service team, many wholesalers believe it is equally important for the lab’s customer service and sales force to educate and train the ECP’s office staff.

“This is one of the things that help develop the business relationship and take it to the next level,” said FEA Industries Heffner. “Without this kind of interaction, you end up with a much more transactional relationship, which tends to be fairly basic in terms of how ‘needed’ a lab is. If the relationship is solely transactional, it makes it a lot easier for someone else to come in and convince the ECP to use them instead. If all you offer is a good price on product X, then someone with a better price can compete pretty easily. If, however, the lab has become an integral part of the ECP’s training and knowledge base, and the way they dispense and recommend products, it suddenly becomes much more difficult for them to switch to another lab.”

X-Tra Lite Optical’s Lin said that in-office training is often directly tied to a practice’s performance. “Our sales team would do in-office training and give the office staff their numbers for the month. They’d see how the practice is doing, and make suggestions on how they can maximize their sales.”

Pasch Optical’s Goldrajch also stressed the importance of training the doctor’s office staff. “In most of the cases, whenever there is a new hire in a particular account, we set up an appointment for training,” he said. “Whenever there is a new product, even our general manager will do training.”

Customer training is also priority at Carl Zeiss Vision. “We make sure that both sales and customer service representatives are trained in new products and services so they can personally educate our customers,” explained Matt Woelbern, who heads U.S. ECP marketing for Zeiss. “We have a vast library of training materials that reps can send immediately to their customers. We also have an online program that has product training that customers can take.”

Diaz of Simplify Optics also credits online learning from business partner VSP Optics as helping to strengthen relationships with customers. “VSP has done a really great job with U University,” he said. “Not only do we direct our customers to that portal, we send any new hire to U University for their first week of orientation.”

At McLeod Optical, Vision Source customers have access to product-specific training online through Essilor University and through the lab’s website. “We also have the monthly email blast, ‘The Mcleod Messenger,’ which is a good source for current products and promotion,” said Scott MacLeod. “So the ECP gets trained by labs, our sales force, the internet and friends. Going forward we will see more zoom meetings/internet, and sales calls will become more valuable.”

To supplement its online and in-person educational efforts, Zeiss sponsors ABO-approved courses in trade publications such as 20/20 Magazine. “In the past year we have done far more ABOs in the trade publications,” said Woelbern. “We’ve found that that’s where people go, so we’ve gone to where they’ve gone.”

COVID-19 has also put restrictions on lab tours, which are a popular way for labs to educate ECPs and office staff about lenses and lens treatments. “Customers learn something that they have never learned in the past, such as how AR works,” said Diaz.

“I love doing lab tours,” said Goldrajch, who has conducted as many as three tours a month of his Sheridan, Colorado facility. Both Pasch Optical and Simplify Optics have suspended their lab tours because of concerns about possible exposure to the coronavirus.

COVID-19 has also impacted the live educational events for ECPs that many labs sponsor. “We used to sponsor optician and optometric meetings and supply the speakers with tools and locations, but COVID is changing things,” said MacLeod.

Sometimes customers get to know their lab counterparts so well that they end up going to work alongside them. “We have a lot of people in customer service and sales that were dispensing opticians,” said Diaz. “Somebody who has that practical perspective and experience and was wonderful at dispensing eyewear sometimes makes an extraordinary lab rep. We have multiple opticians on our technical resolutions teams, many of our sales organization, many of our lab advisors that have experience in fitting, making lens choices, and dispensing eyewear. The VP of manufacturing for our lab is an accredited optician. A lot of our staff started out as our customers.”

How Production Efficiencies Improve Service
Although a lab’s customers may not always realize it, the reason they get their orders returned correctly and on time is the result of a collaborative effort between the lab’s production managers and technicians, often in consultation with equipment suppliers. Working together closely, they continually monitor and adjust the lab’s production processes to ensure all systems are operating at maximum efficiency.

The advent of automated “smart systems” within a framework known as Industry 4.0 facilitates the monitoring of the workflow and yields and can even predict when problems are likely to occur in the production line.

“Many technologies we use fall under the heading of ‘Industry 4.0,’ explained Lannon of Zeiss. “We’re manufacturing lenses using ‘big data,’ and using automation and robotics where possible. It’s all to deliver premium products at a very high quality as fast as possible.” Zeiss’ main lab, in Hebron, Ky., represents the company’s most advanced use of technology.

Lannon said that going paperless has allowed Zeiss labs to take a crucial step forward in terms of service. “Every lens we make, we can make without the use of a piece of paper (through) the use of RFID technology, and the use of, for want of a better term, ‘bar codes.’ We engrave a bar code on the lens, which has all the information about that lens, all through the process, and then onward to the customer, so if, in a year’s time, they wanted to send it back to us we can read the bar code on the lens and tell you everything about that lens. So it gives us full traceability of the product.”

A major advantage of being paperless is not having to touch the lens as often, Lannon said. “A typical lab would touch a lens 40, 45, 50 times throughout the whole process. We have that considerably reduced, which means less touch points, less likelihood that you’re going to do something wrong with the lens. You produce it at a higher quality and at a faster time frame, so you get it to the customer when they were promised it. It’s one of the many facets that have given us the opportunity to serve the customer better. We believe it’s not just unique at Zeiss, but it’s unique in the industry.”

The organization of the workflow also plays a key role in enabling the smooth operation of the lab and ensuring on-time delivery of Rx jobs. For example, Hoya’s IMC (Intercompany Manufacturing Center) in Dallas has an express line in addition to its main production line. “If something happens to a job and it comes in late, we know we can always move it to the express line (so) that we can move it to the front of the line to get it out faster to help maintain that service level,” explained Michael McNally, vice president of operations and engineering for Hoya.

Iggy Fernandez, Hoya’s central region vice president, who runs the IMC, said the lab has set up specific “buckets,” according to the job’s priority. A “specials” line has also been set up for jobs that require high cylinder or other special processing, he added.

“Normally we might have to outsource those jobs, but that negatively impacts service levels, so we actually moved one of those specials lines in-house to improve service,” explained McNally, who said it’s made a huge difference.

McNally also noted that while its Dallas lab processes jobs for high-volume customers as well as for individual ECPs, the company is building up its Ramsay, Minnesota lab specifically to handle the growing volume of work for ECPs.

A lab management system (LMS) typically integrates all the functions of the lab. Serving as the “brains” of the lab, the LMS and the software that runs it keeps lab personnel informed of every step in the production process.

Some labs, like ABB, design their own custom software. “Having our own software provides our operations team with easy access to data, when it’s needed, where it’s needed,” said Pearl. He observed, “Labs are assembly lines, but because of the unique nature of manufacturing eyeglass lenses and installing them into frames, they are assembly lines that do not benefit from doing the same thing over and over again. In fact, it’s the inverse. The intelligent software, coupled with the training and staff intelligence to make the tens of thousands of calibrations that occur almost unconsciously, enable us to achieve the desired result.”

Another essential function of the LMS is allowing customers to track the status of their orders. “If you’ve made a promise to the customer, you have to stick behind it,” said Wolbeck of Zeiss. “We know things happen occasionally, and jobs don’t go according to plan, but part of it is how you deal with it as well, keeping the account updated, offering something else in return for it when there is a problem. If you made the promise you need to deliver on that promise. I don’t care if it takes five phone calls back to the customer.” To keep customers informed about the status of their jobs, Zeiss sends out a nightly job status report and has also set up a dashboard customers can check periodically.

Heffner uses a few different methods to keep customers up to date on their job status. “First and foremost is our website, which will give customers a current listing of what jobs we have, where in the lab they are, and their tracking information once the jobs are completed and shipped. In instances where products that they order are put on back order, we will typically either email or call the customers (based on their account preferences) in order to notify them when things need immediate attention.”

Mobile technology also plays a role in connecting labs with customers. A good example is the Spectangle Pro software from Hoya. “The dispensers use an iPad and Hoya Spectangle Pro to take the patient’s picture and personalized measurements. Then we bring the picture into our system,” said Hoya’s Fernandez. “Our non-adapt rate is next to nothing. It’s really helped our customers sell a freeform product.”