Mystery Shopping in Senior Living Reveals the Importance of Marketing 101

Note: This is the first in a three-part series on mystery shopping for senior living communities. 

When it comes to senior living marketing and converting leads into new residents, sometimes the best strategy is to go back to the basics, and the industry isn’t even close to reaching its marketing potential, according to some with mystery shopping experience.

Whether it’s done as a service or for educational purposes, many mystery shoppers have found communities to be lacking in fundamental marketing techniques. With so much money often spent on generating prospects, senior living providers need to do a better job of working those leads once contact is made, says Elisabeth Borden, founder and principal at The Highland Group, which offers mystery shopping services to clients.


“Often, marketing staff don’t do a very good job of handling those leads once they get them, so that marketing money is being wasted,” she says.

The senior living industry has a far way to go in terms of professionalism and catching up with other industries in marketing practices, according to Andrew Carle, the executive-in-residence and founder of George Mason University’s Senior Housing Administration program.

“On a scale of one to ten, with ten as the highest level of professionalism, our industry is probably no better than a three or four—and we should be performing at an eight or nine,” Carle says.


The average assisted living sale (the amount the consumer or consumer’s family will pay for the duration of the stay) is in the neighborhood of $100,000, according to available data, he says. That’s roughly the equivalent of two Mercedes.

“If you walk into a Mercedes dealership with the intention of buying one Mercedes, let alone two, how do you think you would be treated?” Carle asks, adding that senior living consumers deserve to be treated with the same kind of respect and helpfulness.

Mystery shopping lends perspective—and accountability

Most of The Highland Group’s mystery shopping clients want to assess if their staff is doing a good job of handling phone calls from prospects and both expected and unannounced visits. An outsider’s perspective on how leads are handled can help direct resources and accountability, says Borden.

“When you’re inside your own building most of the time, you kind of have your own impression of what you’re like, and you often have a misperception of how other people see you,” she says.

Some of the “most distressing things” Borden’s shoppers find that are missing have to do with very basic marketing principles, including on-the ball phone answering, collecting relevant information, and ascertaining each prospective customer’s needs.

“It’s really simply: actually getting someone on the phone,” says Borden regarding what’s important in Marketing 101. “There’s a very high percentage of people who end up leaving a message, and they might not get a [timely] call back. If it’s someone who sounds like a ‘hot prospect’ and you don’t call them back for two to three days, that’s not a good strategy.”

There is also a “surprising” amount of mystery shoppers whose contact information is not collected, she says, and in other cases, marketers don’t listen well and just give a canned spiel without listening to an individual’s needs or concerns.

That’s a mistake, Borden says, noting the importance of finding out what the consumer is looking for before deciding what to say and how to structure a tour to highlight relevant aspects of the community.

“A lot of times, managers assume certain things are happening, or that people are following the protocols [that many communities have in place for sales and marketing], but then find out that it isn’t happening,” she says.

Mystery shopping can help. “There are a lot of properties we work with that don’t have marketing protocols or procedures to handle the sales process,” she says, who then go on to develop a strategy.

Coming up: Senior Housing News is looking into the dangers of “iPod Marketing,” along with how mystery shopping findings can be used to save money and efficiently allocate marketing resources.

Written by Alyssa Gerace

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