Senior living sales and marketing teams struggled mightily in 2020, but the ongoing vaccination effort is a ray of hope that occupancy will stabilize and begin to grow.
Still, the fact remains that the pandemic rages on, and it will be months before providers are truly capitalizing on pent-up demand, Brightview Senior Living Regional Sales Manager Laura Oliver said during Senior Housing News’ recent Sales Summit, which was held virtually.
“We’re still straddling two worlds,” she said. “We’re still struggling between this doom and gloom of 2020, with the hope and positivity of 2021.”
Brightview and other providers are using this holding pattern to reinforce basic sales training to its teams, establish realistic sales goals, incentivize teams and representatives to meet these targets, and fine-tune marketing campaigns so that they can hit the ground running when demand is ready to translate into move-ins.
Going back to basics
The pandemic presented unprecedented and unexpected challenges in 2020, and sales and marketing teams in senior living had no playbook when the first wave of Covid-19 spread across the country last spring, recalled Nicole Muller, vice president of marketing and sales at Westminster Communities of Florida.
“In the beginning, everyone froze and tried to figure out what to do next,” she said.
The top priority was protecting residents from the virus, and Westminster’s sales teams spent the initial weeks of the pandemic focusing on supporting on-the-ground staff in this endeavor. As outbreaks have endured, fatigue has set in, and some sales representatives have handled it better than others.
The fatigue was exacerbated by shifts in strategy from in-person tours to virtual settings, and bringing in tech to kickstart lead generation. Westminster saw some resistance initially from some sales representatives, as well as prospects and their families.
“A lot of prospects said, ‘I’ll wait until this clears, and then I’ll call you or come visit,” she said.
Oliver had a similar experience with her sales teams at Brightview. Many older sales representatives that spent their entire careers in senior housing — which has long lagged other industries in adopting technology — were reluctant to change with the times and adapt to the disrupted environment.
Oliver reminded her salespeople that the basics of selling still apply in a virtual environment, and Brightview leaders coached teams to apply those skills in a new setting.
“It’s still a relationship sale,” she said. “Do not forget the steps of the sale, and make sure that you are diving deep into understanding the needs of that prospective resident or their family, really learning about them and building that relationship.”
As the months progressed, Westminster’s sales teams, along with prospects and their families, relaxed and embraced the new platforms, which Muller attributed to reminding sales representatives of the basics of selling. She recounted a conversation she had recently with one of her sales associates who indicated that the virtual tour setting is working, because of a recommitment to the basics.
“The teams have come a long way in a year,” she said.
Setting realistic expectations
Providers are settling in to the realization that a recovery in occupancy and operations will take several years. Although Muller and Oliver believe the industry has entered a stabilization period, occupancy is expected to continue a downward slide until at least mid-2021, if not longer.
“We could see a continued slide. I don’t think any of us know when that will stop,” Muller said.
Unable to predict when pent-up demand will break, providers are revamping sales expectations in the Covid-19 era. This will remove some of the pressure on sales teams, allowing them to meet more realistic expectations in the existing environment.
Westminster did a complete overhaul of its sales expectations and metrics, in order to align with a virtual tour and sales climate, and the technology the provider brought on board in order for its teams to do its job and hold themselves accountable.
“We wanted to ensure that they were using it,” she said.
This is an ongoing experiment for Westminster. The latest tweak, unveiled only a couple weeks ago, is a points system that tracks sales and marketing activity of teams and individual representatives. Higher value activity such as arranging sales appointments earns a rep more points, with a maximum of 1,500 points a week to earn. The points system is tracked directly by Westminster’s CRM system and provides weekly updates to teams and salespeople, identifying areas for improvement as well as strengths.
“It completely shifts the paradigm about where they should focus,” she said.
Brightview started the year establishing its own realistic expectations for sales and marketing teams, particularly through conversations with its partners about what the provider should realistically expect to achieve with move-ins.
The provider also adjusted performance metrics, setting modest targets for converting leads to visits, first visits to deposits, and deposits to sales, and clearly articulating to sales teams what conversion ratio expectations are in place, Oliver said.
Additionally, Brightview is incentivizing incremental successes that, in a pre-pandemic, environment, would have been expected of its sales teams. For example, if a sales associate reaches a target goal for move-ins one month, that person would receive double the commission.
“Money talks with salespeople,” she said. “We’re saying, ‘If you achieve this, we’re going to reward you because we recognize how hard it is to achieve this goal during these times.’”
Many providers spent the pandemic shifting their marketing campaigns, and spends, to the digital sphere. In Brightview’s case, Covid-19 accelerated what it was already doing in that area, Oliver said.
Pre-pandemic, Brightview observed conversions of digital leads to visits decreasing because these were “top of the funnel” leads. Covid-19 exacerbated the trend — the provider saw more digital leads but fewer conversions to visits.
Oliver and her teams took a step back to analyze the previous two years of data showing digital leads-to-visit conversion ratios, and adjusted it downward as a target for 2021. This alleviates pressure on sales teams to convert leads to visits, while establishing attainable goals for the year.
“We told our sales teams, ‘We’re going to have this as our benchmark and see how you do,” she said. “Let’s work at least to achieve that.”
Brightview allocated more resources to webinars as a lead generation tool, as well. These events range from broad educational campaigns to prospects and their families about what living in a Brightview community has to offer, to more free continuing education courses for social workers. This serves the purpose of establishing relationships with webinar attendees which can be leveraged later to build referral pipelines.
“We want them to have Brightview top of mind,” Oliver said. “We always get a little opportunity at the beginning of these to promote Brightview and tell them what we do that might be different than the independent living or assisted living community down the street.”
Westminster launched its own series of webinars during the pandemic, ranging from community-centric webinars for local prospects to statewide events. One financial webinar featuring the provider’s CFO, Hank Keith, saw over 200 prospects attend in real time, Muller said.
Currently, around 70% of Westminster’s marketing spend is earmarked for digital. While Muller describes attendance for the webinars as modest, lead generation is now back to pre-pandemic levels and the provider looks to tweak future webinar topics to increase participation and boost the number of leads collected.
“We’re monitoring the results of what types of events are working,” she said.
The growing pains associated with digital pivots is emblematic of the challenges Covid-19 presented providers in 2020. Experimentation became the norm, and the scope of the pandemic — and fear of failure — should not deter providers from trying out new avenues to market their communities.
“We can’t be afraid to make a mistake right now or try something new, because [Covid-19 is] an unknown for all of us,” Muller said.
Brightview rolled out tech support to all 45 of its communities, with varying degrees of success. Part of this centered on the learning curve of sales teams. Salespeople who spent their entire careers in senior living at times lagged behind newer arrivals in embracing tech as a tool.
“There have been some failures, and they have been epic,” Oliver said.
Eventually, it comes back down to sales basics for providers. As the industry settled into a management phase of the pandemic, more attention was paid to reinforcing the foundations of sales, and this “one bite at a time” approach has helped with confidence of sales teams.
“You can only focus on what you can control,” Oliver said. “The world has changed, but there’s still value to living in a community.”