Turnover at Hidden Hearing, the country’s largest provider of hearing healthcare, rose by 15 per cent last year. Its chief executive, Stephen Leddy, is now planning to invest some €18million over the next five years in order to double the company’s branch network.
The company’s investment plans follow strong sales growth over the past number of years, with 2009 seeing a record number of hearing device fittings, and turnover at the subsidiary of William Demant Holding rising to €17 million.
Hidden Hearing entered the Irish market 25 years ago, and has 50 audiologists and 60 support staff.
The company currently has 20 standalone shops, a presence in 40 day centres and two mobile units that target rural areas. It expects to open six new outlets by next spring, creating 22 new jobs.
Leddy said hearing problems affected one in six of the population, but that Ireland, together with Finland, had the lowest penetration of hearing aids in Europe.
‘‘There is still stigma attached to it here – in that it is seen as some sort of handicap. We know for a fact that it takes about ten years from when people suffer some hearing loss to doing anything about it People don’t want to know.
They don’t realise that the new generation of hearing aids are tiny.
Also, the longer you leave it, the harder it is to sort it out.” He said that, contrary to common perception, hearing aids being sold today were smaller, broke down less frequently and were more reliable than their predecessors.
Hidden Hearing’s packages start from €295, but the company’s average selling price is €1,900.
He acknowledged that prices in its subsidiary in the North were about 20 per cent cheaper than prices in the Republic, but he said they compared favourably to those charged by independent audiologists.
‘‘We are not the cheapest in the market, but our average selling price is in line with the average among independents.
Specsavers [which is growing its presence in the market] is cheaper, but the aftercare is not built into its pricing,” he said.
‘‘If you buy a hearing aid from us, you have a five-year warranty. You have a 90-day free trial.
We give people two follow-up visits as the hearing aid often needs to be fine tuned.
We offer batteries for life,” he said.
Leddy said excellent customer service was a key selling point for the firm.
However, its customer service and its prices came in for criticism when RTE’s Liveline aired a programme in which people criticised what they believed was excessive pricing and a misleading money back guarantee.
Hidden Hearing subsequently extended its money back guarantee to 90 days.
‘‘Our referral and return business is good, but we sat down and looked at all the niggles customers had – and we made a few changes,” said Leddy.
He added that some of the claims made on RTE were inaccurate and were later clarified.
Leddy said Hidden Hearing, which carries out about 30,000 ‘‘free no-obligation hearing tests’’ each year, had seen a large rise in the number of young customers seeking help due to noise-induced hearing loss.MP3 players were a major contributor, he said.
To date, Hidden Hearing has relied on insert advertising, direct marketing and its sustained communication programme with GPs to advertise its service and its wares.
In September, it announced it had signed RTE presenter and Sunday Business Post Agenda magazine columnist Dr Nina Byrnes as a brand ambassador and company spokesperson, who is fronting a campaign for the over-60s.
‘‘Branding is a constant battle and it always will be in this business. One in three over60s suffers hearing loss, yet only 20 per cent do something about it. The campaign is all about encouraging people to get a hearing test,” he said.
Leddy expressed huge concern at the lack of regulation of the sector. ‘‘You do not have to be qualified to dispense a hearing aid in Ireland – unlike almost every other country in Europe. It is completely unregulated.
You could set yourself up as a hearing aid audiologist. Anyone can,” he said.
He said this left the sector wide open to unscrupulous practices.
Those claims were reinforced by the industry body – the Irish Society of Hearing Aid Audiologists (ISHAA) – which said it had repeatedly looked for regulation of the sector, and had held numerous meetings with the Department of Health.
‘‘We do so much work to get our protocols right and invest in training.
We need to get that message out there, as not enough people know.
‘‘People should shop around, but they should also be aware that, if you buy a hearing aid over the internet, you won’t get it programmed properly or get it serviced all that easily,” he said.
The Sunday Business Post Online : Susan Mitchell