Friday 24 May 2019

Specsavers see benefit of focus on consistent customer service


Business: Specsavers Liffey Valley

Set up: 2015

Founder: Lisa Walsh, Conor Dewey, Emma Conroy and Patrick Dennehy

Turnover: €2.8m

No of Employees: 34

Location: Liffey Valley

Conor Dewey, retail director at Specsavers in Dublin's Liffey Valley. Photo: David Conachy
Conor Dewey, retail director at Specsavers in Dublin's Liffey Valley. Photo: David Conachy

The ophthalmic industry has gone through significant change in the last 30 years. In my first job I worked for a business that shared its premises with an ophthalmic practice. I got to know about the industry and was always fascinated with its advancing technology.

Obviously, the wearing of spectacles is principally to enable improved sight. But now it is also a fashion business, with celebrity endorsements and designer labels driving volume. Most of us that need corrective lens are likely to own more than one pair.

When deregulation impacted the industry in the 1980s, the arrival of disruptors changed the traditional model. Pricing, in particular, became more transparent.

Optics was flipped on its head and opticians were soon opening stores on the main street. Apparently 60pc of people either need or have corrective lens of some sort, so it is a booming business with lots of potential.

Guernsey-based Doug Perkins and his wife Mary Perkins founded Specsavers Optical Group in 1986, with a mission to provide affordable optical care for everyone.

Thirty-two years later, they are now at the helm of a sizable organisation with 2,000 stores in 10 countries. Known for its creative and fun TV advertisements, the brand is synonymous with ophthalmics in this country, with 57 stores and 65pc market share.

Its tagline 'you should have gone to Specsavers' is now a well-known catchphrase.

The business has reached scale by employing a 'shared venture partnership' model. Each store is part-owned by the founders and a team that's local to each store.

That's franchising to you and me, except this company believes it is more than that. The local team in each store is made up of at least one ophthalmic optician or a retail director. This protects the clinical integrity and brand consistency.

Many other large multi-site franchise organisations prefer to own each location. But Specsavers believes that the passion and accountability that comes with a shared ownership model is more inclusive and motivating. It is very inspiring to see how employees that started out at entry level can work their way to being entrepreneurs and, ultimately, owning their own store.

The store in Dublin's Liffey Valley is a great example of this model. Owned by four locals, the retail side is headed up by Lisa Walsh and Conor Dewey. The ophthalmic practice is headed up by Emma Conroy and Patrick Dennehy. Lisa and Emma have been with the company a long time having previously owned a Specsavers store in Tallaght.

The Business Model

At the heart of the business is a belief that great customer experiences deliver financial results. After meeting and chatting with the four owners, I was left in no doubt that this mantra is genuine.

I quizzed and cross-checked them to ensure the answers were not just prepared for me. Having mystery shopped the store prior to our meeting, I saw first-hand how I and other customers were treated. Dublin-based Duncan Graham is the retail director for Ireland, Scotland and Spain. He makes regular visits to stores and, even for him, the focus of his conversations is more likely to be on customer service scores than the financials.

"This is a competitive industry and we are convinced that our success over the last 30 years has come from being genuinely customer-centric," he said.

In the corporate shared ownership structure, there is full support from head office for all the back-office tasks, such as clinical, financial management, HR, training and marketing.

This frees up the local team to run their business from the front. And it ensures that owners are always present in the store and working at the front line.

The Future

"With 28pc growth in 2018, we want to drive that on some more in the coming years. With an ever-expanding designer range, hearing aids and other healthcare services coming in the future, we're confident of even more significant growth," said Lisa Walsh.

Specsavers Ireland has already raised over €75,000 for the Hope Foundation, a charity that helps street children in Kolkata, India.

This coming year, the Liffey Valley team will aim to raise €100,000 to help purchase life changing surgical equipment to combat cataracts. They also intend to maintain the service that Specsavers is already providing.

It is committed again to sending another team in November to test eyes and give glasses to communities that may have never had an eye test before.

Sunday Indo Business

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