Turnover. Burnout. Margin erosion. In 2023, sales teams must prepare for a long and growing list of new challenges. Exactly how those challenges will play out this year is still an open question.
With so much uncertainty ahead, senior living sales leaders are staying flexible to field whatever may come down the road. At the same time, senior living prospects and their families are coming to the table with an ever-growing list of needs and wants.
Given all of those new moving parts, now is the time for the industry’s salespeople to be “chameleons” in their field, according to Paul Clark, director of marketing at Buckner Villas, a Buckner Retirement Services community in Austin, Texas.
“If you’re not able to … pivot based upon who you’re working with, then that might be a waste,” Clark said during the recent virtual portion of the Senior Housing News Sales Summit. “We all know how much it costs for each lead.”
From retaining competent sales staff to adapting to new customers with different needs entering the market and evolving marketing tactics, operators must find creative ways to grow occupancy and move the needle on new move-in’s. And they need to buckle in for a “challenging year,” according to Grow Your Occupancy CEO and Founder Julie Podewitz.
“I don’t think anyone is steering away from the fact that even coming out of Covid, we’re still facing a bit of a recession and increased interest rates,” Podewitz said.
Podewitz likened the current sales climate to the Great Recession, when she worked with hundreds of communities and those who “leaned in” and “did the hard work with sales” maintained occupancy and grew occupancy despite a challenging climate, she said.
Operators in 2023 need to take a similar mindset.
“It’s going to take a lot of determination digging into it and those that are really determined with the increase of where we need to put focus will be good and maintain and gain,” Podewitz said.
Leaders at McLean, Virginia-based Artis Senior Living take a similar view. According to Vice President of Sales and Marketing Amy Beth DePreker, 2023 will be a “year of uncertainty and challenges,” with a potentially stabilizing labor market and resident rate stabilization. Since the lows of 2020, leads at Artis have increased alongside conversion rates, with Artis reporting its highest-ever occupancy rate as of the start of this year.
“I think that will set us up for a successful 2024,” she said. “I think we’ve definitely seen improvement since the pandemic but I think that this year will continue to be a struggle.”
Breaking the sales mold
In recent years, many operators sought to craft a sales process that would break through the noise in order to reach prospects and their families.
Artis, for instance, has reinvented its sales practices, according to DePreker. The company sought to move away from a one-size-fits-all approach and instead custom-tailor sales to prospects. .
“We need to be able to break that mold. We have to have greater flexibility and creativity,” she said.
Leads and occupancy at Buckner’s Austin, Texas, community are returning to pre-pandemic levels. Now, the non-profit operator is making sure sales staffers have the right tools by re-focusing lead gathering and generation.
“Your team has to be able to sell yourself before you can sell the community,” Clark said during the webinar.
The Covid pandemic disrupted senior living sales cycles. For Artis, it considerably lengthened them, DePreker said.
That longer sales cycle has carried over into 2023. And she believes that, with more time for customers to fall out of “buying mode,” operators must improve interactions with prospects to be as “compelling and meaningful as possible” to make “a lasting impression.”
Artis in 2022 increased the amount of money it budgets for digital advertising and implemented automated marketing campaigns to do just that. The company also provided more transparency around resident rates online also , DePreker said.
“Buyers want information quickly at their fingertips at this point,” she added. “We’ve focused on a refresh of our website and that’s extremely important.”
DePreker said Artis also has close-watch on maintaining its sales culture among all staff levels, with the company reporting its most successful communities’ sales growth being led by executive directors.
The rise of social media use in marketing departments across the country is nothing new, with both Clark and DePreker highlighting how social media has grown to become a “huge” part of the sales process.
Unlike just a few years ago, more residents and their families are doing research for senior living communities over social media. Operators like Artis and Buckner have responded by focusing on paid social media advertising and upping their social media games.
They’re using it — Instagram Reels or now TikTok — and people are just sitting there watching all of this stuff,” DePreker said. “I’m on board and it’s paying off for us.”
Like DePreker,Clark said he fought using social media in senior living for a while. But now he has realized the value of a community posting about its daily activities and resident happenings to improve engagement.
“Having a person who is either dedicated to that or that’s one of their primary responsibilities, I think is huge nowadays,” Clark said. “
Clark said the majority of Buckner’s marketing budget was digital-based and would remain that way for the foreseeable future as more customers get active online.
“You’re going to have to have a significant part of your budget dedicated to that,” he said.
While many sales teams have made good headway in 2022 recovering occupancy, margins have not rebounded as quickly due to rising expenses, such as labor and food costs. Across the industry, senior living sales teams are feeling the pressure to boost not just occupancy, but margins, regardless of their operator’s size, DePreker said.
“Three years ago we had a system and we lived with it and stuck by it,” DePreker said. “You can’t do that anymore, you have to evaluate, make modifications and keep up with the changing landscape of senior living and be creative to keep up with the pressure.”
The shift in demand and the changing consumer profile has also “added pressure” from both a marketing and sales perspective, Clark noted.
That pressure has led operators to adopt a back-to-basics approach coming out of the pandemic, with strategies including improving sales leadership, sales staff coaching and leaning on executive directors to better define a community’s value proposition, Podewitz said.
“It’s about being able to shift and pivot when necessary with the changing customers and landscape,” Podewitz said.
Operators need to create customer experiences and closing while improving tour to sale conversions, Podewitz said. Average tour-to-move-in data for operators is currently around 12%, according to data Podewitz shared. But she said a healthier figure for senior living operators would lie closer to 20%.
Creating flexibility within sales will help teams deliver “the right message” to customers despite the added pressure to perform, DePreker said.
“Teams that embrace the flexibility within their game plans are going to be better poised to meet unexpected situations that may come up,” she added.
But it’s clear from recent Grow Your Occupancy mystery-shop data that sales teams themselves have some improvement to do. The company performed mystery shops of more than 2,500 communities over the last two months and found that three quarters of inquiries did not receive a phone call, and 93% never received a text. About half of the mystery shops resulted in an email back.
That’s a missed opportunity sales leaders should key in on, she said.
“If you aren’t prepared to work those leads into the discovery process, someone else will,” Clark said in response to those figures cited by Podewitz.
Staffing poses additional challenges
In 2023, operators still face a tough road ahead for maintaining quality sales staff within their communities, DePreker and Clark said. Though the tide may be shifting on that front, for now, it will remain a thorn in operators’ sides.
Finding the right staff has always been a challenge, but finding staff members that will buy-in and stay for multiple years is an even tougher one, Clark said.
If salespeople are unable to convert tours into move-ins, there’s a problem in one of two places, he added: Either the community or the sales staff.
“If people aren’t progressing beyond that, it’s obviously huge,” Clark said. “Finding the right person has been a huge challenge.”
If communities can train sales staff properly, mixed with the right attitude to working within senior living as part of a service-oriented career, Clark said operators are more likely to retain those who want to be there “for the right reasons.”
The problem isn’t just getting people to apply, it’s about getting the right people to stay in a community, DePreker said.
“It’s about finding that person that’s going to stick around and stay with you and be dedicated and believe in what you are selling and be passionate about it,” DePreker said. “I feel like a lot of sales people are not willing to break that mold: You have to be fluid through this and adapt and be creative and continue to learn.”