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  The Optical X-Files: Advance Optical's unusual attention to detail

by Timothy Herrick, from 20/20's online magazine

What jobs should a dispenser send to an independent lab with a reputation for customizing lenses and finding solutions for hard-to fit-patients? For Steve Edelstein, optical manager at Rochester Eye Center, a two-location ophthalmology office in Rochester, N.Y., the answer is, essentially, all of them. Edelstein has used Rochester-based Advance Optical as his primary lab for several years because of—rather than in spite of—its reputation for accuracy on specialty work.

“As an ophthalmology practice, you really see everything,” says Edelstein. “But I want the minus single-vision lenses and the progressives to be processed as accurately and precisely as the slab-offs or tougher prescriptions.”

“We’re sticklers for detail,” admits Advance president Morley Gwirtzman. “We have the reputation of constantly calling our customers about little things. We double-check everything. In the lab itself, we have a series of checks before final inspection.”

As an example of the lab’s philosophy, Gwirtzman relates a story where a long-time customer recently sent him a card saying: “You’re my favorite lab because you let nothing go by.”

“You always hear the complaints, so it’s nice to hear the compliments as well,” says the lab owner. “We pride ourselves on constant and in-depth communication with dispensers.”

Advance Optical is a medium-sized lab, processing 250 to 300 jobs per day. The bulk of its orders come from dispensers in New York State. Gwirtzman’s father opened Advance in 1922 and the lab remains family owned today. Advance had a strong following in the frame distribution market until the 1980s. Then, frame sales shifted to direct sellers and buying groups and the lens category expanded and diversified with premium lenses. Although it has maintained a thriving frame, sunwear and optical accessories business, Advance has also upgraded to state-of-the-art processing equipment and renewed its commitment to premium lenses.

“We have expertise built upon decades of delivering harder jobs,” says Gwirtzman, adding that this expertise is reinforced by an internal training program. “The techs remain current on all new lens products and processing procedures.”

The lab’s reputation for accurately processing specialty work has been enhanced by its ABO-certified seminar program. Every six weeks or so, Arthur Kolko, vice president at Advance, presents a lecture/workshop entitled “The Optical X-Files” to such groups as the local chapter of the New York State Society of Opticians and other eyecare professionals throughout the Empire State. The seminar, as well as the customer service philosophy of Advance Optical, is intended to be eyecare staff-friendly, which also accounts for the lab garnering troublesome as well as bread-and-butter orders from its client base.

“The fact of the matter is, there’s a tremendous amount of turnover at the retail level,” explains Kolko. “Sometimes you are dealing with a real knowledgeable optician, other times you are dealing with a staff member who has not been working with lenses very long. They may not know what an aspheric is or that you can get an aspheric for that +2.00D as well as that +12.00D and create a job that is the best it can be. We walk them through the ordering process.”

Like the television program from which the seminar’s name is taken, “The Optical X-Files” explores the unusual in lens processing work. Instead of aliens and the paranormal, Kolko investigates lens products. His main thrust is using lenses and lens treatments to solve patient problems, especially hard-to-fit prescriptions. According to Kolko, the seminar begins with a primer on basics, then explores some of the problematic prescriptions.

“We go into everything from slab-offs to progressives and aspherics,” he says. “Not everybody realizes that the new lens designs and materials are available in a wider range of Rxs. We want to take the fear out of dispensing some products.”

“It’s one of the most informative and entertaining lens seminars I’ve attended,” adds Edelstein, a 30-year dispensing veteran. “It’s both a refresher course and a way to look at new products that aren’t in the manufacturer’s brochures or trade journals.”

At the conclusion of the course, Kolko has all seminar attendees fill out a questionnaire. One question asks: “What did you learn?” According to Kolko, the lab has received answers ranging from the need to have a compatible hard coat for anti-reflective (A-R) coating, to what is a double-concave to what is prism-thinning. “There’s no common trend of what people don’t know,” he says. “That’s why they need a lab to depend on, so they can get the best choice of lens products for each individual prescription. This is not a sales seminar, but if I get a call from someone wanting to use our lab, great. Because we go into how to dispense some of the tougher prescriptions and complex lenses, they come to us for that and then start expanding what orders they send us.”

As a result, Kolko estimates that approximately 80 percent of the lab’s lens output falls into the premium lens category, which, broadly defined, includes polycarbonate, high-index plastic, photochromics and A-R coated lenses as well as progressives, aspherics and other lens designs. “At least 10 percent of those jobs are what might be classified as problematic prescriptions, which means either a higher power or lots of prism,” says Kolko. “These patients go to the independents more often than not, because they can get the eyewear they need. What’s not so well known, is that they can benefit from premium lenses too.”

Surprisingly, in this age of in-office edging, 85 percent of Advance’s output is complete jobs “Again, it’s our attention to detail,” says Kolko. “A lot of the premium product and tougher lenses. The dispenser doesn’t want the risk of spoiling them in their edging lab. On the other hand, especially with some of the newer frame designs, the measurements have to be exact. The rimless and three-piece mountings take a real knack and it helps that the lab surfacing the job will finish and mount those lenses.”

It’s this kind of expertise Advance customers applaud. “If something isn’t right on the order, if the lens is not the best choice, I get a call before it is processed,” says Edelstein. “They have an unsurpassed level of knowledge and skill, and they know I want the best for our patients.”

“That’s our partnership with accounts,” adds Gwirtzman. “They depend on us to know the details.”

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