Using Mystery Shop Findings to Focus Resources & Define Marketing Strategies

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

Mystery shopping can reveal a variety of issues that may be present in senior living communities’ marketing departments, including a need to return to basic Marketing 101 and a tendency to practice ‘iPod Marketing,’ but communities can learn from their mistakes and use findings to reallocate marketing dollars and better focus their resources and strategies.

This can be done in a couple different ways, including learning which aspect of a specific community to highlight in marketing brochures and tours; training staff to assess the cost of each lead; and what perhaps seems the most basic: providing an appealing tour experience to prospective residents and their families.


One older community requested a comparison mystery shop of itself and several other communities, feeling it was at an “extreme” disadvantage to nearby competitors that had been built more recently and had more modern amenities.

After comparing results, it turned out that the older community was actually tied for the top marks, thanks to a warm and helpful staff that engaged with the prospect along every step of the tour. 

“You might think your number one asset is your building, but you might find out it’s actually your staff,” says Elisabeth Borden, founder and principal at The Highland Group, which offers mystery shopping services to clients. “[Getting shopped] helps people shift their marketing messages; you could find out there are very different impressions than what you thought.” 


It’s also a good idea to try to ascertain an approximate cost per lead by asking how the caller heard of the community: through the company’s website, an advertisement, or some other referral source, says Andrew Carle, the executive-in-residence and founder of George Mason University’s Senior Housing Administration program. Nearly half the time, at 47%, senior living marketers never ask.

“This is basic, professional marketing,” he says. “This is a failure not only to help families but to help your own organization figure out how to spend your advertising dollars.”

Getting mystery shopped can be useful for senior living administrators to reallocate external marketing resources.

Mystery shopping is an “outstanding” training tool, says Jon Obel, vice president of operations for Terra Management Group LLC, which manages several Colorado affordable senior living communities for Hendricks Communities LLC. 

“Perception is such a big thing,” he says. “Everyone perceives things differently, and mystery shopping gives really good objective input.”

The Highland Group conducts mystery shopping on assorted Hendricks communities each quarter, says Obel, who says that for the most part, staff does “really well”—but that some different issues are identified. 

After getting the results of the mystery shop, the management group sits down with its staff to go over things that are being done well along with areas that didn’t receive such high remarks.

“Everyone pretty much took it as an opportunity to improve their overall [sales] skills,” says Obel. “It helped us to identify where those disconnects are happening so we can continue cross-training and additional training in those areas.” 

Another way to help enhance the tour experience is by filming the mystery shop using a hidden camera. That’s what sales performance evaluation service LeBlanc & Associates does. Based in Carlsbad, Calif., the company’s sales agents conduct video- and audio-recorded tours that allow management to get a more comprehensive look at both their personnel and facility from the prospect’s point of view.

“It adds a different dimension,” says Mary LeBlanc, the company’s president.

From the physical plant perspective, a video tour can help management see where marketing dollars are being spent.

“How does the dining area come across? The open areas? The model units? Are they clean? In order? Are there stains on the carpet?” LeBlanc says, listing off key first-impression influencers. “[Management is] able to see things on a day-to-day basis without a pre-announced visit. They can see where they need to reinforce rules, and so forth.”

Video captures facial expressions and body language, too, she says. “People are bringing their loved ones here,” she points out. “All the other things are important, but if your front line people do not instill confidence, trust, and caring that a loved one is going to be taken care of– I don’t care if you have a brand new facility: someone’s not going to leave Mom or Grandma at a place they don’t feel comfortable.” 

Ultimately, the community tour process needs to be buyer-centric.

“Agents must always determine what level of information that prospect needs: their fears, concerns, what they need in terms of explanation to make them feel informed and comfortable, as opposed to information download,” LeBlanc says, hearkening back to so-called iPod marketing.

Each community needs to create a uniqueness about themselves versus their competition, she says. “Know who your competition is, and how to be different or counter [what they offer].” 

At some businesses, seeing sales staff for the first time on video prompted management to change aspects of the physical environment of the sales office to make it more buyer-friendly. For senior living, it’s not just a stand-alone sales office—it’s essentially the entire community. When communities get mystery shopped, LeBlanc concludes, it can help management and agents identify how they need to structure their presentation to best appeal to prospective residents.

Written by Alyssa Gerace 

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