Audina Hearing Instruments attributes its growth to a focus on service, quality, competitive products, and value pricing.

 Squeezed as never before by market flatness and their own increased costs of doing business, audiologists and licensed hearing aid dispensers grow more eager by the day for product alternatives to help them hold onto profitability. That may explain why Audina Hearing Instruments in Orlando, Fla, has increasingly found favor among such providers.

 From left, Executive Vice President Frank Robilotta; Billie Howell, vice president of sales; and Marc McLarnon, president.

“We’re delivering products that enable audiologists and licensed dispensers to stay in the game,” says Marc McLarnon, president. “These are in-demand products that sell well. They’re reasonably priced, easy to set up, and easy to use and, most important, they provide truly improved hearing for the patient.”

Audina is best known for its analog and digital lines of custom, hand-crafted hearing aids. In addition, this company is also a leading supplier of subassembly kits in the international and domestic markets.

“We’re an a la carte operation—you select the functions you want on the instrument and we’ll build it for you,” says Billie Howell, vice president of sales. “We’re a growing company, too. The company’s growth is based on our ability to provide solid alternatives to what the mainline manufacturers have been offering. The product we offer is, by and large, very, very competitive in terms of performance.”

As McLarnon puts it, the key to improved hearing today requires products employing cutting-edge noise-reduction and feedback-cancellation algorithms. However, McLarnon also believes a problem for the hearing aid industry is that software applications have become too complicated, offering too many options and requiring too many programming decisions.

“The learning curve has become extraordinarily long because of that,” he says. “We’re working to change all that. One way we’re working to change that is by, first of all, putting ourselves in the place of the user and trying to fully appreciate the challenges the user faces.

“The result is that our latest software is the most powerful and flexible we’ve yet offered, but it’s also the easiest to utilize. For example, let’s say a user has trouble hearing in a restaurant. We’ve got a setting labeled, simple enough, as ‘restaurant.’ The user clicks onto it and instantly the software makes the appropriate adjustments in the device for proper performance in that particular environment.”

Howell confirms that point by indicating a company goal is to deliver “peak functionality from user-friendly software,” she says. “At the same time, though, we don’t want our software to become so automatic that it takes away all of the decision making from the hearing aid provider. With that in mind, we’re ensuring that providers have the continued ability to override the automated features and do whatever they feel is best for the individual patient.”

Commitment to Service
Helping make the software so facile and potent are the advanced integrated circuits Audina uses. These are made by leading edge companies—such as RTI and Gennum (a high-technology company that designs, manufactures, and markets silicon integrated circuits, modules, and thin film hybrid microcircuit components for a variety of applications in three target markets: video products, hearing instruments, and data communications).

“These circuits actually are more innovative than some of the proprietary chips,” says President Marc McLarnon.

Audina developed its relationships with Gennum and RTI as a way to economically counter the moves of larger hearing aid companies with plenty of capital to create their own proprietary chip or to invest in R & D cross-ventures.

“It’s a strategy that has enabled us to obtain this super-sophisticated technology at competitive prices,” says Executive Vice President Frank Robilotta. “As a result, we can offer product lines that stand up against those of any other manufacturer out there. We may not be as big as those other companies, but we’re definitely in the same league with them.”

 Back row, from left, Joel Jn-Francois, software engineer; Waleska Ramos, customer care specialist; Sherry Young, customer care specialist; Megan Aldridge, director of education; Lori Pingley, project director; Cheryl Brockie, customer care specialist. Front row, from left, Melissa Jensen, product support assistant; Billie Howell, vice president of sales; and Joe Leslie, manufacturing trainer.

Further strengthening Audina’s hand is the company’s unmatched commitment to service, as evidenced by a headquarters hallway brimming with framed testimonial letters written by audiologists, licensed dispensers, and end users delighted by the support Audina has provided them (in addition to those outstanding products). To appreciate this commitment to service, consider how the company answers its phones: all calls go direct to a live operator, not a machine.

“We look at a phone call as someone bringing to us a request to do something for him or her,” says Robilotta. “How well and how quickly we respond to that request is tantamount to our success. Even though the technology is vastly different today compared to a quarter century ago, this is still a very personal, one-on-one business.”

However, customer service is more than just being available on the telephone. It means supporting the hearing professional with answers to questions about fitting and software, with troubleshooting assistance, and with training. In order for this level of support to be offered, phones at Audina are answered by knowledgeable, customer-focused personnel—some of whom are audiologists.

“We’ve designed an infrastructure such that customer requests are processed to the customer’s satisfaction,” says Robilotta. “Our mission is not merely to provide hearing instruments, but to provide training and continuing education to assist the hearing health care provider in effectively selling and fitting the product to satisfy the needs of the hearing-impaired individuals they serve.”

There is also an Audina Web site to extend the company’s service resources directly to consumers (www.audina.net). One section of the site is devoted to answering questions about hearing loss and what to expect from a hearing aid—how to clean it, how to maintain it, and so forth.

“Mainly, it’s information consumers have traditionally had difficulty finding,” says Howell. “We’ve put it into short, PowerPoint-type presentations, so it’s easily absorbed.”

Audina sees this dedication to service as part of a manufacturer’s foundational set of responsibilities. Says Robilotta, “People are increasingly eager to find good customer service in this industry. We’re providing that. And because we’re so willing to jump through hoops for our customers, we come out ahead of our competition.”

Perfect Timing
Robilotta and McLarnon founded Audina in 1990 after having worked together for a decade at another hearing-aid firm. When the two joined that earlier company, it was in entry-level positions; by the time they departed, they had ascended to the very pinnacle of upper management’s ranks.

“The time was right for us to move on, to bring in a new company with an emphasis on quality, custom products, competitive pricing, and superior customer service,” McLarnon recalls.

Many observers, on the other hand, had their doubts that Audina could survive, for the market at the time was becalmed even as it was roiled by problems emanating from edicts of the US Food and Drug Administration.

“While other companies made the mistake of hamstringing themselves with complicated promotional and support programs, we took the opposite tack by striving to greatly simplify matters for customers,” says McLarnon in explaining how he and Robilotta proved the skeptics wrong.

In recent years, Audina’s growth has seemingly defied gravity, thanks in no small part to a shift in its customer demographics.

“Originally, we were nearly 100% dependent on sales to licensed hearing aid dispensers,” says McLarnon. “Today, our base includes a sizable percentage of audiologists.”

The expanding number of audiologists choosing Audina products is the result of the company’s decision to step up its marketing efforts to the audiological community. That outreach includes endeavors such as the hosting of continuing education seminars for audiologists and periodic lectures conducted under the approval of the American Academy of Audiology, Academy of Dispensing Audiologists, and International Hearing Society professional organizations. Moreover, Audina has staffed its sales and service teams with a cadre of audiologists—professionals who speak the same language as the customers from that field.

When Audina debuted, it employed a mere six individuals, counting McLarnon and Robilotta. Today, the company’s personnel roster shows more than 100 employees.

“It wasn’t our goal to be the largest company,” says Robilotta. “It was instead to develop this niche and develop a client base that would become our partners as we went forward.”

Despite its successes, Audina nonetheless faces potentially daunting challenges—many of them imposed by trends affecting the hearing-aid industry as a whole.

“A source of concern for us has been the practice of manufacturers purchasing retailers and then transforming them into exclusive, captive outlets,” McLarnon conveys. “Similarly, we’re wary about the way manufacturers have been purchasing co-ops. Those manufacturers hope to channel back to themselves through these co-ops a huge amount of business from the members.

“Also, there’s consolidation as hearing instrument manufacturers continue to buy other manufacturers.”

Challenges such as these make McLarnon hesitant to float any predictions about Audina 5 years down the road; “Five years for some businesses is a lifetime. I am comfortable and confident to predict that Audina will continue to be a strong, vibrant, and innovative participant in the hearing health care market. Our continued focus on service, quality, competitive products, and value pricing will not subside.

“It’s what we are; it’s what we do,” he says. “It’s our chosen path, and—as our customers tell us—they’re very glad it’s the one we’re on.”

Rich Smith is a contributing writer for Hearing Products Report.