How Can I Differentiate My Practice?

"We provide excellence in eye care." At Norwalk Eye Care, that sentence speaks to our core values.  Every staff member and doctor knows those words, and we use this to drive every decision we make in the office. We believe that not only do we provide eye care, but we change patients lives in the process.  How can we do this? We find ways to set ourselves apart.  We differentiate the care and services we provide and make every patient encounter count. In a world dominated by vision care plans, online services and competition, this can be difficult- but it is possible. 

While I was in college, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work at Mohonk Mountain House, a Victorian castle-like lodge located in my hometown of New Paltz, NY. As a gift shop employee, my days consisted of making milkshakes, scooping ice cream, pouring coffee and ringing up guest purchases. However, before I was able to step behind the cash register, I went through an intensive staff training. Every person that joined the staff, from maintenance to marketing to CEO, all went through the staff orientation. We learned the history of the hotel, the policies, and above all- how to interact with guests. There was no pointing to direct guests- instead we were to drop what we were doing and escort a guest where they needed to go if they were lost. We were to answer every question about the hotel possible, and if not able to, find the answer for them.  There was never a “I don’t know” or “I can’t help you” moment. Every encounter with a guest was an opportunity to wow them with customer service and enjoyment of working in such a beautiful place. I felt such an ownership of working there- I was proud of my training, proud that I could answer any question, and empowered to help guests even if something was not in my department.

I have taken this knowledge and tried to empower my staff and associates to feel the same way. We should all have a basic knowledge of how the office runs and feel that we can step in at any level to help. There are no departments or walls – every patient encounter should be treated as an opportunity to wow at every level.

How can we do this in the eyecare industry? Taking a page from our hospitality colleagues is a great start.

Provide Excellence in Customer Service

No office ever feels they provide poor customer service. But what do you do that sets your office apart?  We check vision insurance and medical insurance coverage on every single patient before they walk through our door.  Does this take extra staff time? Absolutely. But patients know exactly what their coverage is, and what they are responsible for before their appointment.  There are no surprises, no bills in the mail, and they can know exactly what they are eligible for. We get several comments from patients thanking us for going above and beyond. 

Staff training is also key for this.  We utilize scribes for pre-testing patients and in the exam rooms. We spend a lot of time role playing patient instructions, so they are efficient and effective. While it may be the 15th time that day our tech has done fundus photos, for the patient, it is their first time that year (and maybe ever!) We make sure the experience for each patient is consistent and that we are talking them through the process, each and every time. If you walk into a Ritz Carlton® in Orlando, New York City or San Diego, you expect to have a consistent experience.  The same should be true in our offices.

What other ways can we go above and beyond in our office? Do you offer 24/7 emergency care to patients?  Have special office celebrations for patients? Offer same day emergency appointments? Dispense glasses with a Godiva® chocolate? Small touches go a long way in providing the next level of patient satisfaction.


You can immediately tell when someone is smiling when they answer the phone. We encourage our front desk staff to smile, pick up the phone, and greet the patient. This goes a long way as a first experience for a patient. A great place to observe this is Disney® World. Cast members are eternally cheerful, even on hot humid days in Orlando.  You will never see them without a smile!

What Do You Offer?

I make sure to let every new patient (and remind my current patients!) know what we do in the office. How many of us have had a patient cancel a comprehensive eye exam because they are seeing their primary care physician for “pink eye”? How many of our patients know the emergency and urgent eye care we provide? I end each visit letting every patient know that in addition to routine care, we should be the ones they think of first for medical visits for their entire family throughout the year. Have an issue on a weekend? We have a doctor on call 24/7.  Most of us provide this care to our patients- but do the patients know? Education goes a long way. Utilize social media, patient communication software and office signage to get your message across. 

I had a great experience last year at a conference hotel in Phoenix. When I checked in, not only did they let me know about all of their spa offerings, they even offered to escort me there personally to give me a tour. 

Play to Your Strength

I have a passion for sports and fitness, and early on realized that I could combine this with optometry to provide athletes with sports and performance vision training. Finding a passion within optometry and adding that to your practice is a great way to differentiate your practice and provide your patients with another level of service. One of my associates loves seeing pediatric patients. She visited all of the local pediatrician offices to introduce herself and let them know what she could do for their patients. We also ask every parent when their children’s last eye exam was, and we let them know how lucky we are to have a pediatric specialist on staff. Have a passion for dry eye treatment? Myopia management? Low vision? Binocular vision? Concussion management? Specialty contact lenses? We are so fortunate as optometrists to have the ability to provide specialty services in addition to primary eye care in our practices. What a great way to differentiate ourselves and give our patients the very best.

Avoid "That’s Not My Job"

How many experiences have we had at a store where instead of being helpful, a worker was dismissive in saying “I don’t know, that’s not my job.” In our office, every point of patient care is everyone’s responsibility. While everyone can’t do every single thing, my staff are extremely cross trained and if they are unable to do something, they know the person to do it. Every person in my office can answer the phones, make appointments, and check insurance coverage. Almost every person is able to pretest a patient and scribe if needed. If staff are on vacation or out sick, we want our office to run as seamlessly as possible, and that may mean that people have to jump into roles they aren’t used to doing. This takes time, training and the right team, but is absolutely imperative to a great patient experience.

In my college gift shop days, there were often guests looking to find where things were. Instead of pointing, we were empowered to escort the guest to their location, even if that meant leaving  our “job”. Taking care of guests needs was our job, no matter the location. The same is true in our offices.

No Is Not an Answer

My partner has a great challenge for our staff- how can you go through the day without saying no to a patient? This is such a powerful exercise, and it can really change the tone of a conversation. Instead of “no Mrs. Jones, we cannot see you today, we are booked”, an answer may be “Mrs. Jones, would tomorrow at 9 am be convenient for you? We want to make sure you have plenty of time for your exam at a time that is convenient to you”. The same thing is said, but in a different way. Try it today- can you go through the day without saying no?

We have all had this experience at hotel check in. When we ask if our room is ready, the best hotels will offer to store our bags, text us as soon as it is ready and make us comfortable in another location- all without saying no!

While patients are not on vacation when they come to our office, I time and time again remember my hospitality training. How can I make each patient visit an experience, and provide them with excellence in eye care? If you are up for the challenge, I invite you on this journey to provide our patients with care they will never forget.

Jennifer Stewart, OD

Jennifer Stewart, OD is a partner at Norwalk Eye Care, a 2018 CooperVision Best Practices Award Winner. She is also the Chief Vision Officer at Performance 20/20, a sports and performance vision training facility in Stamford, Conn.  She can be contacted at

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