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From Entry-Level To Entrepreneur: Key Lessons From My Journey

Women listening to a female speaker

My first memory of my dad’s optical store was when I was about 6 years old — I would sit in the waiting room watching the opticians help people select glasses. It was ingrained in me from that early age that I would follow in his footsteps and choose the optical industry for my profession.  My father sold his optical store to a retail chain by the time I reached my teenage years and that would be where I would start working, at sixteen years old.

Working on the frontlines of retail optical gave me the foundation that has truly built a deep understanding of what is needed to be successful in this industry.  I was lucky to have worked for a retail chain that was one of the best run organizations that I have seen in the optical world.  There were many things that the retail chain did well, but the two that I have taken with me daily into my career were:

  1. Listen to the Customer They would ask every single customer after each transaction how their experience was from start to finish. Then they analyzed the responses and made business decisions and changes to the organization based on those results. This optical chain was customer centric before that was even a thing.

  1. Train the Team They realized that highly trained employees equated to delighted customers, which increased revenue.  They spent a great deal of time and effort training managers and employees on everything — from service skills to sales and product training.

I managed some of their largest one-hour optical superstores and worked my way to being one of their first corporate trainers. I was at the chain for many years before they were acquired by Luxottica Retail. At the same time, I was recruited by Bausch & Lomb and decided it was time to try outside sales. As a sales rep, it was amazing to now step foot in every type of eyecare office and see all the differences and similarities. I learned a lot while being out on the road as a rep for a few years — I’ll leave you with my top three takeaways that can be applied to any business:

  1. Do what your competitors are not willing to do.

  2. Be a resource, be valuable and give without expectations.

  3. Be helpful. Be the expert.  Be visible and easy to contact.

I spent the next year in clinical consulting for Optos; At this point, I had spent a good deal of time in optical and eye care, yet spending a year in clinical taught me that our patients do not know enough about their eye health and taking care of their eyes. I will say this to all ECPs: take more time teaching patients the value of annual eye exams and eye health awareness. Dentists have this down pat…get your teeth cleaned and checked yearly or lose them…we need to be more direct and commanding in our messaging.

In 2009, I started my first business, Total Focus Consulting, and landed a contract with an optometry buying group in Canada, called Eye Recommend. I started as a training and events consultant, but would become the Vice President of Training and eventually, the VP of Marketing, Training and Events. I applied my years of corporate training and event planning and took on an entirely new role in marketing. I love how progressive this group was and how open to change and innovative ideas they were. Collaborating now solely with independent optometrists allowed me to get into the depths of their challenges and opportunities.

Here are three insights I took away from working with these practices, which are still top ways to help them grow:

  1. Staffing Challenges are the same in many businesses — finding, keeping and maintaining staff is a top concern.

  2. Training Often, many practitioners do not have the resources of an optical chain, so training can be little to non-existent. At that time, we had surveyed the organization and only 3% of doctors, opticians, optometrist assistants or any employees had ever had any sales related training.

  3. Differentiation and diversification Standing out from the competitor down the street was, and still is, a challenge.

In 2014, it was while I was looking for optometry marketing ideas that I met my business partners and began the path toward full entrepreneurism. In 2015, Marketing4ECPS was born. I knew that our industry needed a marketing company that had eyecare and optical knowledge, as well as understood the nuances that would affect advertising. We built one of the first custom digital agencies focused in eyecare. I could give you a list of learnings from being an entrepreneur, but my favorite saying is, “I wish I had done it sooner”.  It takes grit, determination, tough skin, hustle and tenacity, but it is one of the most worthwhile things I have ever done.

I can now add ‘Best Selling Author’ to my list of achievements. I wrote and published a book in 2022 called, The Digital Sales Rep, which details the steps to building a personal brand, connecting, networking and prospecting on digital and social platforms.  It has sold over six thousand copies and is available on Amazon today.

As of right now, I have left the marketing agency in the capable hands of my business partners while I work on what I am passionate about: speaking and training.  I am writing a new book on building your personal and professional online brand and taking that message all over North America to different conferences — I hope to see you in my travels!

As I write this blog, I am also writing my acceptance speech for an award being presented to me by the Optical Women’s Association at their Champagne Breakfast in New York during Vision Expo. It is called the Pyxis award — which is a constellation in the southern sky known as The Compass — it is awarded to those that have given direction and support to other women in optical. In my speech I give recognition to three mentors from throughout my life:

  1. My father, who told us kids that whatever we wanted was right there in front of us, we just needed to go and get it.

  2. A trainer, who engrained in us that whatever we wanted was one step over fear, and we just needed to have courage and get out of our comfort zone.

  3. A boss, who said that whatever we wanted was right there at the top of that mountain. It was not going to be easy or fast, but that it would be worth it when we reached the top.

I leave you with this: Look for all the lessons along the way, be a mentor and pay it forward. Be a compass to those around you. And, keep your eyes looking forward, whatever you want might be right there in front of you today.

With optical love…

Written by Trudi Charest

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