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Hearing Unlimited

20+ years of effective leadership

In 2016, Audiologist and Owner of Hearing Unlimited in Pennsylvania, Chris Eckert, received the CQ President’s Award, an honor reserved for Associates who “exemplify the key attributes that help create a successful practice—a commitment to training, process improvement, use of solutions, and, most importantly, leadership.” This description is indicative of the leader, business owner, and person Chris is today. Chris refuses to be complacent and continues to educate himself so that he can develop and elevate his team. Like many owners, the pandemic has challenged Chris as a leader, and he candidly shared with us his experiences from this year as well as strategies and recommendations for 2021. As an owner of 5 locations with 25 employees, Chris talked with us about how he navigated shutdowns and the pandemic, the lessons he wished he’d learned early-on in his career, and what’s it has meant to him and his business to have CQ Partners in his corner all these years. We can’t think of a better way to end our 25th anniversary year, then by talking with one of our longest and most successful Associates!

“When I first started out, it was all about helping patients. Now, my biggest motivation is helping my employees become better so they can help more people.”
Christopher Eckert, M.S., CCC-A

Q&A with Christopher Eckert, M.S., CCC-A, Owner

Location: Southwest Pennsylvania
Number of offices: 5
Number of employees: 25
Website: hearingunlimited.net

1First, tell us a little about the impact COVID-19 has had on your business.
We had to close our offices for 43 days only because the Pennsylvania Health Department said that practices weren’t allowed to sell hearing aids during that time. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have shut down. But I was still seeing up to 15 to 20 patients a day for emergencies during those 43 days. I was able to keep expenses low during that time, too. As soon as we were allowed to sell hearing aids again in May, I slowly brought my staff back in two waves. We didn’t see great numbers in May, but they skyrocketed in June. I think there was a lot of pent-up demand. We tried to capture as much of it as we could and exceeded our expectations in June and July. It was mostly existing patients. Going into the fourth quarter, we started to get a steady flow of new patients. Now with the second wave of coronavirus hitting, new patients are getting more difficult.
2How has this year tested you as a leader?
Right now, I feel like I’m spending more time talking to my leadership about COVID than I am creating strategies, game plans, and trainings. I’ve actually had two audiologists quit because of COVID. They didn’t want to be exposed by seeing so many patients on a daily basis working at our small private practice. COVID is also affecting staff morale. I spend a lot of time comforting and reassuring my team while also keeping them safe and keeping the business going. I’m going above and beyond every single day, letting them know that I’m not just the owner—I care about them and have their best interests in mind.
3How have you had to adjust your marketing strategy throughout the year?
We normally do a lot of external marketing but because of COVID, I’ve been doing tons of internal marketing. I’ve taken the time to segment my database into different groups and I’m marketing them independently and trying to personalize my marketing messages to suit those different segments. Internal marketing is where I’m putting most of my efforts and resources. While I typically do up to four drops of direct mail a month, because we were doing so well with our repeats this spring, I only did two drops. Going into the fourth quarter, I went back to three or four. But with the COVID numbers spiking again, I’m hoping that wasn’t a mistake. I plan my direct mail weeks out so I can’t make changes for December, but in January, I’ll schedule one drop at a time and, based on results, decide whether to do more.
4One of your most successful marketing initiatives is your Wellness Program. Tell us a little about how it works.
It’s called a Wellness Program because it’s focused on educating every single person that walks in our door on the different comorbidities associated with hearing loss. At the beginning of 2020, I chose six comorbidities and created a 12-month plan. For example, we focused on dual sensory loss in January and February, cognitive decline in March and April, heart disease in May, risk of falls in June and July, ototoxicity in August, tinnitus in September and October, and dementia in November and December. I created personalized handouts and gave them to my staff to educate patients on the comorbidity of the month when they arrive at the office. After educating patients, we ask them ‘who do you know that could benefit from a free hearing screening?’ It’s something that we talk about and monitor every single day. Many employees are commissioned on bonus referrals. This year, we’ve also started making a donation to our local chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association for every patient who comes in for a wellness screening. We send the patient who gave us the referral a thank you letter and then the Alzheimer’s Association sends them one as well. So, there are two follow-ups thanking them for their kind referrals. Plus, probably 50 percent of the referred patients do have hearing loss and need help.
5If you had to pick three CQ services or programs most instrumental to your success, what would they be and why?
Number one, the regular meetings with my Account Manager [Leah Breuers]. Just like anyone, sometimes as owners, we try to take the easy route. I’m very thankful that I have her to support me, push me, and kick me in the butt when I need it, so that I don’t just take the easy route. [Laughs] Number two, I really enjoy the Owners Meetings. They’re a great opportunity to recharge and find out what other practices are doing. Third, the MBA [Managing Business Activities] workshops. I think the MBAs offer a lot of value by allowing owners to step away from their business for a moment and look at it from a macro rather than a micro point of view. We had a two-hour virtual MBA a few weeks ago and I thought Leah did a very good job making it interactive.
6You’ve achieved great success over the past 20+ years, is there any accomplishment or memory that stands out to you?
The biggest has to be winning the CQ President’s Award. I took my entire staff to Vegas for the Convention and award ceremony. They were all up on stage with me when I received the award, and I was able to thank everybody individually. That meant a lot. That was a special moment.
7How do you see the industry evolving over the next few years?
I think there’s going to be more division between private pay and third-party patients when it comes to service plans and bundled versus unbundled models. Right now, there’s a lot of blurred lines—I see a lot of practices dabbling in both. It’s a slippery slope. The problem is Audiologists are just so nice in nature that they want to give everything away for free. I think small practices can better handle a bundled model because they have fewer employees. Managing an unbundled plan is also going to be very difficult if you have a large practice like mine with so many providers. If you ask me again several months from now, I may have changed my mind, but right now, I’d rather persevere with the bundle.
8What advice would you give to new practice owners that you wish you had gotten early in your career?
There’s a lot. [Laughs] First, have regular meetings with your Account Manager. Second, you’ve got to watch the numbers. Watch the money and watch it relentlessly. Third, even if you think you have a good staff and don’t need to hire anyone else, you still have to. Do not become complacent.
9What’s kept you motivated year-over-year?
That’s a tough one. I probably could have made some changes and potentially made more money, but it’s never really been about the money. When I first started out, it was all about helping patients. Now, my biggest motivation is helping my employees become better so they can help more people. I’ve challenged myself to get better at training and communicating with my staff. That’s why I read ten pages a day which equates to about ten books a year on self-improvement—I’m always trying to improve myself so that I can improve my staff.
10Finally, what’s the secret to achieving and sustaining long-term success in this business?
I’ll be honest, you to have a good Account Manager and a good organization behind you. Being out there on your own can be scary. Having someone you can bounce ideas off of, who offers advice, and supports you and your staff means a lot, especially during this turbulent time. There’s a lot going on right now—there’s bundled and unbundled service plans, TPAs [third-party administrators], OTC [over-the-counter], COVID. So, knowing what’s going on in the industry and knowing that you’re prepared is huge.