Family involvement can be a balancing act for senior housing executives. On the one hand the kids’ participation in the sales cycle is crucial. At the same time, their presence at the table may bring added concerns and complications. Here’s how some industry leaders address the issue: Engaging family, while keeping the sales cycle moving forward.
There are any number of good reasons for engaging adult children in the conversation around mom and dad’s living situation. The kids may be helping to finance this move, in which case they will want a say. There are issues of family harmony: For this to go smoothly, everyone needs to feel confident that this is the right move.
Perhaps most significant, adult children can be allies to the sales team, helping to nudge mom or dad to reach a decision. “The family are the big influencers,” said Jamison Gosselin, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Holiday Retirement. “They play a critical part in persuading their loved ones to make this change.”
Often the family members will be the ones to initiate the process: 50 percent of inquiries in rental independent living and 30 percent of inquiries in CCRC independent living originate with family, said Cecelia LaForge, director of administrative services at the senior housing consultancy Solutions Advisors.
“Very often the family is driving the decision,” she said. “So if you don’t speak to the family members, the chances of that sale going through are very slim. They have the majority of influence and they are going to be involved one way or the other.”
Family engagement can help to set a prospective resident’s mind at ease. If the kids are backing this plan, then maybe it really does make sense. At the same time, involving adult children also may be a defensive tactic. Nearly every senior housing sales executive has encountered a situation in which, when a deal is nearly done, a previously disengaged sibling shows up with a whole new set of concerns. Early, intensive conversations with all the kids can reduce the likelihood of such a surprise.
All this speaks to the ‘why’ of family engagement. More complex, perhaps, is the ‘how’. What does it take to bring adult children to the table, to engage them with authenticity and ultimately earn their support? Here are some strategies to consider.
At Élan Spanish Springs, an 80-resident Life Care Services community in The Villages, Fla., executive director Katie Harvey focuses her family engagement strategy at a deeply personal level. Fundamentally she’s interested in individuals. Who are these people? What are their concerns? Any attempt to address the family in the sales cycle has to originate from this zone.
In one case, the daughter of a prospective resident had concerns about food quality, but she couldn’t make it to the community during regular meal hours because of work commitments. The sales team engaged the dining services director to bring dinner to her home, in order to alleviate her fears. Sometimes that’s what it takes.
In another instance, a prospective resident’s wife was distraught about a wall in the couple’s home that had been damaged as a result of her husband’s fall. When they tried to talk about moving out and into the community, the wall kept coming up as an issue. “Our director of plant operations visited the home and repaired the wall,” said Harvey. “It’s about understanding who the customer is and where they are coming from. If this gentleman’s wife was upset and there was something we could do to alleviate that, we will do all we can.”
Going personal means digging deep. That means training sales people to ask exploratory questions in order to uncover the relevant family dynamics. “We are learning who is in the picture, who is not in the picture. One child might be a health care surrogate, one child might make financial decisions. Good discovery is essential. It’s what helps us to make the right connections, to engage with all of the important players in the equation in the right way,” she said.
Digging deep presumes you have been able to make first contact, either because the family member has made a direct approach or because the resident has brought a son or daughter into the conversation. But that isn’t always the case. Sometimes senior living executives need to take more active steps to engage those family members. Gosselin employs a number of strategies at Holiday.
There’s a resident ambassador program, which invites a prospective resident and their adult child to visit with current residents and their family members. In addition to giving the prospective resident a peer with whom to bond, “this gives that adult child a chance to talk to another adult child, and they can get some candid feedback about what life is like in the community,” he said.
In addition to these targeted invitations, Holiday also takes broad aim in the hopes of making contact with family members. “We go to health fairs that we know are aimed at baby boomers, not in order to educate those boomers about retirement living for themselves, but because we know they will have an interest on behalf of their aging parents,” Gosselin said.
Lately the team also has been experimenting with the dinner-and-a-sales-pitch approach once favored by timeshare companies, with invitations broadcast widely to those in the demographic likely to have parents with an interest in senior housing. “People don’t feel threatened. They are with other people like themselves having dinner and they don’t think they are going be getting a hard pitch,” he said. “Someone who might be hesitant to just come into a community directly might think this is a little bit more safe.”
While the effectiveness of this approach has yet to be decided, it may prove one more way to engage family members.
Scardigno tries to walk a fine line, somewhere between the deep dive and the wide net. He wants the family members to join in the discussion but considers it a matter of respect, as well as good business practice, to always ensure that the prospective resident is at the center of every conversation.
He’ll do a zip code blast screened for age and income, inviting potential residents for a tour and a meal. “Often they will say, ‘Can I bring my daughter?’ and we welcome that,” but the invite goes to the resident, he said.
The community’s golf course is a big draw, so he’ll invite folks for a round of golf, a concert, or an academic lecture. The sales team will make family feel welcome here too, but mom is still front and center. “They are very savvy, they are very independent. These are sophisticated people so we prefer to go through the resident, to show them that respect,” he said.
This soft approach still gets him to the same end: Parents want their kids to be a part of this, and the open invite – ‘Of course the kids can come!’ – will often bring adult children to the table, while still deferring to mom and dad’s leadership role.
It plays out differently in different families, though, and part of Scardigno’s strategy lies in finessing those varied situations.
“We may see a child who is completely involved and really running the show behind the scenes. If you have the recent widow a son will step in to help with finalizing the financial approvals, making the appointments, just because the parent is on their own and needs that support,” he said. Sales staff will shift emphasis appropriately.
“Then you also see the parents running their own show. They have made the multiple contacts, they have made the decisions and now that it comes to finances they bring in the son or daughter at that point in the process,” he said. This is a common scenario and one a sales staff needs to know how to handle. “They are writing a check and signing a contract for care for life. That’s a big deal and the kids want to be good protectors at that point.”
Scardigno says one key strategy for family involvement is transparency. “We are very open about our prices, our options, our amenities, the care that we provide. It’s really easy to explain,” he said. That level of visibility makes it easy to address the most fundamental family concerns in a straightforward way.
When it comes to engaging the family of prospective senior living residents, the target demographic is digitally savvy, and that can be a big plus for communities that are able to leverage technology to engage adult children in the process.
Harvey likes a high-tech fix, and it needn’t be the highest tech. She says Facebook is one of her most powerful tools for bringing family members into the dialog. “It is a great window into our community culture,” she said. “Should a family member browse our Facebook page, it’s very likely they will find something mom or dad can connect with. It may not be something major, but it will encourage them to ask more questions.”
The community’s life enrichment director updates the page weekly with highlights of community activity.
The community pushes out more specific digital content, too. Suppose a family member in another city just wants to get a better feel for the place. It’s not uncommon for the community relations director to record a few minutes of a happy hour on a smart phone: Nothing fancy, but enough to spark interest. “It shows them the environment. It captures the culture and the closeness of the community. It helps to answer a lot of questions, especially when you are so far away and you cannot physically visit the community,” Harvey said.
Gosselin has taken to making the company website more robust as his technology of choice, specifically in order to connect with families. “More and more of our attention is being put to online marketing because that is where the adult children are going. So we put dollars into website optimization, page search, conversion optimization,” he said.
While lifestyle content on the site addresses potential residents, there’s also information aimed more specifically at the adult children: “What is a senior living community? What is the value that it offers? What features and benefits will it offer? It’s about educating people,” he said. “Specifically for the families there are topics like: How do I afford it? How do I have this conversation with my parents?”
Scardigno looks to technology as a way to forge a common language with family members who come to visit the community. His visitor center is chock full of interactive experiences, virtual tours, and digital renderings. “We have screens all over the place. It’s very experiential,” he said. The website offers similar fare, with digital renderings and 3-D models to help create a feel of the community for those who cannot get there in person. All this is done with the family in mind. “The technology really resonates with the adult kids.”
While such technological tools can help a sales team to meet adult children where they live, it’s equally important to put technology aside and return to face-to-face engagement during key moments in the sales cycle.
Having engaged family throughout the sales cycle, Harvey doesn’t want to cut them off once the papers are signed. Instead she convenes a “roundtable,” bringing together the resident, family members, and staff for a contract-signing and information session.
“A sales and marketing professional will have been the familiar face up to this point. Once the resident moves in there will be a new set of faces,” Harvey said. “Having this formal moment with those new faces gives the family member peace of mind. Now they can meet the folks who are going to be caring for mom and dad. Now when they need something done in mom’s room, they know who to ask.”
The adult child’s financial, emotional, and logistical investment in mom’s situation will endure beyond the signing. Likewise the relationship between community and family will continue to evolve, but it can do so only if a firm foundation has been set in place early on. By establishing a precedent of engagement from the start, the community sets itself up for success in the long run. As a parent’s needs change over time, it helps to have family members who feel like they are already part of the community.
Certainly it takes a little extra effort to engage family in the decision-making process. You have to reach out that hand, explore a little deeper, hear and address concerns from diverse fronts.
“When you have multiple people involved it is really rare for all of them to agree,” LaForge said. “You may be negotiating with as many as six to 10 parties. That makes things more complicated.”
It’s also possible to flub family engagement, leaving adult children with a sour taste in their mouths. “These are busy professionals at the height of their careers and they are typically very successful. So you have to understand that their time is valuable,” Scardigno said. “You have to be quick, responsive, and thorough. One wrong statement and you have lost their trust. There is very little margin for error. Trust is everything for them.”
Still, the benefits of early and frequent engagement can more than outweigh the potential risks.
“When the adult child is involved in the decision proceedings, the time it takes for somebody to move into a senior living community is less than when the senior is looking alone,” Gosselin said. “With the adult child involved, people are more eager to seek a solution faster. A senior might drag their feet, where an adult child will start marshaling resources to make stuff happen.”
In an industry where prolonged sales cycles are the norm, this promise alone – the possibility of an expedited process – should motivate those who have not done so already to up their game when it comes to family engagement.
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