On the cusp of a new year, senior living operators are focused on occupancy and margin recovery — and it all starts with sales.
The pandemic changed the way senior living operators connect and engage with prospects, and senior living sales leaders have altered their tactics accordingly. That has resulted in better communication practices, new key performance indicators benchmarking sales success and new ways to balance corporate efficiency with local empowerment.
Over the past couple of years, some in the industry have openly wondered whether the sales process itself was broken and needed an overhaul. But to LCS Chief Marketing Officer Rick Westermann, senior living sales is not broken — it just needs some improvement.
“From technology sales to buying a suit or buying a car, we’re not as broken as other industries are in a lot of ways,” Westermann said during the recent SHN Sales Summit in Washington, D.C. “We can find plenty of opportunity in our sales cycle.””
Sales leaders feel momentum as budgets tighten
Although there are plenty of improvements needed in the senior living sales process, some leaders in those departments are feeling momentum given the ground their companies regained in 2022.
One such leader is Janine Witte, who is senior vice president of sales and marketing for Chicago-based Senior Lifestyle, which operates 137 communities. She said the operator has since the pandemic’s start grown its gross sales “exponentially” over pre-pandemic totals, according to Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing Janine Witte.
Though move-outs have grown at a similar rate, Witte said the company still has a significant opportunity to grow occupancy in the year ahead. One big opportunity in her eyes is virtual events, a practice operators embraced at the start of the pandemic but have moved away from in 2022.
“I think that’s something that needs to be brought back if we want to keep that traffic coming,” she said.
Presbyterian Senior Living’s (PSL) number of leads and tours are about what they were in 2019,, but more prospects than before are using digital channels, according to Jennifer Sciore, corporate director of sales at PSL.
She added that average length of stay has dropped “tremendously” since before the pandemic, and that the operator’s leaders are now focused on shortening the company’s sales cycle. PSL operates in four states with 11 life plan communities and two others currently under development, including a 172-apartment senior living rental community near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
In 2022, Westermann said LCS had logged its best months for leads, and that the company is now seeing its highest-ever inquiry volume. There were several reasons for that success, according to Westermann. He noted that lead volume was so high that the company shifted more focus to limiting low quality leads.
“We shifted a few portfolios, we went away from having a higher percentage of our search budget in strategies Google Search Partners and we really tried to push keyword-based strategies to drive higher quality lead generation in the spring for our life plan communities,” he said.
LCS was not the only one doing some shifting — so, too, was the U.S. economy, he added.
“The world is starting to shift. Interest rates are higher, the stock market continues to fall,” Westermann said. “And now we’re trying to turn the higher lead generation strategies on again to see that inquiry volume come back.”
All three companies are working with marketing budgets that are not any bigger in 2023, and in some cases tighter.
With that in mind, Westermann said LCS is looking to build a budget that would “drive results that we need,” while taking into account all the persistent challenges to the bottom line. That meant some negotiation with ownership groups to adjust targets, and tough conversations with vendors.
“We’re back to full-fledged, aggressive move-in budgets next year again and we have to achieve that,” Westermann said. “Where do you find those dollars that aren’t in the budget? We had to do that through fees and try to push that back into lead generation, and those aren’t fun conversations.”
Though PSL’s marketing budgets are set to be about the same in 2023 as they were in 2022, the company has allocated more dollars to digital outreach and is holding smaller, more focused events. And Witte added that Senior Lifestyle is likely to be more conservative with its planning before signing off on line items.
Strategies for improvement
Three years ago, LCS created a set of sales standards to simplify the process for sales associates.
“We took our four day sales training program, we said, ‘What can somebody learn from one page and have really clear expectations?’” Westermann said.
“We have to create processes to continue to measure where we need to get better and create processes to ensure that those stick,” Westermann said.
A simple way to improving the sales process, Westermann said, was encouraging sales staff to listen more closely to prospects instead of hogging the conversation to point out all of the community’s bells and whistles. He said he secret shops communities and has heard sales people “talking 80% of the time and listening 20% of the time.”
“You can learn so much in a 15-minute conversation about the community about how they respond to a lead,” he said.
He said he often will hear salespeople ending a call with, “Well, let us know if you have any questions.” That is the wrong approach, he said.
“You’re a counselor at that point. You’re not a sales team member,” he said.
In 2022, the company rolled out a new strategy focusing on medical outreach aimed at giving prospects the information they need to make informed decisions on their future care.
“We have to help them understand this continuum of care where we fit in and how we can better serve our partners in your local market,” he added. “So you can provide a better value proposition to hospitals, skilled nursing and short-term rehabilitation centers and we can get our fair share of lead volume from them.”
Sciore said PSL also conducts mystery shop sessions with sales staff. What she found was that some of the company’s most seasoned salespeople were falling into a more passive mindset.
“We just really need to get back to basics and follow our sales process and hold the teams accountable,” Sciore said.
Senior Lifestyle noticed a similar pattern within its sales teams, and Witte notedthat “anyone can get into a bad habit.” She added that it’s about “the housekeeping” of day-to-day management and engaging with staff to encourage them to conduct discovery with prospects.
Senior Lifestyle put resources into automated chatbots to aid in the lead generation, and Witte said the company will focus more on marketing analytics in the year ahead. co
PSL is focused on promoting communities through video channels, with monthly goals in place for how many OneDay videos sales staff send out.
To make improvements, operators have also had to make some tough budget decisions as costs continue to rise and inflation remains a persistent pressure.
One challenge in senior living sales is measuring improvement. To that, Witte said it’s all about the basics: Leads and tours.
“There’s a ton of KPIs, but it’s always leads, it’s always the first tours, it’s always going to be your additional tours. None of that moves,” she said.
PSL sales success is measured off of conversion ratios, Sciore said, including tour and tour-to-move-in data, while LCS focuses on move-ins, net attrition income for life plan communities.
“We look at how leads age over time, because what we can do is better understand when we have a performance issue,” Westermann said.
He added that it’s key to realize when people are in “buying mode” and are ready to make the jump to a community, adding that it was extremely difficult to get a prospect back into that mindset after time
Another challenge lies in holding sales teams accountable. On the one hand, salespeople should have a minimum level of performance they must achieve. On the other, not all communities operate under the same conditions, and benchmarking should be flexible enough to take that into account.
“I still think we need minimum expectations on a daily basis for activities,” Westermann said.
At the same time, he noted the importance of creating quality engagement with prospects versus only activities for activity sake saying, “I care a lot more if you get an email response back, than sending an email. So, how do we incorporate that?”
Witte agrees with that sentiment, and added that sales employees “have to know what they’re reaching for.” Beyond that, they must be paired with the right trainer and understand their jobs.
Changes in communication
It comes as no surprise that a pandemic which forced people farther apart led to new ways and preferences regarding communicating at a distance.
For PSL, that means examining where customers are within the sales process. The company uses a separate marketing department focused on content that will be put in front of prospects while sales teams focus on making personal connections.
And LCS created new email templates for community teams that are branded and customized to different points of the sales process, Westermann said.
“We’re just constantly working to grow content and I think video is the clear winner of the last five years and the pandemic accelerated it,” Westermann said. “As an industry, I think we have a really big opportunity to help people understand what our business is, how to move in what life plan is, what entry fee is, what’s the best practices here.”
While the industry appears split on how to use TikTok to attract leads and to showcase senior living, Facebook will remain a stalwart for operators looking to reach their target audience.
“I want to be able to invest in things that I can measure,” Westermann said. “We’re going to keep investing where we see our consumer.”