OTICON SOUTH AFRICA

Founded in 1904 by Hans Demant, whose wife suffered from hearing loss, Oticon was built on care and empathy from the very beginning. Lezanie Bakker, Oticon’s Country Manager, shares the invaluable work the company does.

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What have some of the key moments in the company’s development been? In which ways is it easier for an established company to maintain a competitive advantage in the industry and in which ways are you at a disadvantage compared to smaller companies or ambitious startups?

It all started on the 8th of June 1904 when Hans Demant signed an agreement to become Denmark’s sole agent for American-produced General Acoustic instruments. He went on to establish Oticon’s founding principle, which is to help hearing-impaired people improve their quality of life. A visit to Oticon’s headquarters in Smørum, near Copenhagen, will quickly confirm that the mission remains unchanged: To help people live the life they want with the hearing they have. The company’s solid fundamental values are all guided by a philosophy that says,“People First”.

We have gathered over a 100 years’ of knowledge, insight and research into understanding hearing loss. This accumulative research has given us insight into the fact that the brain and ears work together, which definitely gives us a competitive advantage. This kind of insight is not easily understood nor can new market entrants develop these types of medical instruments overnight.

The greatest scientific challenge today, is to meet the needs of the end user. The mass-market instruments of the past have now been replaced by advanced hearing aids that can be customised to meet each person’s unique listening needs and personal preferences.

Smaller companies tend to be a lot more flexible and they have the ability to be completely disruptive in an industry where out-of-the-box thinking brings about completely innovative ways of finding solutions to the same old problems. Sometimes a fresh outlook or perspective is needed to make new, innovative things happen.

What are the challenges you face being in this particular sector, where there is a constant need for technology and technological advances?

This is always a challenge—not just for myself, but for all of our staff who have various functions to fulfill. Each staff member needs to be appropriately trained and skilled so that we can best support our customers’ with the latest technology that we have developed. Also related to this, is the need to translate these new technological advances into an easy-to-use, intuitive product that can be effortlessly adapted and used by a person living with a hearing loss. We also need to train hearing care professionals, who are our direct customers, on the fitting and programming of our instruments. The other challenge is that, while it is one thing to develop a technologically superior product, your organisational infrastructure also needs to keep abreast of technological advancements.

Which trends or advances have astounded you the most and what do you believe the next big development might be in your industry?

From a more technical standpoint, Bo Littau, our Director of Category Management at Oticon Denmark summarises the benefits of advances in technology with this statement given to Pitcher, G. (2016, August 9) in his article titled ‘Electronics technology is helping to restore hearing loss’ featured on NewElectronics: ”We’ve entered a period where there have been leaps in technology and the provision of more benefits, including other ways of connecting.” Looking forward, he goes on to state that “future devices will need more processing power, more memory, more speed, more wireless and more sensors, all packaged in a device that fits in the ear, and maybe we can develop a device that can also measure temperature and record the wearer’s EEG.”

You have a simple yet powerful mission: “To help people with hearing loss fulfill their potential while living the life they choose—with the hearing they have.” What is the attitude of your staff towards this mission of helping others in such an important way, and how do you ensure they keep their customers at the forefront of their thinking at all times?

The team structure and the strong focus on the individual employee are reflected in Oticon’s slogan “People First” and the company’s fundamental human values.

By instilling the principle that “We are stronger when we act together than when we act alone”, Oticon can excel by collaborating across different areas of responsibility, projects and specialist areas.

We constantly strive to embed our values in the minds and hearts of our staff. That takes constant attention and effort. What we aim to do is have happy and empowered employees that are fully trained, and engaged with our customers. Our employees need to understand what it means to be people-focussed, solutions-orientated and, most of all, friendly. We believe our values and our philosophy will naturally overflow into the way our employees interact with our customers and our end users—making it a fulfilling process for all involved.

What is the process for innovating the creative solutions for hearing aids that you offer your clients?

The company wants to maintain its mental and physical agility. At the same time, the market for hearing aids is becoming more complex and new, tougher demands need to be met to stay ahead of the escalating competition.

Oticon is unique in the fact that we always start with listening to the needs of the person living with a hearing loss and only then do we aim to solve hearing issues and needs. By engaging in continuous dialogue with a large number of people living with hearing loss and the healthcare professionals dedicated to helping them, we are able to maintain a deep understanding of the real-life implications of hearing loss, and gauge the impact of our ideas with real people in their everyday lives.

It was the desire to strengthen Oticon’s ability to meet tougher future competition that encouraged the company to create the Eriksholm Research Centre in 1977. The company’s vision was to create a centre for research not only into technology, but also into hearing. The goal was to gather knowledge about the need for, and use of, hearing aids in order to generate ideas for developing new instruments.

This independent research facility has contributed to the development of methods for fitting hearing aids. These new methods did not only impact on Oticon’s products, but were also used to fit hearing aids all over the globe.

Eriksholm’s research supports Oticon’s vision to “Help people live the life they want with the hearing they have”. Good hearing is essential for social interplay between people, and it has a profound effect on their quality of life. The majority of Eriksholm’s research is performed in the field and is based on experiments involving hearing aid users. Tests are performed in different acoustic environments and listening situations, such as communication on a one-to-one basis, in groups or in noisy listening environments.

When there is a problem with a product, or where you receive feedback about how to improve something, what is your process of working through such improvements?

We take feedback very seriously and we value all feedback. We always try to investigate and understand observations thoroughly before we take action. Depending on the depth of feedback or the size of the problem, we either involve individuals or groups of people to find answers. Then we implement solutions as soon as possible. Feedback on improvements is sent back to our research facility and technical divisions to analyse further and implement, if possible. It is difficult when you encounter setbacks that are not entirely in your control and those you cannot immediately solve. You know that it is going to take an extended amount of time to find the solution or improvement and then it will take more time before you are able to provide a response to the feedback source. Being people-focussed, it is sometimes difficult not being able to offer a solution right then and there.

To avoid or eliminate problems with our products, before being released to market, Oticon instruments must survive a barrage of extreme tests to ensure quality, performance and reliability. If you’re going to invest in hearing instruments, it makes sense to choose well-made devices that will perform to perfection, day in and day out. Oticon instruments are designed to do just that. Every time we introduce a new solution, hundreds of hours will have been invested in the design, choice of materials, construction and testing—all to ensure top-quality performance and reliability in a variety of situations and conditions.

Your technology has a major impact on peoples’ lives and is increasingly easy to use and maintain, as well as being ever-more advanced and effective. What feedback have you had about the impact of your products, and are there any particularly inspiring stories you can share with us?

We receive positive feedback almost every single day. We hear how our products are changing peoples’ lives especially when we look at social media platforms like Facebook.

In terms of an inspiring story, the closest to my heart would be my father. He had a previous generation of hearing aids that he rarely wore. Recently, I encouraged him to upgrade to a pair of Opn hearing aids. The change has been phenomenal. He is wearing his hearing aids almost every single day and he enjoys the sound quality. He is following his favourite TV programmes and listening to music again. He mentioned that he did not realise how much he was missing out on in conversations until he started wearing his new hearing aids. He feels a lot more relaxed and focussed now, especially in noisy situations that were particularly challenging for him before. It is a great feeling to know that I have played a part in changing my father’s life in such a positive way.

Being a healthcare practitioner in this particular field, have you always enjoyed what you do and the fact that you get to help people improve their lifestyle?

When we say ”People First”, it is much more than a fancy slogan: It is the way we think, the way we work, and the way we develop our products

Hearing loss can occur at any age, for any number of reasons and those it affects have their own particular story to tell. It is extremely rewarding to hear how we are changing people’s lives. While you can’t reverse hearing loss, you don’t have to resign yourself to living in a world of quieter, less distinct sounds. At Oticon, our goal is to provide you with the best hearing technology available so that you can rediscover your hearing and reconnect with the important things around you.

What are the challenges you face in this field?

In South Africa, our biggest challenge is the economic conditions that make accessibility to a good hearing aid exceptionally difficult. The need for hearing aids out there is so great and it is a setback when hearing healthcare is not easily accessible to all people from all walks of life. As a responsible organisation, we sponsor a certain amount of devices for worthy causes each year. The need is very great and there is only so much that we can do.

We give back to the community in which we serve through the non-profit Oticon Foundation, which supports humanitarian missions that provide lasting benefits to underserved populations worldwide.

The Oticon Foundation seeks to unite hearing care professionals in a community of caring to increase access to sustainable hearing care for impoverished people and communities around the world.

In 1998, the Oticon Foundation donated 1.5 million kroner towards the late President Nelson Mandela’s efforts for South African children. “More than a third of South Africa’s population is under the age of 15, and many of them are in great need. The money in the Children’s Fund helps handicapped children in South Africa, where hearing loss is considered the most common handicap. The grant also capitalised on the fact that President Nelson Mandela formally acknowledged his own hearing loss and his use of hearing aids, which enabled him to actively fulfil his duties as the country’s leader. When a well-known person steps forward to encourage people to do something about their hearing loss, it helps to reduce the social stigma associated with this condition, which some 300 million people experience every day.

The Oticon Foundation has donated almost DKK 5 million to a research project that aims to integrate audiological services into healthcare in South Africa. In South Africa, the population is struggling with diseases such as HIV, Aids and tuberculosis—all diseases that are known for increasing the risk of developing a hearing loss. This means that quite a lot of children are born with a hearing loss. Almost 7% of all babies in South Africa are born with a hearing loss. By comparison, the figure is only 1-2% in Denmark. This is why the need for audiological services is great in South Africa.

The main purpose of the project supported by the Oticon Foundation is to estimate the possibilities and perspectives of integrating audiological services into the South African healthcare system outside the big cities, i.e. in areas where people cannot get the right help today if they suffer from a hearing loss.

In the Limpopo district, the charitable institution called Ndlovu Care Group (NCG) has already set up a health clinic. This is where Dr Karin Joubert from the Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg is now building a fully equipped audiological clinic with support from the Oticon Foundation.

The clinic will be used to gain data on how such a healthcare system should be established and operated in the most efficient manner in order to be of help to the residents of the area. The experience gained will be used when similar audiological services are established in other rural districts in South Africa.

This year, the Oticon Foundation sponsored hearing and testing equipment to the University of Pretoria and Charlotte Maxeke hospital to enhance training for students and for future audiologists who can, in turn, better serve the community in which we operate. The Foundation has proudly presented the first rotary chair in a government hospital in the whole of South Africa.

In the poorest regions in South Africa, hearing loss is quite often not treated. In areas where access to clean drinking water is reserved for the few, and where unemployment is the rule rather than the exception, a hearing clinic is an unknown phenomenon. However, in 2010, a hearing clinic opened in a village called Xanthia in the eastern part of South Africa, thanks to the 250,000 Danish kroner funding from the Oticon Foundation.

With access to all the necessary equipment for diagnosing hearing loss, the clinic also had hearing aids donated by Oticon, so that the poorest could also have their hearing loss treated properly. The hearing clinic was operated by volunteers from South Africa, in co-operation with Wits scholars, among them students who—through their work at the clinic—made a highly appreciated contribution to public health in the area, whilst gaining valuable experience to be used in their future careers as audiologists.

What have your greatest leadership lessons been?

My greatest leadership lesson is to be humble. As a leader, people look to you for answers and you realise that you do not always have to have the answer. Very often the solution is right there if you are willing to listen and to ask for input from people who are either working in that particular environment or field and dealing with the same issues on a daily basis. You need to be humble enough to ask for help and to listen to what feedback is being given to you.

In all industries, it’s important to stay abreast with trends and developments, but in more technical areas it’s imperative. How do you ensure that your staff remain educated about changes and developments in your industry?

Our goal is to feature our newest solutions in a context that will also demonstrate to hearing care professionals that Oticon offers the tools and the know-how needed to help them meet their practice goals. Our ‘empowering’ theme helps us to communicate that Oticon’s focus on four key practice areas—audiology, technology, counselling and fitting and business support—will empower them to differentiate their practices, improve patient outcomes and positively impact their service delivery.

We invest substantially in empowering our staff. Often we invite external consultants to educate our team. We regularly attend international workshops where we learn about the latest in hearing technology and breakthroughs in the industry. Recently we appointed a full-time trainer to empower our employees, across all levels, with regards to new product technologies and functionalities.

Our training resources are also geared towards hearing care providers who are our direct customers. The healthcare expert is equipped with product proficiency and the skills needed to ensure that Oticon instrument fittings are done in such a way to maximise the benefits for the person wearing the hearing device. With our approach to hearing healthcare and our complete product range, our customers and partners are fully equipped to help people with various kinds of hearing loss connect with the world and live their lives to the fullest.

We always suggest that end users get a hearing test, receive help and advice, and buy accessories, spare parts, and cleaning tools from authorised Oticon hearing care professionals.

Oticon is also a company of firsts in terms of using technology. From the first fully automatic hearing instrument, the first digital hearing instrument, the first hearing instrument with artificial intelligence, one of the first instruments to use wireless binaural technology and the first design-focussed hearing instrument.

By integrating our advanced engineering capabilities with Eriksholm’s cutting-edge psychoacoustic research and world-class manufacturing capabilities, Oticon maintains the lead in developing the future of hearing technology.

How do you ensure that people are well informed about Oticon and its services? What social media platforms are used? And how does Oticon reach out to the public?

Everything we do—from social media support and engagement to solutions and support tools—is designed to empower people to play an active part in life. We also offer expert advice in the form of an in-house audio support team who are just a call away. Our website is also filled with helpful information for end users and healthcare professionals.

Candice Morgan, Deaf TV’s vivacious Executive Producer is profoundly deaf in her left ear and hard of hearing in her right ear. Candice has revealed to Oticon that the most overwhelming challenge faced by deaf people is communicating in a hearing world. Candice relates to Helen Keller who said, “Blindness separates you from objects…deafness separates you from people”.

Candice is one of our real-life ambassadors who, by actually wearing our instruments, has the ability to demonstrate and in her own words, “achieve the seemingly impossible no matter the odds”.

Collaborating with real people with real-life challenges is something that Oticon is accustomed to and does exceptionally well. We understand the needs and challenges faced by those who are hearing impaired. We know that hearing has a profound influence on how much we enjoy life. And as circumstances, needs and demands change, so does our challenge: To change with the end user, and deliver the solution needed to communicate, interact and participate actively. Our promise supports this in every way.

You became one of the youngest, female country managers in the international group. What was your secret to your success and what was your secret to making the step up to Country Manager?

A drive to succeed. I do not easily take no for an answer and if one way does not work, I always look for alternative ways to accomplish the seemingly impossible. Hard work is a prerequisite for success. Another important aspect is understanding your weaknesses and your strengths. And to surround yourself with people who pillar your areas of weakness. A willingness to listen when receiving feedback and a capability to reflect and improve. I am naturally a strong, strategic thinker, which allows me to think out-of-the-box. This quality allows me to be solutions-oriented. And when you are in a growth industry, that is a very important trait to possess.

What motivates you and how do you deal with pressure at work?

A sense of achievement is a key motivator for me. There is nothing more rewarding than placing a lot of energy and resources into a project and then seeing it come to life. Observing the results gives you renewed energy. Another driver for me is problem-solving and brainstorming. One of my favourite tasks is when I can place a strategic hat on and look at things in a freethinking kind of way. Playing with strategic ideas to determine which concepts are feasible and which are not. A great pressure-reliever is either exercise or speaking to a mentor. Participating in recreational activities can lighten the weight on your shoulders.

For many people there is a stigma attached to admitting they have a hearing problem. What message would you like to share with these people and their families in terms of how finding a solution to improve your hearing can change a person’s professional and personal life?

The fear of being seen to stand out from the crowd because of a hearing aid has existed ever since their invention, and this feeling continues today. Hearing-impaired people have always been discriminated against. The world is getting busier, more crowded and noisier. Understanding conversations, especially in the presence of noise, is more difficult than ever.

In the noisy environment that we live in, we are seeing that hearing loss presents itself earlier and earlier in life because people are exposed to a lot more noise. We are seeing an increasingly younger generation also wearing hearing loss devices.

A hearing aid turns the ageing process into something negative, and people who have hearing loss don’t enjoy talking about it. The only way to tackle the stigma is through increasing people’s understanding of hearing loss. This requires changing people’s attitudes. Luckily hearing aid technology and services have much improved.

Seeking help from a qualified hearing care professional is the first step in addressing your hearing loss. With their assistance, you will be able to select hearing instruments that will enhance your ability to once again engage in conversations with family and friends, participate fully in meetings and workplace discussion and enjoy the everyday sounds you’ve been missing.

The latest advancements in Oticon hearing instruments provide a range of attractive choices. Gone forever are the big, beige and bulky hearing aids of the past. In their place are discrete, well-designed behind-the-ear hearing instruments that are meeting the demands of a new generation of hearing aid users.

What has the reaction been to your Opn device that is invisible and is tucked behind the ear, especially among young people?

We truly have a revolutionary product on our hands. The new, tiny chip that powers Oticon Opn is the culmination of five years of engineering and technology development. The response from end users and our hearing expert clients has been truly amazing. Remarkably, we have had users, within hours of trying the Opn hearing aid, saying that they cannot imagine life without them, owing to the vast improvement over their older generation instruments that cannot compare. We are truly setting a paradigm in the future of hearing healthcare with the technology that has been built into the Opn. Opn delivers the best audiological performance and streamer-free connectivity with very low power consumption, without compromising instrument size. We consider this to be amongst the best technology has to offer.

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