More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, optical labs are still adjusting to the disruptions the pandemic has caused to the eyecare practices and optical retailers they service. With many lab customers operating on limited hours and under strict health restrictions that prevent making in-person sales calls, labs have had to develop new approaches to educating ECPs and staff about new products and services. In particular, many labs are shifting from face-to-face product demonstrations and traditional marketing materials and embracing virtual consultations.

The changes reflect a larger trend that is reshaping the way B2B companies are serving their customers. According to research from McKinsey and Company, the majority of B2B companies have shifted their go-to-market model from traditional to digital, with a heavy reliance on video and online chat. (see chart).

Despite technological and logistical challenges, labs have faced the pandemic head-on and found new and improved ways to share their products and stay competitive.

“COVID has forced us to re-evaluate the way that we connect with customers and it has also opened up many new opportunities,” said Heather Padgett, national marketing communications manager for Hoya Vision USA. “We have upgraded our communications plan via social media and virtual technology to allow us to connect with customers quicker and continue to be a business partner to them.”

Hoya quickly developed new tools to communicate with customers and keep them up-to-date on the latest product technology. The most significant tool is Hoya Hub, a platform for virtual calls, meetings, and webinars.

“Hoya Hub was created when we were looking for ways to help ECPs meet patients’ evolving needs, promote business success, and give them a user-friendly tool to help their daily business,” Padgett explained. “It further amplified our strong partnerships with eyecare professionals to drive digital solutions to their practice.”

Though some customers and even Hoya staff were nervous about taking on virtual customer communication, she said her team quickly got on board and were able to successfully use the virtual tools to their advantage. “As with anything new, everyone was a bit hesitant at first. But once they were trained and allowed to use it for a couple of weeks, the new form of communication was well-received by all,” said Padgett.

A year into the pandemic, Hoya has already adopted many of the temporary measures into their future plans for customer outreach. She noted the way people engage with clients has changed and companies need to adapt to this new model.

Padgett believes that a “low touch/no touch” approach is the best way to work with customers in the COVID era. “Having marketing material available in a digital format allows for customers and our Hoya team members to have less/low/no touch which minimizes the spread of germs and still gets them the information needed,” she said. “Change isn’t necessarily a bad thing—always look at a difficult situation with a different outlook because it could indeed be the change that was needed.”

Building New Customer Interaction
The pandemic has significantly changed how labs communicate with their customers on several levels. Besides losing access to in-person consultation, many labs have also lost access to the sales and marketing advantages of conferences and trade shows.

Companies in all industries remain reluctant to return to the trade show floor until there are clearer guidelines on health and safety. According to a Center for Exhibition Industry Research (CEIR) research poll in July 2020, 69 percent of trade show organizers attributed the persistence of corporate “no travel” policies and the impact they might have on participation levels as a reason for foregoing a 2020 in-person event.

ABB Optical Group, a leading soft contact lens distributor and optical lab operator, made significant changes to how they communicated with their customers as industry trade shows like Vision Expo East were canceled or postponed.

“With the cancelation of Vision Expo East 2020, our team quickly developed a ‘Virtual Learning Expo’ featuring several free, educational webinars on specific programs, products and services designed to help ECPs connect with their patients while maintaining a “protect and grow” mentality on their businesses,” said Darcy Blessing, ABB Optical Group’s senior director of marketing and communications. “Since our ECP customers could not come to us, we brought the best of ABB to them.”

One of ABB’s moves was to develop programs that would help eyecare providers stay in business and hopefully continue to grow their sales.

“From a new/different need in PPE to a telehealth solution to enabling economically efficient ways for ECPs to deliver the product directly to their patients, ABB felt that creating these programs and then finding the most effective way to communicate and deliver them was the best way we could add value and support our customers,” Blessing said.

ABB also implemented various virtual tools to connect with the company’s customers, including virtual webinars, specialty lens wet labs, and “Lunch & Learn” sessions hosted by the ABB Specialty Vision Products educational team.

“Members of the ABB leadership team were guests on various podcasts and programs to inform ECPs about our COVID-19 initiatives and that we were committed to supporting them,” she said. ”We launched Ceros, an interactive, digital experience that provided our sales team with the ability to present our products, services, and solutions to customers in a virtual setting.”

One of the many lessons ABB has learned during the pandemic is the importance of collaboration with colleagues within their own company and with extended teams in the industry.

“To be effective and truly focus on what is important—providing essential eyecare to patients—we have to work diligently, together, with every company, service provider, and vendor to adapt and evolve as efficiently as possible in this new, post-COVID-19 environment,” Blessing stated.

Blessing emphasized that the effects of the COVID-19 shutdowns have been especially damaging to small businesses and that ABB made sure that the company supported its customers by doing everything they could to help ECPs keep their business afloat.

Blessing said once the pandemic reached the shutdown phase, ABB launched an ECP Virtual Resource Center in April of 2020. The virtual hub provides ECPs with information and resources to help them continue to reach out to and retain patients, provide education and outreach specifically to ECPs, and offer planning and strategy support for their practices.

“This proved to be a valuable initiative for both the ECP and their patients, and helped many practices continue to provide their patients with the essential vision care products they need, even while shut down during the height of the pandemic, she said. “Many practices who offered online ordering began to heavily communicate that fact to their patients.

“For those practices that at the start of the shutdown did not offer online ordering, our team worked with them to implement an online web store platform, branded to their practice, which gives customers the ability to order their contact lenses online from the ECP they trust.”

She said this gave practices the ability to “stay open” 24/7 and compete with online retailers. She added that practices that implemented online ordering and embraced promoting online ordering, in conjunction with the free direct-to-patient initiative, were able to keep revenue within their practice and keep their patients from using online competitors.

ABB continues to adjust its outreach programs as the country moved between different stages of lockdown.

“As the U.S. slowly began to reopen during the early summer months of 2020, we continued our efforts to assist ECPs as they reopened their practice doors and geared up to recover lost business while protecting their patient’s safety,” she said.

Blessing said customer response to the outreach and virtual programs was positive, adding that eyecare providers appreciated ABB’s commitment to helping them during uncertain times.

“There is no question that COVID-19 has had and will continue to have a profound impact on every industry; but if there is one thing that is certain, it is that the optical industry is resilient, dynamic, and filled with passionate professionals that will chart the course for successfully navigating through this changed landscape,” she said.

“We are certain that the eyecare industry will continue to thrive, and we are all working with the same goal in mind of ensuring that ECPs can successfully continue to provide essential health care of the best quality to every patient.”

Reimagining Customer Engagement
Changing how companies engage with their customers was one of the greatest challenges optical labs faced during the pandemic. Even the most marketing-savvy labs had to develop new and innovative ways to share product information without in-person contact.

“Like everyone, the pandemic has caused us all to reimagine how we can engage with consumers and support eyecare professionals,” said Patience Cook, director, North America marketing for Transitions Optical. “Even though the physical aspects of events have changed, it’s always been our goal to keep our desired outcomes intact—specifically engaging with and providing education to eyecare professionals.”

Cook said Transitions is looking at ways to add value and convenience to the patient resources they provide to their eyecare providers. This includes adding resources like virtual tools so patients can experience wearing their products without having to be in the store.

To connect patients with Transitions lenses outside the practice, Transitions Optical introduced the Transitions Virtual Try-On immersive, augmented reality experience where patients can see themselves in all seven Transitions Signature GEN 8 lens colors and choose from a selection of frame styles even before they enter the practice. Patients can access the virtual try-on at on their desktop, mobile or tablet devices—minimizing the need for patient contact in the practice.

Cook said that since Transitions Optical cannot currently host in-person events, it continues to look for ways to engage with the industry. “We engaged our Transitions Pro Forum and Change Agents to guide us on what support they need.

They were looking for online education, and they wanted to feel a sense of community to be able to talk with and engage their peers.”

One of the most important steps Transitions has taken in response to the pandemic is to move their education in-person events to virtual formats such as a Transitions Day of Education that offers CE-accredited content and speakers. Transitions Optical also hosted smaller group sessions, Transitions Trivia events and reached out to ECPs directly for more personal points of engagement.

In February, the company brought eyecare professionals from around the world together online through a first of its kind, global virtual event—Transitions The Pulse. The event explored the state of the industry globally, and Transitions leadership provided a sneak peek into future Transitions lens products, protection, and style.

The response to Transitions Optical’s outreach programs has been significant, according to Cook. She noted that the organization saw an increase in attendance for CE courses versus their in-person events. Cook said Transitions Optical will continue to provide eyecare professionals and patients with valuable virtual tools and education.

“We know there are advantages to virtual events that make it easier for many eyecare professionals to attend and for us to expand our reach. We’re glad to be able to offer these and believe that we’ll continue to do so even after the pandemic ends,” she said.

“We all miss many aspects of the in-person environment as well, and the many advantages that come with that—networking and immersive engagement. We are continuously evolving and looking for ways to offer a variety of formats to meet our customer’s changing needs,” Cook said.