As an owner of a private practice, you always need to be thinking of ways you can set yourself apart from the competition. At least that’s how Dr. Alison Vega of Ascent Audiology & Hearing of Olympia sees it. Day in and day out, she racks her brain on ways she can communicate reasons why existing and new patients should choose her practice over her competitors.
Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Vega about her competition in the space and how she differentiates her practice.
Can you give us an overview of your background and Ascent Audiology & Hearing of Olympia?
My name is Alison Vega, and I’m a doctor of audiology. I obtained my doctoral degree from Utah State University in 2005. I started my career working at an ENT office as an audiologist, and I stayed there for eight years. I left because there wasn’t much more for me to do besides running basic hearing tests and fitting hearing aids, and I wanted to focus more on treatment options that were beyond their world. I wanted to be more autonomous because I knew exciting things were happening in the audiology realm.
I made a connection with somebody who helps people put private practices into place, and I was able to get some mentoring to open up Ascent Audiology & Hearing in Olympia in 2011. I was the primary practitioner in my offices until last year when I hired a hearing instrument specialist to help me with patient care and follow ups. I hired another doctor of audiology in June of this year, so now I’m feeling like I’ve kind of made it!
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a practice owner?
The biggest challenge is hard to identify, but I would say that it’s communicating to my existing patients and potential new patients why they should choose my clinic. There’s a lot of competition. I can only imagine as a consumer how confusing that is. There’s hearing instrument specialists, there are audiologists, there’s doctors of audiology… Some people enjoy shopping around for a provider, so I spend a lot of time trying to educate people on why they should come to me. What makes me so different? What makes me so great? It can be kind of exhausting!
When people leave for competitors, is it always because of pricing, or is there anything else they tell you?
It is absolutely, 100 percent price. They always say, “I know I get better care here, I know you’re more skilled, I love your staff, I love your office, but it just comes down to price.” And so I have to think a lot about how my products are priced. If somebody comes in and says “I’m gonna go to somewhere else, and it’s gonna cost me this much”, do I have a product that’s comparable in cost? And if I do, I can pretty much guarantee that they’ll buy here instead because they know that they are getting more when it comes down to dollars out of their pocket.
What do you say to patients to convince them to choose your practice over others?
Well, I typically start with letting them know that I studied for eight years in the entire hearing health system. I tell them that I’m going to create a treatment plan for them that will help them hear the way they want to hear, and it might include hearing aids. I tell them that they are not here to simply buy hearing aids; they’re here to get help for their problems and I’m going to figure out how to do that.
I think when I map that out a little bit, people understand that they’re getting a lot more value. At my clinic, they get the counselling, they get the treatment plan, they get the follow up, and they get monitoring over time. It’s a very different experience.
Are there any other ways you can think of to separate a practice from competitors?
Well, I think about that question every day. This is something that I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about because it has been coming on for a long time and I don’t see it going away anytime soon.
One thing that I have thought of is offering custom products. It’s not something I’ve typically done as an audiologist because I haven’t had as much success there as I would have liked, but it is a way to differentiate myself. Also, I am in the process of developing some aural rehab programs for new users, giving them the opportunity to come in and learn a little bit more.
When it comes to diffentiating yourself, it’s about having a product that’s comparable in price, but offers more. And I think that’s really challenging for private practices because every dollar counts. So I think it’s a really complicated question, but differentiating myself and my services is probably the best answer that I have right now.
Have you thought of any ways you can convince a person buying cheap hearing aids to care more?
Third parties, like spouses, are so influential. Meeting spouses and finding out their concerns is a critical piece to that puzzle. When you can align with a spouse, it helps to rope in the patient as well because they care about their spouse. They may not care about their own hearing, but they care about their spouse being happy. When they see that their hearing means a lot to their spouse, it gets them to care more.
I had one patient who laughed through his entire hearing aid evaluation. His wife was so intent on him getting hearing aids, but he was like “Oh I really don’t care. Whatever.” And I was telling him about cognitive behaviors and auditory cortex weakness, and he kept laughing at me because he didn’t care. He said, “It’s important to my wife so I’m doing it.” I see him for follow up and he says he wears them every day. He says, “I don’t care to hear better, but she really wants me to wear them, so I’ll do it for her.”
Do you think competition will increase with the availability of OTC hearing aids?
This is so reminiscent of the Reader’s Digest $69.95. There was a time where I was seeing patients that we’re like, “I bought a hearing aid from Reader’s Digest; it was $69.95 and it was crap.” But they then realized that although it was crap, it helped them hear the TV a little better, so then they finally came in and invested in real help.
I guess I’m optimistic and hopeful that we’re going to see that type of situation again. I don’t think they [OTC hearing aids] are going to kill an audiologist’s career or private practice. I think that they could actually impact other businesses more because, right now, many patients come to me because they were referred by their doctor. I give them a diagnostic test and they decide if they want to get high-quality hearing aids from me or if they want to get something cheap.
What is the most important advice you could give to an audiologist thinking about opening up their own practice today?
If you really want to go into private practice, pick something and do it really well. Don’t try to do everything all at once, at least not to start. Pick one thing and do it well, and try to find opportunity where other people aren’t doing it well or aren’t doing it at all. Once you’ve mastered that, then you can expand.
I look at my competition who are trying to be jacks of all trades, carrying all six manufacturers, and I don’t think that’s effective. I think you need to pick one thing and be the master at it. That’s how you’re going to build your reputation for being an expert who is really serious about what they do. We don’t need jacks of all trades, we need specialists.
About Dr. Alison Vega
Dr. Alison Vega is a native of the Pacific Northwest. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in Speech Pathology and Audiology from Western Washington University and her doctoral degree in Audiology from Utah State University. She began practicing in Olympia in 2004 and opened her private practice in 2011. She serves on the Washington State Board of Hearing and Speech as well as volunteers her time in the community, providing hearing screenings and advocating for those who have hearing loss.