How Vitality, Discovery Are Shifting the Senior Living Sales Paradigm

Covid-19 brought about radical changes to the senior living sales paradigm — and for most operators, there is no going back, even if the industry returns to some semblance of normalcy.

Old habits die hard, and the senior living industry is still rife with dangerous pitfalls and outdated practices in the way salespeople are trained and managed. But operators would do well to get a handle on the sales process now, as doing so could make the difference between occupancy recovery and stagnation in the next 12 months.

That is why senior living companies including Vitality Living and Discovery Senior Living are going through their sales processes with a fine-toothed comb and updating them for the Covid-19 era.


Leads aren’t everything

Any sales person would tell you that a key to selling is generating new leads, and the senior living industry has taken that lesson to heart. But in the age of Covid-19, taking such a big focus on generating new leads might not yield the same results as before the pandemic started.

It is easy for senior living sales teams to get into the circular thinking of “we need more leads, we need more leads, we need more leads,” according to Julie Podewitz, the former chief sales officer at Brentwood, Tennessee-based Vitality Living and current Founder and CEO of senior living consulting firm Grow Your Occupancy. But that does not always serve communities well, as leads can get “stuck” inside of the sales funnel over time.

According to Podewitz, senior living operators can expect that about 10% to 15% of their leads will move through the entire journey, from inquiry to move-in. There is much work left to be done with the 85% to 90% of prospects who do not end up moving in, and operators would be wise to pull those levers before chasing new leads.


“It’s really a sales issue more than a marketing, ‘we-need-more-leads’ issue,” Podewitz said.

Lou Maranto, vice president of sales at Discovery Senior Living, agreed that operators are not giving proper attention to nurturing the leads that they already have, and that senior living sales teams should focus more on conversion ratios rather than new leads.

“The ice is already broken,” he said. “We have a better chance of getting them to move [in].”

As of mid-January, Discovery averaged about 13% in total inquiries that became move-ins. That number was even higher over the summer at about 15%, according to Maranto.

The operator saw the most success in developing a sales process that could be replicated across the entire company.

For example, Discovery gives sales teams guidance on when and how to follow up with a prospect. That structure gives Discovery’s salespeople tools they can use during the sales process, and it helps them keep track of every lead so they can convert them into tours and move-ins down the road and not allow them to fall through the cracks.

“We try to be very deliberate in our training so people are very specific as to when they’re going to follow back up with people,” Maranto said. “For us, it is more a standardized process that we can replicate across the enterprise.”

Vitality is also big on deliberate sales practices, and on accountability regarding following up with leads. Like Discovery, the company makes it a goal to respond to prospects in a timely way.

“It takes consistency and repetition and really to get a higher level of mastery from a sales perspective,” Podewitz said.

Taking a closer focus

Last year, Discovery launched a centralized sales center at its home office in Bonita Springs, Florida. From that base of operations, sales pros can write emails, hold live chats or field phone calls. The operator is also working on adding SMS texting capabilities to those offerings.

Discovery saw its number of leads and inquiry-to-tours grow almost immediately after launching its sales center.

“Before the contact center, we were in the low-to-mid 40% [range] as far as inquiries to tours, and that immediately went into the low 60% [range],” Maranto said.

And because the sales center is now handling data entry and administrative functions, the operator’s community sales teams are less burdened during the discovery process.

“We have big plans for 2022 to do some more outbound calling, some database mining and some other activities,” Maranto said.

One approach that has paid off for Vitality is its sales structure, under which sales teams fall under the direction of regional directors. Those directors play a multifaceted leadership role that includes coaching, mentorship, training support and communication.

Vitality’s regional directors also are tasked with looking for trends in sales data, such as what is working or not working to convert leads into tours and move-ins.

Although both operators are focused on maintaining rates at their communities, staying competitive with prospects can be a challenge given the amount of concessions being offered elsewhere in the marketplace. That is where having expertise and empathy — and a strong handle on blocking and tackling — comes into play, Podewitz said.

“Let’s give our customers reasons to pay the market rate or the increased rates that we’re needing to charge in order to take care of our residents and our team members,” she said.

Discovery has also walked the fine line between regaining occupancy and maintaining healthy revenue, and the company still has some ground to make up in that regard in 2022, according to Maranto. One challenge was making sure sales people were not only selling “dollar-for-dollar value, but also the intrinsic value,” he said.

For example, a Discovery salesperson might point out all of the money and hardship a prospective resident can save by moving into a senior living community, even if that community is more expensive than one down the road.

To drive those points home, Discovery in January held a two-hour training on “selling value.”

“People get in the mindset of dollar-for-dollar, and they lose that second factor … of convenience and safety and security,” Maranto said. “[We] paint that picture of all of our communities bringing value to all different shapes and sizes and dollar amounts.”

Breaking the staffing cycle

Staffing is one hurdle that senior living sales teams must overcome in 2022 — and to that end, there is no easy answer. But what is clear is that the senior living industry can’t repeat the same practices as in the past and expect a different result in the future.

“We’ll be continually frustrated and set up for failure,” Podewitz said.

Vitality is looking outside the senior living industry for talent and assessing applicants for “softer skills” that can carry over well into the senior living industry. While assessment tools or benchmarking can offer some insight into whether someone would be a good fit, Podewitz also looks for more basic qualities such as curiosity and empathy.

“One of the things that ‘ve learned to look for over time is during the interview process, how curious was the person? What was the quality of the questions he or she asked during the interview?” she added.

Discovery similarly looks for compatible skills rather than direct experience in senior living sales. The company also uses an assessment tool to screen applicants and determine their best fit.

“It’s a piece of the puzzle that has helped us be more disciplined in who we hire and bring on board,” Maranto said. “And most importantly, move people into the right areas where their natural skillset takes over.”

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