In the last two articles, I have set the stage for my thinking around the future of hearing aid sales. While the different elements that I have discussed in those articles will all have their effect on the future, the real power to shape it is in the hands of consumers. It is a conceit that I have seen many times within the industry that we believe that we can shape the future. In the past, the available technology and the manufacturers of that technology facilitated the profession in shaping the model. I don't mean that there was some sort of deep conspiracy, I simply mean the focus on innovation and the capabilities of hearing devices conspired to keep the incumbent model safe. That is no longer the case, both internal and external innovation, tech advances, and regulatory change have set the stage for a very different world.
Seen it all before! You haven't
I have heard several professionals say things like we have seen it all before etc, etc. Or my patients aren't interested in, Bluetooth, fitness features, self-fitting. My answer is, no you haven't and if they aren't interested, it's because they don't know about them. This is like nothing you have ever seen before. The technological advancements and innovations happening right now are breathtaking.
Consumer awareness, access to knowledge, intent and behaviour is hugely different than anytime before. The growing familiarity with personalising your audio in consumer electronics is demystifying the intricacies of self-fitting hearing aids. It is and will continue to become for a large swathe of consumers, ho-hum familiarity.
A growing familiarity with the intricacies
The growing ability to fine-tune your audio experience in real-time with 300 dollar devices will further change expectations of customisation or personalisation of 3000 dollar devices. More than that, the incessant consumer demand for the experience, their way, is shaping and will continue to shape offerings from new players.
Consumers want convenience, they want the experience that suits them. They don't want the experience that suits the professional. That is one of the reasons that I think that Lexie Hearing and perhaps Bose are so fascinating. The experience will be quite different from the traditional hearing aid buying experience. It offers convenience and support on the consumer's terms.
Joke hearing aids!
I heard it said that the offering from these companies is a joke in comparison to what's on offer from traditional manufacturers right now. From a purely technical standpoint, that argument is correct, at best, both companies seem to be offering decent, but basic, entry-level hearing aid devices. That argument misses the point though.
With Bose, the key thing is consumer recognition, consumers know who Bose is and what they are famous for. A consumer who rocks up to a hearing aid retailer and is told suitable hearing aids are this and they are that price, is immediately going to go to the internet to research, even if they haven't before. A consumer does not know Widex, Phonak, Unitron, Signia, ReSound, Starkey, Oticon or any of the other brand names that are familiar in the hearing aid world. But they sure as hell know who Bose is.
Outstanding consumer experience
With Lexie Hearing, it is a different element that may drive their success. I believe the experience that they offer may be what resounds with consumers. The onboarding, support function and gamification of hearing aids is truly genius. Right now, Lexie Hearing has 152 Google reviews which are overwhelmingly positive. These people are most definitely not Nano Hearing.
While both Bose and Lexie offerings are basic right now, they are focused at a particular price point. I would bet that once both these businesses become truly established and they fine-tune their model, that their product offering will grow as will the price points on offer. When coupled with growing brand familiarity and consumer goodwill, that will make them serious players in the augmented audio world.
Anyway, that is perhaps one of the longest intros I have ever written, yes, we're still in the intro. I know, I know, get on with it fat lad. So, what may the future hearing aid world look like? Let's have a go at working it out.
Augmented Audio Devices
First of all, I think the future is full of augmented audio devices, I do believe the term hearing aids will begin to fall by the wayside. I don't think that will be stigma driven either, I think it will happen because future devices will be much more than a simple aid to hearing. We are already seeing that occur right now, the term hearing aid, no longer encapsulates the function of a Starkey Edge AI device, for different reasons, it barely covers a Phonak Paradise device.
While the core function of those devices is to offer corrected hearing, the additional functions are designed to make life easier and more enjoyable through augmented audio and different lifestyle-driven features. With the introduction of the Bluetooth standard this year, many modern hearing aids will become integrated communication and audio enjoyment devices.
Of course, they will aid hearing as a core focus but their use case will far exceed that. Outside the traditional industry, we will see huge growth of devices that augment audio while focused on something else. You can't call a mobile phone running a self fitted speech clarity algorithm for calls and streaming audio a hearing aid, can you? The explosion of augmented devices will act in two ways, it will slow the adoption of what we recognise as traditional hearing aids but encourage it in the long term.
Consumers driving change
Consumers will drive the changes, they will just become better informed. There will be an increasing awareness around hearing problems and the possible solutions including situational solutions. They will opt for those situational augmented audio solutions or will be introduced to the concept with new purchases.
It will help them to recognise earlier that they have a problem and will encourage them to move to more permanent solutions when they need them. They already live their lives digitally and many already access healthcare virtually. Convenience is king and they will expect assessment, treatment and solutions online. Going to actually visit a healthcare professional is so last century, it is an inconvenience that gets in the way of their very busy life.
While they may see the benefit of an in-person, in-depth, hearing assessment, they will not understand the need for in-person visits after the initial fitting when remote services are so obviously available. Advances in AI will mean that they don't need that many follow up appointments in any way. There will be a growing demand for virtual assessment which will be driven by the awareness that for most people, a virtual assessment is probably fine.
Those who have more complex hearing losses with associated processing problems will continue to opt for a more customised level of care and high technology hearing aids. They will need both and understand that. The rest will try the journey that they feel suits them.
What will happen next?
I think that Bose is just the first entry of a major name into a direct to consumer online strategy. It will be interesting to see how they manage. I believe the hardest thing for them will be the learning curve with support. They don't have the legacy that HearX has and they may not understand the intricacies of supporting people with hearing aids.
I feel that Lexie will be hugely successful, they are at the right price point and their support model and gamification of the wearing of hearing aids is genius. As I said earlier, wherever you look for reviews of Lexie Hearing, they are overwhelmingly positive.
As they establish themselves, and I do expect them to establish themselves, I think they will begin to experiment with different model offerings and price points. I think they will eventually settle on a model line-up and drive forward from there.
As the true OTC market finally gets going, expect to see both Bose, Lexie and anyone else who fancies a go coming to electronics sections of stores across America. I believe that the traditional hearing aid manufacturers will become involved in the OTC market, whether that is through online DTC channels or stores.
They will have to for strategic reasons, the first is that it will be quite a large market that may even begin to erode the existing hearing aid market. I certainly believe that Lexie, combined with a quality modern hearing aid would do so. The second will be that if consumers start with Phonak OTCs, or Starkey OTCs, or Signia OTCs, they will be more likely to consider that brand when they wish to upgrade.
Consumers will be used to self-fitting and virtual support when and if they move towards high technology daily wear devices. The reasoning behind in-person assessments will have to make complete sense to them for them to countenance it.
The traditional model
Retail audiology will be faced with a stark decision, change or change. By that I mean, retail audiology can decide to incorporate the coming technology, offer more virtual services and look at augmented audio devices in a holistic manner. I believe that many will, we can expect national and international businesses to recognise the threats and opportunities and move forward with a strategy,
The alternative is that through inaction, retail audiology becomes clinically focused offering diagnostic, tinnitus management and balance services combined with providing hearing aids to the odd complex case and the consumers who don't understand technology. If the profession becomes clinically focused, it will contract.
Even if retail audiology manages to retain a larger hearing aid business, advances in AI will mean that there is less need for fine-tuning and even fitting services moving forward. I believe the AI of the future will both optimise and validate the fitting in real-time. That will mean fewer appointments which will translate to lower charges. Empty time for any business is a death knell, if the doors are open, the business needs to maximise its time for revenue generation.
I think that will lead to more services that fall within, are aligned with, or make sense to their scope of practice. Think earwax removal, balance testing and even cognitive testing. I said in the last article that I felt hearing aids of the future to be much more than a hearing correction tool. Innovation and the widening of the use case of devices by existing manufacturers may also open other service opportunities to professionals.
Hearing care professionals can become a part of a wider integrated care model moving forward. Things like fall detection and bio readings can help with that. So can cognitive testing, hearing care professionals are in an ideal position to undertake cognitive testing. Perhaps hearing care professionals in the future will be able to offer services that ensure older loved ones stay at home for longer in a safer way.
Imagine a yearly appointment with a hearing professional that undertakes a battery of tests on hearing and cognition and reviews bio reading trends. It will give early warning and early referral opportunities. Modern medical thought is about preventative medicine, early observations of possible issues are key to prevention.
As I said, the smart professionals will think of hearing care holistically and become professionals for, and centres of, augmented audio. They will have at their disposal everything from apps that help, through better situational solutions to what we recognise as modern hearing aids.
They will provide virtual appointments and remote care as that technology firms up even more over the next few years. Consumers will demand it and retail audiology will have no choice other than to provide it. While the future looks rosy for consumers and increased access to cheaper solutions should be celebrated. Access to hearing care professionals will still be important.
The explosion of augmented audio devices will lead to a confusing marketplace. Hearing care professionals can help and guide consumers through it while offering services designed to keep consumers younger for longer. I think the key will be, can retail audiology undertake the changes and will consumers still be interested in their services?
I don't think this is a long term view, I think the initial changes are happening right now and I expect the hearing correction world to be a dramatically different place in as little as five years. Certainly, in ten years the marketplace will be dramatically different.
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