Overcoming the Ideology of Convenience: How Leaders Solidify the Core of a Business

Author: Bryan Hanson

We live in a world where it is easier to order your next meal, your favorite article of clothing, or any home improvement supply from the comforts of your couch, as you watch TV, than it is to jump in your car and drive to a local store to purchase the same said items. Clicking on a product from the comforts of home might seem more convenient – and the expedient nature of that purchase - often has more influence on our buying behavior than alternatives such as personalized service or cheaper prices.

The convenience of on-line buying, which for the past decade has been, more or less, confined to common goods like books, clothing, and food, has now moved into professional services. Tune into any televised sporting event and you can witness this transition first hand: Male pattern baldness, erectile dysfunction, orthodontics, and carefully tailored nutrition & diet plans are among the services, historically in need of some type of face-to-face interaction with a licensed professional prior to purchase, that are now sold direct to consumers online.

Audiology, like other medical professions, is not immune to this ideology of convenience. Even though the proposed FDA over-the-counter (OTC) hearing aid regulations, which have yet to take effect, restrict OTC candidacy to persons with perceived mild-to-moderate hearing loss, it is the ideology of convenience that reminds us degree of hearing loss is not a barrier to buying hearing aids online. Audiologists should expect anybody who is already ordering products from Amazon, or who is smitten with the convenience of avoiding a face-to-face visit with a licensed professional, may be easily enticed to try OTC hearing aids. Likewise, audiologists should expect many individuals, who buy hearing aids without first seeing a licensed professional, will be likely to need some type of face-to-face care at some point in the future.

The purpose of this article is to help clinical audiologists prepare their practices for changes in the way persons with hearing loss are likely to interact with them. Faced with the online availability of hearing aids, the ideology of convenience suggests a growing number of individuals will first seek solutions to improve their hearing on their own, run into problems or dissatisfaction and then, eventually and reluctantly, turn to a licensed professional to unravel their predicament.

These changes in the way persons with hearing loss find their way to a clinic warrant practice owners and managers to reexamine their value in the marketplace. Rather than dispensing products, audiologists may find themselves, instead, providing services to people who have already purchased a quality product but need to learn how to use it more effectively. Imagine, for example, how you might handle a situation where a family of Millennials have pooled their money to buy, direct from Amazon, a pair of expensive hearing aids for their 90-year old grandmother as a Christmas gift. After everyone has returned from their visit with Grandma, she is left to fend for herself, trying to figure out how to use these sophisticated hearing devices. Eventually, through one her friends, who you fitted with hearing aids several years ago, Grandma finds her way to your office for service and support. Will you attempt to re-sell her another set of hearing aids, even though the set she currently possesses is working perfectly fine? What type of service will you provide to her? And, how much will you charge for helping her?

These are all questions that address the core function of your business. Most audiologists would argue they are in the business of helping people. Historically, that help has been predicated on the sale of a pair of devices. Now that some individuals will opt to first purchase hearing devices direct, how will your business change with the times?

Regardless of the specific type of business, at the core of any successful enterprise are the people that interact directly with their customers. If you find yourself at or near the top of a business’ hierarchy, you are responsible for finding the right people to fill key roles within the organization and ensuring everyone in the clinic is working toward the same result. Here are three tactics that owners and managers can use to bring their staff together to face some of the expected turbulence associated with the arrival of OTC hearing devices and other potential disruptions in the market. After all, the cool-headed, logical, and thoughtful responses of organizational leaders will overcome even the biggest disruption to any business.
Informally during lunch time conversations or more formally during monthly staff meetings, ask all members of the staff how they expect OTC hearing aids, big-box retail and managed care third party contracts to change today’s business. These conversations allow you to engage all staff in strategic planning efforts, educate them on future trends and test assumptions about how to overcome these potential challenges.
Articulating a Vision
In short, articulating a vision starts with a simple question: For what do you want your business to be known? Given your background and training, we might assume the answer to this question for most audiology practices rests with their ability to deliver consistently high patient outcomes, regardless of the type of hearing device patients are wearing, or where the hearing aids were purchased.

As you roll up your sleeves and begin the process of implementing a strategy for your practice, remember that articulating a vision is a dynamic process that requires you to balance the daily needs of the business, such as cash flow and filling a schedule with patient appointments, with how the future may alter profitability. Articulating a vision for tomorrow must be balanced for the practical needs of today. At a minimum, leaders assume that over any five-year period, changes in consumer buying behavior, shifts in competitive forces, fluctuations in the economy, or updates to government regulations will create uncertainty and turbulence within their business. By boldly talking about how any of these forces could upturn your business, you can create an atmosphere in which staff is engaged in the process of proactively meeting future challenges faced by the practice.

Leaders within your organization must be familiar with future trends that might be affecting the overall profitability of the practice. With respect to audiology practices, this means becoming familiar with how OTC hearing aids, big-box retailers, and third-party managed care contracts could impact your business over the next two-to-five years. Since no one has access to a crystal ball, it is helpful to engage with professional organizations (e.g., ADA), academic institutions, and investment reports (e.g., Bernstein Reports) to learn more from experts who study business trends, demographic changes, new products and channels, and other issues that could unsettle the existing market.

Finally, a big part of articulating a vision, is continually talking with staff about what sets your practice apart from competitors and why you are in business. “Why we are different?” “Why we must make the world a better place?” These are some of the basic questions that necessitate the need for articulating a vision in your own practice. Given some of the market forces discussed above, it makes good sense to articulate a vision within an audiology practice that emphasizes effective patient counseling and patient centered communication – skills not dependent upon the sale of hearing devices inside your clinic.
Alignment among staff is unlikely to occur without trust between staff. Trust blossoms when the leader truly values the opinion of each staff member and takes the time to get to know each member of the staff as a person. Informal lunch time “shop talk” and more formal, weekly one-on-one meetings with each person on the staff go a long way toward getting but-in on any strategy plan or new business venture.
Creating Alignment
Building alignment among staff is the next logical step after articulating a vision for your practice. Creating alignment among staff is the act of gaining buy-in from them and, because it is dependent on the interaction of various personalities, it is akin to herding cats. Assuming staff is engaged in the process of helping persons with hearing loss become more effective communicators, and equally committed to the objectives of the practice, getting buy-in from your team on a vision for the practice becomes at little less stressful. The objective of the leader is to create an atmosphere where all staff members feel comfortable sharing their opinions and personally invested in the process of “owning” their roles within the practice.

Beyond dealing with the daily minutiae of running a practice, leaders must deliberately work to create alignment on executing a vision. This process starts with ensuring that everyone working within the practice, from back office scheduler to front line clinician, understands their contribution to patient care and why it is important to the success of the practice.

The essential ingredient, to building alignment within a practice, is clear and consistent communication. Leaders facilitate clear and consistent communication by being present every day, showing a passion for incremental improvement in all areas affecting the business, and showing respect and concern for every member of the staff. Starting with this mindset, enables the leader to allow for honest dialogue among the staff and ensures everyone has a say in planning for the future.

Through this dialogue, it is more likely that staff members understand and own the vision. Focus on clear, simple themes and messages that resonate with everyone on the team and you will be more likely to generate buy-in from staff on a consistent basis.
Championing Execution
Execution is the process of taking a vision, which is often expressed on a formal strategic plan, and turning it into reality. Without the commitment and active championing of a leader’s vision, the ideas, no matter how great, won’t be turned into an executable plan. Let’s look at how leaders within an organization turn visions into results. When it comes to execution, leading by example, best described as never asking someone of the staff to do something you would not agree to do yourself, means you are breaking strategic plans into smaller actionable chunks. The role of the leader is to reduce the goals of the strategic plan, from seemingly insurmountable, to small actionable steps that can be executed on a weekly or monthly basis by staff. Further, it is the responsibility of leaders to follow up with staff in a systematic manner to ensure they have the necessary resources to complete each step of the plan.

It is normal human behavior to be preoccupied with the daily grind of managing a clinic. The job of leaders is to rise above the routine work within the clinic to help staff visualize what needs to be executed today for the clinic to be successful a year or two into the future. By conducting organized staff meetings with a planned agenda, routinely talking about trends than might impact their business, and infusing trust into their relationships across the entire staff, leaders provide the structure for executing strategic plans.
Establish a daily rhythm for discussion and actions around short term goals and key performance metrics (KPIs) that drive success in your practice. Strive to make discussion around these items as non-judgmental and enthusiastic as small talk about your favorite television show or sporting event.
Leaders Helps Others Plan for the Future
Many facets of healthcare are at a crossroads, and audiology is certainly one of them. Audiology practices can expect substantial challenges to their current business model, including a growing number of individuals choosing to self-direct their care by purchasing hearing aids without the assistance of a licensed professional. From a consumer’s perspective, the ability to self-direct care, from the comforts of home or from behind the counter at the drugstore, has many benefits. The ideology of convenience suggests that purchasing OTC hearing devices is more convenient and less expensive. However, audiologists know that many people who choose to self-direct their hearing care are likely to encounter complicating factors that require a face-to-face appointment with a licensed professional. This scenario is one example of how future challenges faced by the profession require the work of leaders with use vision, alignment, and execution to refocus their business to meet these changing forces.

A few good leaders within any organization can create an atmosphere where any obstacle can be overcome. The task is simple to discuss but it can be difficult to implement. If you strive to be a leader within your practice, show up every day ready to tackle any task, strive to become knowledgeable about trends in audiology and the hearing industry that could disrupt your current business model, and enthusiastically engage staff in the process of creating a plan that addresses how your business will meet changes and challenges. Use vision, alignment, and execution to help achieve desired results now and in the future.

To learn more about how leaders within an organization create favorable results, see The Work of Leaders: How Vision, Alignment and Execution Will Change the Way You Lead by Julie Straw, Mark Scullard, Susie Kukkonen and Barry Davis, published by Wiley Press, San Francisco, CA in 2013.    
Bryan Hanson is a recruiter for JellTech Consulting, LLC, in Germantown, WI. He can be reached at bhanson@jell-tech.com.