Charter Senior Living COO: Our Community Leaders Are Now Playing Offense, Not Defense

From the psychological toll of the pandemic to slower move-ins, Charter Senior Living has seen its fair share of challenges during the coronavirus pandemic. But the company is now moving forward, supporting its local leaders to shift from a defensive mindset of keeping Covid-19 out of buildings, to an offensive business mindset of finding the best ways to serve their markets.

Charter Partner and COO Jayne Sallerson believes that, while this is a challenging time for the industry, it is also potentially an exciting one for operators that are willing and able to pivot to the new landscape.

Charter is pivoting by continuing to refine its operations after adapting “on a dime” to the pandemic, Sallerson said during a recent appearance on the Senior Housing News Transform podcast. For instance, it is implementing a mixture of new technology, new initiatives to police themselves, and new sales and marketing practices that focus on virtual consultations rather than virtual tours. All the while, the company has continued to grow, with 18 communities under management alongside two acquisitions and three development projects in the works. Charter is also preparing to enter New England with an offering geared toward the middle market.

“I think developers got a little scared at the beginning. I think some of the investors got nervous. But I think people are rebounding now,” Sallerson said. “And I really believe that people still need us, whether they are scared to move in.”

Highlights of Sallerson’s podcast interview are below, edited for length and clarity. Subscribe to Transform via Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud or Google Play.

On how Charter has dealt with Covid-19:

From an operational standpoint, we had to turn on a dime.

We immediately transitioned a current associate, who then became a procurement specialist whose total job was, for three months, just really securing PPE. She stays on top of it now, and it’s ongoing. It’s not at the level that it was prior, because now we have relationships of where to get PPE, and we’re constantly inundated with other options.

The second thing we really had to do was [process] all this information that’s coming at you. It was like a hurricane from all different avenues, from local and national health agencies. We created a Covid binder and immediately got it out to all the communities. It has training and policies and procedures. But the bigger part was, as things changed, we needed to make sure that the communities were alerted of the changes and make sure they have documentation of the changes. Any type of operational change, we immediately update our binders and send out an email that says ‘replace pages 10 through 15.’ We also have an internal SharePoint, where there’s a portal for all the historical information, policies and procedures, and any recent policy and procedures. We’ve held unbelievable and extensive training and retraining on PPE use and infection control. Those are the big things that we immediately had to do and now continue to do.

I think that one of the biggest challenges was the requirement of taking everyone’s temperatures. In some states, it’s three times a day. Some states, it’s two times a day, not only for the residents, but also the associates. So, that was something that put a strain on a lot of buildings that were not used to doing this.

We were really lucky. We have an electronic medical record platform that pivoted really quickly, and actually changed some of their platform so that, as we were tracking temperatures and oxygen levels for residents, it actually helps trend that, and it will raise residents to the top who may be demonstrating or showing some type of trend. And I think that’s a big thing when switching from a paper version, where you really can’t step back and say, ‘Well, Mrs. Jones over the last week showed an increase in temperatures for three days.’ So, I think that really helped.

And then obviously cleaning and sanitizing. We purchased electrostatic cleaners for all our communities. That gives us the ability to sanitize larger spaces more efficiently. I also think it gives a good representation, too, as you’re marketing things you’re putting in place to keep current residents and prospective residents safe.

When it came to open up for move-ins, we created and packaged [rooms] called transitional suites. A lot of people were calling it ‘Covid wings’ or ‘Covid beds,’ but the last thing I think any family wants to know is they’re going into a Covid wing. So we call them transitional suites. They’re usually in a specific area in our communities, depending on the footprint, that gives us the ability to block it off. Once [residents] test negative, and they’re back to normal, they go back to their regular rooms or their permanent residences. It’s been received really positively by the local market.

We’re communicating really well. [Some communities are] using a platform that allows the community to blast text messages or voicemails out to employees and family members. Some communities are doing weekly conference calls, and it’s ongoing. And I think it’s really helped us as a company to better communicate with families. And I think families really appreciate it.

The last thing that we’ve done, which is a little bit different, was we came up with a program — and I actually got the idea from a consortium of operators that I’m on — is the old ‘see something, say something.’ A lot of times, employees don’t want to say something because they don’t want to challenge another employee. Or, a resident is afraid to say something. So, we have a confidential email, or a phone line they can call confidentially. If they feel like we’re not following proper social distancing or wearing masks appropriately, they have a vehicle to tell us confidentially. Our thought behind this was that we need to police ourselves. We just launched it about three weeks ago. We would rather someone call on directly versus call the state. And that’s the first thing that will happen if employees don’t feel comfortable. They’re going to call the state and say they’re not following protocols. So, we’re going to continue to do that, and market it so that we continually police ourselves.

On maintaining move-ins and occupancy:

We’re not back to where we were prior, in terms of census. But for the past four months, we have seen very solid move-ins at our communities. I really think it comes down to, what have you changed operationally? From the move-in side, it’s really making sure you train and retrain your salespeople, because they have to sell differently than they did before. And they have to be confident about what they’re saying.

The sales director has to know about infection control, which they really didn’t have to know in the past, right? But now, they have to know what you are doing and how you are doing it so that they can articulate that to a customer to help gain some confidence. One of the challenges is that people are fearful. ‘How safe is my mom in there?’

We’ve had to retrain our sales people on creating these virtual tours. [Others in the industry] went out and spent thousands and thousands of dollars on these fancy virtual tours, where you click a button on the website. But you just can’t have people go and click on a website that looks like they’re purchasing an apartment or a house. It has to be personalized. We don’t even call them virtual tours if they’re just going on a website and looking at a community.

We want personalized virtual consultations, so that we’re actually meeting with these people via Zoom, or meeting in front of the building. From a sales perspective, you’ve really had to change what you do. Virtual events have become much more prevalent. We’re doing mostly virtual events monthly at our communities. Whether it’s targeting professional referrals, or targeting prospects, I think it’s really, really important. Our sales team just held a companywide virtual bingo game. The proceeds went to the Alzheimer’s Association. Professional referrals bought bingo cards, and it was really successful. We had over 120 professionals playing bingo. You have to be creative to continue to get your name out there and be top of mind for local referral sources.

On the mental toll of dealing with Covid-19

The psychological impact has been so hard on managers, executive directors and associates. I think executive directors are exhausted. It’s been a long time for them.

Operationally, we’re continuing to focus on keeping people psychologically engaged. We just went through an executive leadership training. All of our senior team and our executive directors [participated in a program] called Courage Ignited on how to lead in times of crisis. It was a six-week class. Executive directors absolutely loved it. It really helped them get their mindset in place.

If you focus on what you want, it changes the whole culture in a building. And I think in March and April, I think a lot of executive directors were focusing on what they don’t want, right? ‘I don’t want Covid in my building.’ If you can focus on what you do want — ‘I do want a full building,’ or ‘We’re going to find safe ways of helping seniors out in the market who need us’ — I think it really, really helps. I think it snapped a lot of people out of this kind of defensive mode into an offensive mode. And that’s what we really focused on last month.

We had been planning an executive director summit. For months, we kept postponing it. And we decided, you know what? We’re not canceling it. We didn’t want to do it virtually because I know half the people don’t pay attention virtually. So, we took a risk. We brought all our executive directors together in Chicago. We followed social distancing. Everyone was tested before they got there. And I’ll tell you, it was probably the best thing that we could have done. The executive directors said they needed this so badly. They wanted to talk to other people, have dinner with people, have a drink with someone, just kind of empathize with each other.

Charter’s Founder and CEO, Keven Bennema, and I have not stopped traveling. We still go to all the buildings. I think it’s more important now more than ever that we’re visible, and that we’re listening. I think that has been a real benefit to our culture.

What our executive directors are seeing is that we’re coming to the front lines with you, and we’re helping you as best we can help you, and we’re listening to people. So, while it’s been challenging, I think it’s brought a lot of people closer together. And I think it’s really allowed our executive directors to be a little bit more vulnerable. And that’s what we want them to be. We want them to say, you know, we’re scared. And we can say, we don’t blame you. We’re all scared. But let’s figure out why you’re scared, and how we can mitigate that so that you feel more confident and comfortable.

On how Charter is preparing for potentially tough months ahead:

We’re gearing up for the flu season by making sure everyone gets flu shots, like we typically do. My feeling is, is it going to be challenging? Probably. We always have a challenging last quarter, with holidays and the winter and flu. And I really think it comes down to staying ahead of it the best you can stay ahead of it.

Now is the time that we really have to put our foot on the gas even more to build our pipeline of prospects. We have to not just focus on hot leads — because that’s what everyone focuses on, the crisis move-in — but really building a pipeline of the people that aren’t ready today and may be ready in a month from now. And that’s always your incremental, extra sales. We focus on that anyway, with our sales culture. So, I think it’s going to be challenging, but again, it all comes down to what you are focusing on. It goes back to the Courage Ignited training: what you focus on is what you find.

I think one challenge is going to be how you differentiate the flu from Covid from a cold. I think that [testing for Covid-19] is going to be the key. We were really lucky that we built a relationship with a national lab company back in April. So, we had testing available to all our communities onsite back in April, and we’ve obviously been testing new residents when they come in. We’re also testing all employees before they can get on the floor. We signed up with Abbott Labs, their rapid testing program. So we’re going to see how that goes. They’re much more affordable.

We’re taking every state very specifically. And if we do have a positive outbreak — let’s say an employee tested positive — we immediately test all employees and all residents right there. So that way, we know if it has spread in any way. What we’ve seen over time is … we were able to get in there, deploy our policies, handle it right away, and really eliminate the little sparks so it doesn’t become a forest fire. But, we need accurate, reliable, rapid tests. It all comes down to that.

On Charter’s growth plans in the new pandemic era:

I don’t think we’ve changed the way we’re growing Charter. What we’re finding is, there’s actually a lot of opportunity out there. We’re getting called every day to look at opportunities to take over management and operations of challenged buildings. If [owners] don’t see their current operator rebounding, or see any light at the end of the tunnel, they’re questioning the ability for that operator to continue operating.

We took over a building right smack in the middle of the pandemic. We actually were consulting with them in March and April, and we couldn’t really get in there then. We took over official operations in May. And, we actually are taking on two new communities on December 1. These are with existing partners that we already operate buildings for. We learned during this whole pandemic to communicate better, and even communicate better with our partners and our owners. We’ll tell them the good and the bad — and the ugly, sometimes. I think it’s really helped build relationships with some of the owner groups that we work with.

We continue to work with our developers and our development pipeline. We’re opening up a community in Huntsville, [Alabama] in January. We have a whole portfolio and pipeline of other development deals. DMK, which is the owner and developer of the Huntsville property, just over a couple of years of building a relationship with them, have asked us to be their operator for a pipeline of developments. So, they have three in the pipeline right now, and we’re really excited about this relationship. DMK has identified some really incredible tertiary markets where it’s not oversaturated. So I have the ability to be the new guy in town and price aggressively, so that we don’t have to be the highest in the market, but we feel like we could be the best in the market.

And then we have another relationship with a company out in New England called KindCare. They have a pipeline in the New England market. Their first one is in Connecticut. And these are more middle-market, where they get good tax credits which allows us to operate more efficiently. We’re pretty excited about that, and that gets us into New England.

I think developers got a little scared at the beginning. I think some of the investors got nervous. But I think people are rebounding now. And I really believe that people still need us, whether they are scared to move in. What most seniors are experienced at home right now is isolation. Many of them aren’t going to restaurants, they’re not going to supermarkets, they’re seeing limited people on a daily basis. Their family members don’t want to come and visit because they don’t want to infect them. Independent living [residents] need an environment where they’re not totally socially isolated.

So, is it different? Yes. Do we have to operate differently? Yes. Do we have to sell differently? Yes. But for the companies that can keep the culture going and can really teach salespeople how to sell differently, and how to build a connection with people … it’s going to be an exciting time. A challenging time, but an exciting time. And I think the companies that are able to pivot and change quickly will be the winners in all this.

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