CHICAGO (TheStreet) -- Marketing is a challenge for every start-up business. When you're barely bringing in enough revenue to cover rent and payroll, it's hard to justify spending on advertising. But how else can you get the word out that your company exists?
Optometrist Justin Bazan is proof that you don't need to hire a marketing expert to get noticed. His Brooklyn-based practice,
, uses social media to attract educated, plugged-in customers; the company's Web presence, with its active blog, Twitter and Facebook pages, makes clear that this is not a traditional eye doctor.
The tech bells and whistles may bring in new clients, but the key to retaining them is old-fashioned customer service. "In retail, people talk about providing service, but it's relatively rare to get clients through word of mouth," Bazan says. He was determined to do just that, by creating a welcoming, upbeat environment and giving customers access to the newest medical technology.
Bazan is running the practice he always dreamed of, but his current success is a direct result of his greatest professional failure: two years ago, he was fired from his job.
A native of Utica, N.Y., Bazan completed his optometry training at SUNY in Manhattan. He was hired by a major optical chain and worked at different locations in New York City. But it turned out he wasn't really a chain type of guy.
"I was always looking to do things my way, and I had my own ideas about patient care," he says. He started a blog, which got great feedback from customers -- but not so much from the head office. "I was branding myself rather than the company," he acknowledges. He ended up losing his job, but he realized that his embrace of social media could be the basis for building a new business.
"Getting fired was one of the best things that ever happened to me," he says. "It kicked me into high gear."
He knew the right location could make or break his business, so he went online to track the ideal demographic. "I wanted young professionals who were just starting families," he says. "They value their healthcare, have disposable incomes and hopefully will bring in more patients as they have more kids." The neighborhood of Park Slope in Brooklyn had the right mix, so Bazan headed out to scout the competition. "I saw I could do something different," he says. "Now, we're attracting existing patients from other practices."
Bazan also studied what it meant to provide customer-focused service, buying books and observing businesses he admired. His number-one tip for assuring great customer service? It all comes down to who you hire. People who are naturally outgoing, with large circles of friends, know how to welcome customers and put them at ease. "Likeable people build loyalty and engage the community," he says.
By assuring a consistent, high level of service, Bazan was able to build virtual word of mouth through online review sites. Yelp, for example, has become one of his largest referral sources. Bazan cautions that there's a fine line between promoting awareness of such sites and soliciting reviews.
"Asking for a review destroys the site's integrity, leaving it useless and ultimately hurting your business," he says. "The best way to promote awareness is develop a filter for bringing up the topic. For example, we use a counter card that features a Yelp check-in. People either know and do it, or they don't know and ask about it. When they ask, it gives us the opportunity to explain to them what Yelp is. We're active Yelpers ourselves and will engage in conversations about it with our patients when appropriate."
For many small-business owners, review sites are a mixed blessing: it's great when they generate positive feedback, but infuriating when a scathing review is posted anonymously. While it's tempting to react emotionally to such criticism, Bazan warns against being dismissive.
"When we get negative reviews, the response is always well thought out," he says. "We look at this as an opportunity to right a wrong and to earn the respect of prospective patients. People know bad things happen, but what they really care about is that if it happens to them, that they will be well taken care of. The way we handle negative reviews has brought us new business."
Bazan started his business in the summer of 2008, just months before the economy crashed. Overall, the nature of his work protected his company from the worst of the recession. "Medical care is not a luxury item," he says. "Also, many people have benefits they need to use up or lose." Still, patients have been spending less on discretionary items such as luxury eyewear. "We're concentrating on creating a relaxed environment," he says. "If this is a place patients make friends, where they're comfortable, that makes it easier to spend money."
Like many small business owners, Bazan has also had to cautiously assess what technology he could afford. From the start, the goal was to create a modern office with access to the newest tools. "It tells people you're paying attention to what's going on in the healthcare world," he says. "But you have to balance wants and needs." His solution has been to arrange partnerships with other eye clinics, so certain patients can be sent for testing on specialized equipment that is too expensive to purchase for his office.
Bazan has grown from a tech-savvy boy -- "I always wanted the latest and greatest gadgets," he says -- into a tech-savvy optometrist. But he knows that no matter how sleek your website is, a business lives and dies by its customer experience. "From the beginning, I decided to do whatever it takes to make customers want to tell their friends about us," he says.
Elizabeth Blackwell is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is the author of Frommer's Chicago guidebook and writes for The Wall Street Journal, Chicago and other national magazines.