Online Lead Surge Sparks New Approach to Senior Living Sales

With the internet a huge and growing source for senior living leads, providers are looking for ways to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff, with major chains including Brookdale and Emeritus turning to call centers to handle and qualify volume.

“At least half the leads people should get come from the Internet, and it’s just going up, because the internet is growing faster than other sources,”  says Todd Walrath, president of RealPage’s senior living division, SeniorLiving.net. “There’s more competition, too, so whatever leads are out there are getting divided by having more options.”

There are anywhere from two to four million searches each month for senior services, compared to around 100,000 move ins a month, he estimates. That translates to a lot of inquiries that don’t pan out, for a whole host of reasons including affordability, level of care needed, and personal preferences.

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The searches that produce inquiries typically happen through email or over the phone. Because of the high volume of leads that don’t convert, many senior living providers prefer leads from family referrals, walk-ins, or discharge planners, as those are typically the highest yielding ones.

“The problem is, they don’t have enough [of those kinds of leads],” Walrath says. While they might have a 50% conversion rate, if a community only gets 10 such quality referrals a month or less, that’s usually not enough to meet occupancy goals.

“Some [providers] are stuck in the past a little and they’ll say, ‘We don’t use referral services; we don’t buy leads off the internet because they don’t convert as well as professional referral services,'” says Walrath. “The question is, do you still have availability in your buildings? If you do, you need to do more as a marketing team at your building to get more potential residents in the door.”

Major senior living providers—including Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE:BKD) and Emeritus (NYSE:ESC)—have adopted the call center model, whether proprietary or third party, as an online lead sieve. Others, like Holiday Retirement and Senior Lifestyle Corp., have implemented or improved customer relationship management (CRM) software.

While Senior Lifestyle wants its sales force to treat each lead source the same, many sales people hired from other organizations view certain sources less favorably and tend not to focus the same time and energy on building or advancing relationships with those types of leads, says senior vice president of sales and marketing Adam Kaplan.

“I have found success by having our sales people treat all new inquiries the same regardless of if they are sourced from our website, a paid referral agency, a healthcare professional or even a resident referral—even though the conversion ratios vary significantly from source to source,” Kaplan says. “All that said, I do believe that the percentage of move-ins from the internet will continue to grow at a fast pace and thus that is we invest a great deal of our time from a marketing perspective.”

For some providers, it’s not worth dedicating an experienced, salaried sales professional to sift through hundreds of unqualified leads that aren’t likely to convert, says Walrath. A macro trend he sees in the industry is having initial inquiries handled by a call center where they can be qualified and then put back into a provider’s CRM.

“Now, your sales team is working with your highest quality leads, following up on hot prospects, setting up tours, and closing,” he says.

“It’s absolutely a trend that’s been happening over the past three years where more providers are recognizing that their communities are not necessarily set up for success to handle internet leads,” says Chris Rodde, CEO of SeniorHomes.com. “We see a lot of our customers—mostly the bigger ones—take those leads into a call center as a first touch and have that call center sort of qualify them.”

The major concern with calls is to make sure a phone lead doesn’t turn into an email lead, Walrath says, because then they usually only get back on the phone around 70% of the time.

“The highest performing lead is a phone call that comes off of one of our websites,” he says. “Our biggest sin would be having that person go to voicemail and not get them on the phone.”

Brookdale announced RealPage as their call center partner in March 2013, making the switch from sales counselors at each community handling inquiries.

“With the large number of calls we received on a daily basis, both through our Internet presence as well as through print media, and with the busy schedules of our sales associates, they are not always available to take a call while continuing to provide the service our customers had come to expect from Brookdale,” Jim Pusateri, senior vice president of sales with Brookdale, said at the time in a statement. “Since implementing the RealPage Senior Contact Center, we now have the ability to collect phone numbers from 93% of incoming calls.”

RealPage’s call center took about 30,000 phone calls in October, says Walrath, and was able to qualify around 3,000 families. “Maybe only 10% of calls we get are actually people looking for senior care who have money,” he says. “But those 3,000 calls are like gold. Providers have got to figure out how to embrace the calls, because in [those calls] will be some of the best leads to have.”

Written by Alyssa Gerace

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