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By offering a chat service to accommodate around-the-clock senior living inquiries, some providers are finding solutions they didn’t know they needed.
A growing number of senior living operators are adding “live chat” to their websites, achieving success in the form of high-quality leads, more move-ins and burnished branding. But adopting an instant-message chat feature is not as straightforward as it might seem: Operators are seeing benefits thanks to thoughtful planning, careful implementation and an increasingly sophisticated grasp of the tool’s benefits.
From a marketing perspective, the main benefit of live chat might be summed up in the word “engagement.” That’s because it turns a website visit into an interactive experience. A visitor to the site simply clicks on a chat icon and can begin instant messaging with a representative of the senior living provider, who might be either an in-house employee or someone working through a third-party.
Some of the senior living providers that have effectively implemented live chat began by thinking in very specific ways about how exactly they wanted to engage with prospective residents or their family members through the feature.
Silverado Care was a live chat pioneer in the senior housing space, first implementing the tool five years ago. At that time, leaders at the California-based memory care, hospice and home care provider began to think about what potential residents and their family members might be doing late at night, when their worries might be especially troubling. The answer clearly was that they would seek help on the Internet, says Randy Platt, Silverado senior vice president of operations.
This picture of a troubled family member seeking answers informed Silverado’s idea of what live chat engagement should entail. Not only would live chat be available outside normal business hours, but the person answering the live chat call would need to be able to allay fears and proceed with a light touch from a sales perspective, Platt tells Senior Housing News.
Part of that light touch means respecting that someone using live chat might want to remain anonymous, adds Buffy Moelke, Silverado’s lead chat representative.
It’s a point echoed by Jodi Marsico, vice president of advertising at Erickson Living, which began a live chat pilot last year. Marsico also emphasizes the value of engagement and noted that live chat might be a preferred method of communication for people in the earliest stages of researching senior living.
“Our first and foremost goal was opening up a new channel for prospective residents to reach out to us who may not be ready to pick up the phone or come to a sales appointment but want to create a two-way dialogue,” she tells SHN. “We wanted to make it available, knowing that live chat might appeal to someone wanting to remain anonymous, doing early-stage research and not ready for face-to-face interaction yet.”
In-House or Third-Party?
Another crucial decision to consider in the planning stage is whether to staff the live chat with in-house employees or contract with an outside service. Both approaches have paid off for senior housing providers.
Belmont Village Senior Living opted to go the third-party route. The Texas-based provider of independent and assisted living and memory care worked with consultants at Senior Living Smart and live chat company Site Staff to launch a pilot last fall.
Working with a contractor can help save money and resources, but a senior living provider needs to be very selective in who to work with, emphasizes Jeff DeBevec, senior vice president of communications.
“An important component is the training of the individuals who will be doing the chat,” DeBevec tells SHN. “Train them in both the general communications regarding senior living and senior care but also in the specific provisions a company might have to differentiate and delineate the care services.”
Belmont Village carefully crafted a “knowledge set” for the chat operators to use, he explains. This enables them to provide specific details that someone might request via live chat, but also ensures that they don’t share or ask for inappropriate information. Having such boundaries is essential in a health care environment where privacy must be respected, DeBevec says.
Silverado and Erickson staff their live chat with in-house employees.
“There was no question that the cost of manning it ourselves was going to be exponentially higher,” Silverado’s Platt says.
Silverado believed that the higher cost of in-house staffing would be worthwhile because the live chat would relfect the entire brand, Platt explains. He believes this has been the case and notes that two of the three live chat associates have been at the job since the feature first launched. Their expertise now creates enormous value, he says.
Erickson also touts its in-house chat operators. They can communicate the nuances that differentiate various Erickson communities from each other, and they are trained and regularly spend time in the sales office to stay current with practices in that arena, says Marsico.
Go Live, then Refine
While careful planning should lead to a smooth rollout of the live chat feature, changes almost certainly will have to be made to maximize its effectiveness. For example, tracking live chat traffic caused some operators to adjust when the tool is available.
Silverado at first staffed its live chat around the clock, seven days a week. But after two years, an analysis revealed some peak times and some “zero periods,” says Platt.
Now, Silverado’s live chat is operational 16 hours on weekdays and eight on weekends, although systems are in place to ensure that anyone who attempts to use the chat at any time gets a prompt follow-up.
Glenmeadow, a stand-alone continuing care retirement community in Longmeadow, Mass., also had plans for a 24/7 live chat feature when it recently updated its website, Marketing Director Linda Edwards tells SHN. Those plans had to be scuttled, but the CCRC’s chat has a feature that forwards messages to Edwards’ cellphone.
“I can do a chat at ten in the evening in my living room,” she says.
Erickson also paid a lot of attention to visitation trends during its pilot period and saw heavy traffic in early morning and evening hours, tailing off after 9 p.m., Marsico says.
She also explains that Erickson has taken a gradual approach to rolling out its live chat. Rather than having the live chat accessible through the website’s homepage, the chat option pops up on pages dedicated to individual Erickson communities.
“Our marketing approach is very specific to our communities, so our approach is very community and market-specific,” she says. Plus, it allows for a gradual rollout of the live chat on a community-by-community basis.
Providers also say that adjustments might have to be made based on who primarily is engaging with the live chat feature. While there is general agreement that adult children of prospective residents tend to be the most frequent users, some operators tell SHN that potential residents themselves also frequently engage via chat. And job seekers or vendors also utilize live chat, so processes might have to be created for answering their questions or directing their inquiries appropriately.
Live chat can pay off quite literally: In just 30 days, Belmont Village’s live chat led to 50 new unique leads, 15 scheduled tours and two move-ins, according to Senior Living Smart.
In keeping with its philosophy that live chat is just the very opening of a discussion, Erickson does not track how many users end up moving in, says Marsico. But the provider is seeing good results on metrics such as appointments scheduled and brochures requested, as well as total chats overall.
“We closed our first sale a month into chat,” says Art Alvarez, chat line manager at Silverado. “We do pride ourselves on our conversion ratio.”
However, these providers also are quick to stress that the value of live chat cannot be boiled down to merely numbers.
For Silverado, live chat offers another platform for furthering its mission to extend support to anyone in need, regardless of whether it makes sense from a strict dollars-and-cents perspective. Moelke describes recently helping a woman get in touch with a senior care placement service. Even if the woman does not end up choosing a Silverado community for her mother, being able to render this help still is a benefit to having live chat, Moelke says.
“That doesn’t create a direct financial ROI, but it creates a dividend that is far greater for our brand,” Platt adds.
It’s a point reinforced by Glenmeadow’s Edwards. It’s been about a year since the CCRC initiated live chat, and so far only a small percentage of users have come in for a visit, she says. But if it has not proven to be a major lead generation engine, it is contributing in other ways to Glenmeadow’s success.
“It is supporting our overall brand image and our desire to be as accessible as possible,” Edwards says. “We pride ourselves on being a quality provider and looking at efficiency in terms of using technology. I think if you want to be that type of provider, you need to at least look at these types of tools.”
It’s almost a guarantee that more senior living providers indeed will be looking at live chat as they strive to be technologically adept—and as they observe the success and learn from the strategies of operators that already have a chat tool in place. And those that already have live chat are striving to keep their competitive advantage by using it in more innovative ways.
Silverado, for example, is becoming more sophisticated in utilizing social media to drive chat line activity, says Platt. Other providers might be starting at a more basic level with chat, but senior living could be close to a tipping point in terms of adoption.
“I hear about it more in discussions with peers,” confirms DeBevec. “I do know that the industry is adopting it more and more.”
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Written by Tim Mullaney