At the front desk of Southampton-based CIBA Vision (UK), the receptionist casually asks if you have ever worn contact lenses. If you say yes, she will break open a small packet and pop a lens onto the end of your finger.
It is part of a strategy called 'Touch and be Amazed', devised by the company to spread awareness of how much contact lenses have changed in recent years. CIBA Vision is at the forefront of innovation in its industry, offering a more com- prehensive range of contact lenses than any of its competitors. These include lenses for daytime or overnight wear, 30-day lenses as an alternative to laser surgery, specialist lenses for astigmatism, and lenses with cosmetic tinting.
It doesn't sell direct to the public - its customers are opticians. But CIBA Vision has developed an impressive understanding of consumer needs and behaviour that it shares with its own customers - just one of the ways in which it uses its superior resources to help them improve their business.
CIBA Vision (www.cibavision.novartis.com) is a subsidiary of the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis. Its UK operation is focused mainly on marketing, sales and distribution of lenses, which are manufactured overseas. Its sales have doubled over two years: it claims 29% of the overall UK market, but 70% of sales to new lens users.
The company reaches its customers via small regional teams that include field reps, specialists and office-based staff who take orders and provide support. This structure abolishes artificial boundaries. 'Everybody's in sales and everybody's in service,' says managing director Marcus Swalwell.
Getting close to customers is a key objective. Under an initiative called Project Gold, the senior management team travelled to each of the 13 regions for monthly meetings with customers, touring the entire country twice. This led to numerous improvements to the service CIBA Vision provides to opticians. It has been superseded by a new project called Clairvoyant, designed to pre-empt customers' demands for further improvements. The company has an impressive wealth of data to demonstrate how, in the perception of customers, it is overtaking or leading its competitors.
But CIBA Vision even manages to go a stage further, looking at the service its customers provide to their own customers, the wearers of the contact lenses. The Customer Journey is an annual exercise in which 1,200 opticians' practices are subjected to a rigorous mystery shopping exercise. The results are fed back and used to improve the practice's performance. The company also gives its own excellence awards for the best-performing practices based on the mystery shop.
CIBA Vision's own research has led to some significant insights from which customers have been able to benefit - most notably, the lesson that for many consumers, contact lenses and spectacles are not mutually exclusive: each can be worn at different times.
Internally, CIBA Vision has further innovative programmes designed to bring the best out of its people. On joining, everybody goes through an in-depth induction scheme before they take a customer call. It introduces them to much more than the company's systems and processes - ophthalmic specialists are even on hand to teach new staff about the workings of the human eye.
An internal version of Project Gold identifies issues raised by employees, both positive and negative, that need to be addressed, while the 'Juice Wars' initiative assembled cross-functional teams with the objective of finding creative new ways to increase sales.
'It was also a great way to identify new talent, by raising heads above the parapet,' says human resources manager Karon Keymist.
CIBA Vision takes people very seriously, to the extent of using psychometric testing in recruitment, but the company is also capable of letting its hair down, as testified by the pictures from last year's Lookalike Day.
And although there aren't too many pairs to be seen, even spectacles aren't banned.