How Do We Meet Consumers Where They Are? Interview with Rick Rutter, VP of Marketing for hear.com

Rick Rutter, VP of Marketing at hear.com, is this week’s guest on This Week in Hearing. Rick is not only an industry executive, but also suffers from hearing loss.

Rick provides a first-hand insight on “where do we meet the consumer?” based on his delayed journey to using hearing aids to overcome his hearing loss difficulties, along with his thoughts on topics such as barriers to treatment, direct-to-consumer products, and service provisions.

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Full Episode Transcript

Amyn Amlani
Welcome to This Week in hearing, where listeners get the latest information on all things happening in the hearing care space from device technology, to pharma to therapeutics to practice management. My name is Amyn Amlani and I have the privilege of serving as your moderator. Historically, the hearing aid industry has seen a modest growth in serving the needs of patients with hearing loss, balance, tinnitus and other ear related issues. If we as a profession in an industry want to accelerate this growth in years to come, there’s a need to meet consumers where they are to help us gain a better perspective on this topic. Please welcome Rick Rutter Vice President of Product Marketing and innovation at hear.com pleasure to have you today. Thanks to mean, great to be here. So let’s get this thing started. And let’s talk about what your hear.com is. And then what’s your role within that organization?

Rick Rutter
Yeah, so here, calm, we are one of the largest online retailers of hearing aids. And my role at hear.com is really to help us increase awareness, education and help get more people into hearing aids. We’re a mission driven company. And one of the things we really believe in is that everyone should hear well, in order to live well. And so that’s absolutely something that is behind everything we do.

Amyn Amlani
Love it. Love it. Absolutely love it. So I read online that you’re also a hearing aid user.

Rick Rutter
I am I am. And that’s one of the reasons why I actually came to hear.com is I’ve seen the struggles, I’ve lived the struggles. And I’ve also struggled to get into hearing aids as well, like many of the people out there ever since I was a little kid, I had hearing loss. And I never I uh I ended up trying hearing aids for the first time when I was in my late 30s. And so yeah, I struggled in school, I struggled in my early career, I made up for it in different ways. But at the end of the day, you know, without hearing aids, it it really does make it difficult, and many people don’t realize that until you actually try them for the first time.

Amyn Amlani
Well, you know, it’s it’s a wonderful story that you have. And I’m glad that you’re in the field because you can tell from both sides of the coin, what’s happening both as a user, and then also as a provider to these into these other practices as you’re helping them grow and provide services to their patients.

Rick Rutter
Absolutely. I love being able to have that empathy for our customers. And, and I think that’s one of the things that like really helps us do a better job in educating and, and helping them see the benefits of the technology today, because it’s come so far. But it’s amazing that many folks still hold on to the stigmas of hearing aids from way back in the past.

Amyn Amlani
Yeah, yeah, no, absolutely. I mean, I think that’s, that’s one of the next things that we’re going to talk about is, you know, in, I’d like for you to talk about this, maybe from an industry standpoint, before we get into it from a personal standpoint, and that is what is what’s the biggest barrier in your perception that we have

that keeps people from entering this, this this space

Rick Rutter
for some crazy reason people think that hearing aids are going to make them feel or look old. And I think it’s it’s that stigma of hearing aids equal old age that keeps so many people from getting the help that they need.

Amyn Amlani
Yeah, it was that part of the reason that you waited such a long time?

Rick Rutter
Yeah, it’s interesting. You say that, because in my in my case, I actually had a medical condition. So I, I had cholesteatoma, which was the reason for my hearing loss. In my situation. I had I had looked at different hearing aid options as a when I was younger, but when I did, the sound wasn’t right. It didn’t feel natural. But that was 20-30 years ago. So the technology has come so far that it really is a different game these days.

Amyn Amlani
Yeah, no, absolutely. And I know that you guys have a I’ve looked at some of the materials that you all offer. And you’ve got some really, really nice educational materials. Can you talk a little bit about that and how that’s being used to engage the patient with the provider? Yeah, I

Rick Rutter
mean, I think one of the biggest things in terms of education is, is we we show what modern hearing aids look like. Many of them are, you know, extremely small, they fit directly in your ear and no one would see, would even notice that you’re wearing them. So I do think that even showing a lot of the newer devices in different ways is one of the things that helps people kind of change their perception a little bit and think about giving them a try. But then the other pieces, I think it’s a very complicated purchase or complicated process. And so that’s why at hear.com we really hope to try to handhold a lot of our customers, educate them over the phone, when we talk to them, let them know about, you know, the reason that they need medical grade hearing aids, and not just, you know, amplifiers or other devices that may be marketed as hearing aids, we help educate them on the various technology levels. We help educate them on on the reasons for working with a professional to fine tune and program those devices. And I think until people realize the value that comes out of modern Hearing Solutions, like it’s really difficult for them to justify the price sometimes. Yeah,

Amyn Amlani
yeah, no, absolutely. And, as you pointed out, the technology is so much better today than it ever has been. And, you know, the opportunities for individuals to, to hear better these days as and to be able not only to hear better, but also to communicate with their smartphones and these other things, has really, really, I think, allowed for us to maybe permeate some of these other fact, these other folks that may not have entered the market, younger folks that we’re starting to see hopefully, enter more and more as these baby boomers start to, you know, transcend through the space here.

Rick Rutter
absolutely. And I mean, I think there’s also a lot more research these days on the benefits of of needing to hear well, there is tons of research out there on, you know, the negative effects of cognitive decline or even like dementia that can result from not addressing your hearing loss and the fact that hearing aids can help with that. And even having some of that research to allow people to know that this is this is a problem, not just with being able to communicate, but with the way that your body functions and in the need to live a long healthy life, there’s so many reasons for people to make the right choice. But that, to your point, we’ve just got to increase the education, we’ve got to help increase some of the awareness of all the things we’re learning about hearing loss and hearing aids. And the reason people need to get a solution for that.

Amyn Amlani
Yeah, yeah. No, that’s that’s a great point. You know, the other aspect of this is, is accessibility, you know, and, and we know, as an example, that not everybody that needs treatment is getting treatment. But one of the factors is is we have a shortage of audiologists, and hearing instrument specialists that are providing services. But then we also have patients that are in rural places that can’t always get the help that they need. And so I know that there’s some solutions that hear.com has available to help reduce this barrier of accessibility, can you can you share that with us?

Rick Rutter
Absolutely. And it’s, it’s, it’s super exciting. And I think even some of the challenges we faced with COVID. And even the fact that we’re doing this, this interview virtually starts to speak to the technology that’s available not just in the devices, but in the way we can deliver care. And for us, we’ve been experimenting or not even experimenting, but using tele audiology services for years, and now with COVID are not only able to accelerate that, but but also able to, to your point start to bring more accessibility to folks in a variety of different rural areas who would not have access to care or would have more difficult access to care without such solution. So not only are we really, really excited about it, but it’s also proven to be really successful. And I think it’s it’s something in terms of convenience that not only works with folks who are in rural or inaccessible locations, but also for people who just want convenience and ease of use. And so teleaudiology, I think is one of those areas that is is really exciting. And allow us to think about, yeah, how can we deliver a better customer experience to everybody out there? And that’s one of the things that goes towards our mission. Right? Have, we really do want everyone to hear well, the live well, and then we’ve got to figure out how to solve all of these problems.

Amyn Amlani
Yeah. So you said something that just triggered something for me. And that is, you know, there are some providers that just haven’t quite adopted telehealth as a potential opportunity. If on this platform here, is there something that you would say to these folks that might get them to maybe reconsider where they’re at today?

Rick Rutter
I mean, one of the things we believe at hear.com is to always put the customer first, right, always put your patient or, you know, always put that person you know, at the forefront of some of the decisions you’re making. And, you know, we all have businesses to run but at the end of the day, many times we’re doing it for these folks. So I think you know, the one, the one thing I would highly encourage people to do is is to think about, you know, how we can help as many people as possible. And I think for folks who are, you know, don’t have the access to care or folks who want a more convenient solution, then I absolutely think we need to think about all the available options and telehealth is, is absolutely one of them.

Amyn Amlani
Absolutely. And I think as a provider, you have to be dynamic and get away from the static of the traditional model. Because, as you pointed out, there are some folks that are just going to want the online version, and there are other folks who are going to want to come in and you have to be fluid in order to treat these individuals, which again, goes back to your mission, and is also the mission of the profession as as well to help those individuals.

Rick Rutter
Yeah. And I think it’s I think it’s really interesting because we all have to evolve, I mean, things are changing. And what we’re dealing with in COVID has definitely expedited a lot of the evolution of an older audience towards digital and being more open to things like videos, my parents now regularly Zoom with their grandchildren. My dad, we actually fitted with hearing aids using tele audiology and it was really interesting because even even for you know, someone with a son and with hearing loss who wears hearing aids and also you know, understands a lot of how to like educated and drive that he’s, my father struggled you know, if a man in his 70s with “I don’t hearing aids are gonna make me look old,” right? I’m like, Dad, come on, let’s let’s give it a try. I’ve got an exciting opportunity for you to try and we put him through our telehealth journey and you know, the day he was fitted with hearing aids, I get the call son, you were right. Thank you, thank the team at hear.com and I mean, I’m just starts crying. But it’s like one of those things where it’s like you like this will change my life. I had no idea what I was missing out on. And it’s those kinds of things that I think fuel me fuels, our team fuels, so many people in the industry, right, because that life changing moment, it can happen in person, it can happen over video now. It’s things are so much different. And I think we have to embrace that change to grow.

Amyn Amlani
Yeah, yeah, no, absolutely. Absolutely. Well said, you know, the other thing that’s changing is this whole direct to consumer market that, you know, we’re starting to, to see with, you know, Bose coming to market and some of these other larger electronics conglomerates. So my first question to you is, how big is this consumer electronics market? Do you have a sense?

Rick Rutter
It’s huge. I mean, if we were just to think about doing the math on some of it, right, which, you know, let’s I, I’ve seen so many different numbers out there. But let’s just assume there’s 30 million people out there with mild to moderate hearing loss that could use hearing aids. I mean, you’re talking about a, you know, a couple billion dollar industry, right? I mean, there’s, there’s so much opportunity out there. And so, you know, from from a business perspective, like absolutely, that this is something to go after. And I think for, for us, for anybody in the hearing care space, I think it is just important for us all to really amp up the education, you know, what would some what these different devices can and will do, I think that’s when we think about direct to consumer. For us, at hear.com we want to be able to find solutions for everybody, regardless of budget, regardless of lifestyle, regardless of hearing loss. And I do think these kinds of initiatives help us in a lot of ways to do that, bringing new solutions to customers and finding new paths and avenues. So I think that’s very exciting. But I also think it’s important that we also educate folks on, you know, what some of these devices are, and depending on their hearing loss and their needs, what are the best solutions?

Amyn Amlani
Yeah, no, absolutely. And I think the other thing that needs to happen is, you know, the the service provision piece, folks who are both providers, and patients need to understand what their needs are. So for example, I’ll use my dad, my dad has a smartphone. Dad doesn’t see so well. So his abilities to do things on his own are sometimes compromised, just because he doesn’t have the vision. But if you get somebody for example, that, you know isn’t quite sure whether they need the service component or that they need the the self-help component. What would you say to that individual?

Rick Rutter
Well, I mean, I think one of the things we tell a lot of individuals is hearing loss is not a problem of volume. It’s a volume, it’s a problem of clarity. Right and, and so I think the things that I would I would primarily let people know is that you have to be careful about any kind of device you’re going to be putting in your ears, be putting in your body. And if we simply put a device in our ears that amplifies all sound, and isn’t customized to our specific needs, there actually is some danger that you could do more damage than you could do good. Right. So that’s one example of where I do think we we have to ensure that people are educated a little bit on the technology and the solution and that, you know, anybody playing in the DTC space, like has some level of provisions that account for that, I also think that like, one of the things that, that we always should be concerned about is a bad experience. Because if the devices aren’t tuned to their needs, if they don’t deliver the experience someone’s looking for, are they going to give up on addressing their hearing loss? Because it simply didn’t work? So I think there’s so many benefits to going direct to consumer, but I also think there’s a lot of concerns as an industry and, you know, just to like how we care for, you know, our population, we need to think about

Amyn Amlani
Yeah, no, absolutely. And I think in some instances, you know, having these devices on the market, again, competition will hopefully allow for these individuals to try these devices when they otherwise wouldn’t, assuming that they have a decent experience, because some of these devices, as you pointed out, are not gendered directly to their loss, but they may get some benefit will then allow them to say, you know, what, I need to upgrade from this lower end technology to something that’s a little more a little bit better, that’s now going to allow me to hear in a restaurant or those kinds of things.

Rick Rutter
Yeah, well, in some of these devices are going to allow people to self program, right. And you could actually work through an onboarding and, you know, self program, some of those devices, but I think, you know, many times When, when, when that happens, it can easily go awry, if you don’t have like that, that’s what professionals are for right to really understand the intricacies of the devices, of the hearing loss of, you know, all the different ways that we can adjust and fine tune some of these devices to make it you know, just a natural experience for folks and something that gives them the benefits they need. So, so yeah, I do think it’s, it’s a it’s it’s a tricky one. But overall, it’s a good thing for the industry.

Amyn Amlani
Yeah, yeah. I’ll just ask this question, you know, with with your patient journey, and I know, hindsight is 20/20. If a product was available today, for example, the Bose device or the AirPods or whatever, where you can amplify sound, do you think that might have shortened the time from which you actually started with amplification? As opposed to waiting that long time that you did?

Rick Rutter
I mean, probably, and I think, I think one of the things for me, that that kind of held me back in the early years, at least as a young professional was was the cost. So if there was a lower cost alternative to try something, absolutely would have been something I would consider. Yeah,

Amyn Amlani
yeah. It’s a very interesting time that we have in field and I know that, you know, there’s, there’s all these things that are starting to emerge in the field. If you could tell practitioners one thing today, as we’re looking ahead, and of course, we don’t have a crystal ball, we really don’t know what’s going to happen. What would you say to the audience, when

Rick Rutter
I, I think the biggest thing is to be open, right? Be open to change, be open to experimentation, it really think about like, all the different ways you can you can meet that customer where they are, right or meet that patient where they are, I think there’s so much new stuff out there in terms of, you know, how people are thinking about hearing loss and hearing aids and even just the way that like society in general is looking at like hearables, wearables, etc. Like, you know, no longer are some of these outdated perceptions going to continue, mainly because it’s not a big deal to have something in your ear these days. Right. So I think we have to be a little bit more like fluid in how we think about this then, in and approach it in a way of really thinking, how can you How can we solve these folks problems and really think about innovating in order to do that?

Amyn Amlani
Yeah, no, you’re absolutely right. You know, we’ve we’ve got a great opportunity in front of us with awareness, folks are starting to look at the hearing care space they’re using to this technology or variations of this technology. on a day to day basis. I think our view our future is very, very bright. And, you know, knock on wood that, you know, we’ll be able to meet the consumer where they are treating more of these individuals. So that they’re getting the help that they need, and it improves their quality of life and people are able to live longer and have those relationships that they want.

Rick Rutter
Yeah, I mean, it’s it’s my hearing aids have made such a difference in my life. Such a difference in my life. I mean, they they truly have changed my life. And I think if we can, if we can provide that to more people, I mean, that that that’s what we’re all about here, calm and, you know, personally, something I strive for, so couldn’t be more excited about what’s to come.

Amyn Amlani
Wonderful, Rick, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show this week. And we look forward to having you on the show, hopefully at a later date. Well, thank you Amyn, it was a pleasure as well. Thank you.

 

About the Panel

Rick Rutter is the VP of Product Marketing and a hearing loss specialist for hear.com, a leader in modern hearing care. Rick’s mission is to get more people interested, aware, and excited about improving their hearing and wellbeing. As someone who has benefited from hearing aids himself, he is very passionate about helping people hear well to live well.

 

Amyn M. Amlani, PhD, is President of Otolithic, LLC, a consulting firm that provides competitive market analysis and support strategy, economic and financial assessments, segment targeting strategies and tactics, professional development, and consumer insights. Dr. Amlani has been in hearing care for 25+ years, with extensive professional experience in the independent and medical audiology practice channels, as an academic and scholar, and in industry. Dr. Amlani also serves as section editor of Hearing Economics at Hearing Health Technology Matters (HHTM). 


About HHTM

HHTM's mission is to bridge the knowledge gaps in treating hearing loss by providing timely information and lively insights to anyone who cares about hearing loss. Our contributors and readers are drawn from many sectors of the hearing field, including practitioners, researchers, manufacturers, educators, and, importantly, hearing-impaired consumers and those who love them.

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