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Discovering how to provide the perfect customer service experience can start with a desire to move mountains, asking a simple question or recognizing that the only way to understand what someone needs is to ask.

These senior living executives have done just that. Kensington Senior Living’s vice president Tanya Walker Wirth’s enthusiasm for providing the best care ensures those mountains can indeed move. Founder and chief executive officer Michael Schonbrun developed Balfour Senior Living by asking what his mother Madeline would want, according to Dewiet Miller, executive director of Balfour at Riverfront Park. And Mark Kastan, executive director at Sunrise Senior Living’s The Colonnades says asking residents what they want instead of assuming you know makes all the difference. 

But regardless of their process, they exceed expectations using an approach similar to the Ritz-Carlton Gold Standards, a brand known for making the care and comfort of their guests the highest priority. While there’s a clear difference between the hotel and healthcare business, these leaders match that level of service and share what it means to both their residents and employees.

The benchmark of customer service

Building strong relationships is at the top of the Gold Standards Service Values list and Miller agrees that’s where excellent customer service begins.

We see our residents as family members,” says Dewiet Miller, Balfour Senior Living executive director. “Only by learning their preferences are we able to tailor our elements of service because each experience needs to be personalized. You can’t just say you believe in customer service, you have to build these connections.”

The relationship starts before a resident moves in and is continually nurtured after, says Walker Wirth. We need to know what they worry about for their mom or dad and they need to know their loved one will be cared for. “We always ask one question to the family – what keeps you up at night?”Ritz Carlton Service Values

Meeting expressed and unexpressed wishes

Another Service Value evident in senior living is anticipating and responding to needs. Kastan points out the Colonnades achieve this with a hands-on approach. “We promote visible management and team members who are in front of the residents,” he says. “Even the housekeepers know everyone’s names.”

Residents gain a bigger sense of security when we’re all accessible, says Kastan, and it also helps the staff notice and address any changes sooner. “If we see someone walking more slowly…we can then find out if they need more care or maybe they just need help moving furniture or getting rid of clutter,” he says.

The ability to anticipate needs is an example of what Balfour’s valet service provides for one of their residents who still drives. Miller says she goes out most days around 10:00 in the morning, and her car is always waiting at the door by 9:30. She commented at the resident council meeting that she didn’t know how they always had it ready, but that it made her feel extra special.

After 20 years of experience, Walker Wirth says whenever she hears from families that weren’t happy at another place it’s almost always because they didn’t get the individual attention they needed. “It’s all about removing obstacles out of their way.”

Personalizing your services

“A one-size-fits-all philosophy doesn’t work if your goal is to deliver a high level of customer service,” says Miller. Creating memorable experiences is a Service Value that’s replicated in senior living and Miller adds this should start when the first call or email comes in. “You should never miss an opportunity to engage and personalize the experience,” he says.

In fact, creating a customer-centric environment should be the DNA of a brand, according to consultant Bruce Himelstein, founder of the BJH Group and former corporate vice president of sales and marketing for Ritz-Carlton. “Make sure your employees are listening to the customer and that management is listening to the person that is closest to the customer. That’s where strong and authentic feedback comes from,” Himelstein says.

This philosophy can also be carried out in daily ways. While the industry focus used to be based almost solely on regulations, it’s now shifted to resident-centered care, says Kastan. “Instead of having everyone ready for breakfast by 8:00 a.m. we now let people wake up when they want.”

“When you’re 85 and living in long-term care, you’re not going out driving or operating equipment so we also offer beer and wine at meals,” Kastan says. “We make sure it’s ok with their meds, but if this is something they enjoyed at home, they should be able to have that choice here.”

Allowing your staff to do their job

Ritz-Carlton prides itself on empowering their staff to create the best experiences for their guests and also to resolve problems that arise; a viewpoint shared by the senior living leaders.

“We empower our employees to create customer service and solve problems,” says Miller. “I may be designated as the leader, but I have 120 employees who need to replicate our philosophy. They don’t have to go find a manager when they come upon a problem. They’re trusted and empowered to solve it.”

Himelstein recommends selecting the best talent you can find who will provide a tremendous level of customer service and then let them do their job. “You have to empower people to deliver a high level of service,” he says. “We get it right most often when we get out of the way.”

Words of advice

When asked for any recommendations they might pass along to others striving for top of the line customer service, all three senior living executives said hiring the right person is key. “You need people who have a caring heart and want to serve others. It’s what makes this job work,” Kastan says.

Walker Wirth says she can tell in the first two minutes if a person will be a good fit. And it can be the smallest of things like a smile. “Because sometimes it’s a touch or a smile that can change a resident’s life.”

But management should also be visible. The executive director may be seen as the boss, but effective leaders should role model, Miller says. “We’ll go park a car or serve a plate to a resident. We don’t make them wait until a staff member can carry it out. If it’s urgent for them, it’s urgent for us.”

When it comes to high performance levels, Himelstein cautions not to think you can leave it to another department to handle. “You can’t delegate customer service,” he says.

Do whatever it takes for the family members and residents who’re going through this experience, recommends Walker Wirth. “They need a partner and support, whether it’s as a provider or as a friend.”

The senior living industry is a high word-of-mouth business and Himelstein advises to remember that the families are your customers too. “They’re major influencers and you need to figure out a service delivery strategy that includes them if you want to create sustainable success,” he says.

Industry disruption in senior living

You need to measure your customer service efforts so you know how you’re doing, Himelstein says. But after you reach your goals, make sure you’re keeping up.

Even Ritz-Carlton ended up needing what became known as the “Blow the Dust Off the Lion and Crown” campaign. The lion and crown logo had long represented the company’s formality, but it was no longer positioned to grab the next generation, according to Himelstein, who authored and implemented the program. So it was designed to be more contemporary, and the marketing approach was changed to be less stiff and a little more accessible instead of intimidating.

Himelstein also alerts senior living executives to be aware of industry disruption. “You need to always be asking what can happen next,” he says. “Like Uber and Airbnb, companies who created new platforms to fill unmet needs, something will disrupt the senior living industry. I don’t know what it is, but it’s coming.”

The gift of service

Offering a high level of customer service can increase move-ins and generate positive word-of-mouth reviews, but it seems the real result is the chance to make a genuine difference in someone’s life.

Although healthcare and hotel care challenges aren’t the same, what we’ve learned has changed the industry. “In the old days, nursing homes were seen as scary places and now after 30 days people tell us that moving here was the best thing that could have happened,” Kastan says.

Such was the case for the family member who noted his mother’s difficult transition from experiencing her husband’s death and leaving their lifelong home to accepting her limitations and need for help. What he called the last chapters in her long story, he credited the care she received at Kensington as helping her navigate these changes. Because in the last year when all else began to fail her, their care didn’t.

“We can do a lot clinically but the real therapy comes from respect and dignity through service,” Miller says. “To know you’ve lived a great life and someone still respects you – that’s what makes people feel that they’re wanted, engaged and welcomed. And that comes through the customer service side.”

These successful senior living leaders recognize the true benefit of sharing the end of their residents’ stories. “What a gift we’ve been given that we can be there for their last chapter in life,” Walker Wirth says.

Read more from The Culture Issue of Senior Living Executive magazine

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