Mystery Shopping Reveals Failing Marks for Senior Living Sellers

Despite senior living communities’ ongoing efforts to improve their outreach and marketing campaigns, the fundamental basics of their marketing strategies are still seen largely as flawed.

Mystery shops completed by students in senior housing administration at George Mason University show that assisted living communities’ sales staff overwhelmingly fail to ask the right questions and provide the necessary information to turn a lead into a move-in. 

“I’m not blaming the marketers for their performance; I’m blaming their employers,” says Andrew Carle, executive in residence and founding director of the mystery shoppers program. “What’s happening in our industry is this idea that as long as we’re at 90% or 92% occupancy, then the attitude is “What’s the big deal?” but the big deal is that you could’ve been at 100% occupancy with a wait list and opening your next building if you did this correctly.” 


For the 34 mystery shops most recently completed in spring 2014, students were provided an industry recognized “A-lead” — an elderly family member requiring basic assistance, a home value and savings in excess of $400,000 and a willingness to move within 30 days. 

Students called communities advertising the ability to meet required needs, using a scorecard measuring 30 criteria across four categories: first impression, needs assessment, ability to meet needs and follow-up/close. And the results are underwhelming, Carle says.

In only 26% of calls were students asked about the timeline of their family member to move, with only 32% asked about ability to pay. While the fictitious resident should result in a “100% tour offer rate,” in 21% of calls students were initially offered a brochure by mail. Furthermore, in only 42% of calls did the sales staff offer specific ways the community could help meet the needs of their family member. 


“Basically, as an industry we’ve learned how to answer a phone in three rings, ask the name of the caller and offer them a brochure,” Carle says. “And even that we don’t do 100% of the time. How elementary is that for a $100,000 product?”

Since the mystery shop’s inception in 2004, there has been little change in overall performance by the industry at point-of-first-contact.

Between 2006 and 2008, only 40% of callers were asked the name of the potential resident and 48% how they learned of the community, compared to 38% and 47%, respectively, for 2014.

“For a decade, there’s been virtually no movement on the barometer,” Carle says. “Fifty percent or less of the time are our students asked, ‘How did you learn about our community?’ How are you supposed to measure all the dollars you’re spending on cost per lead and advertising and outreach if you don’t ask that question?”

The real message of these surveys is the importance of staff training, Carle says. There’s a strong disconnect between the product and the value that marketers and sales staff place on that product, and a missing link of not understanding that if sales staff performed at their highest level, the facility could be full with a waiting list. 

“No other business accepts the mentality of not selling all of the product on the shelf,” Carle says. “McDonald’s wants to sell all of their hamburgers, not 90% of them. You could be doing a lot better. But [providers] don’t seem to feel a sense of urgency to change this.” 

Written by Emily Study

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