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Twenty years ago, senior living sales and marketing training would have included discussions about reading body language, tracking the time between the first phone call and a community visit, and developing talking points to combat rejections. Today, while some of those discussions are still relevant, sales and marketing managers are more likely to discuss changing consumer decision-making habits and how to turn an email query into a move-in.

“We talk less about body language and more on how you craft an email response,” said Gale Morgan, senior vice president of sales at Mather LifeWays. “We used to talk about eye contact and mirroring. Now it’s about speed and electronic conversations. We’ve had customers say, ‘Just contact me via text,’ and that’s for a $1 million move-in.”

Consumers search for senior living communities online, spending hours on research before they ever fire off an email to a provider. How to attract those consumers and respond appropriately is creating new training needs for senior living sales and marketing staff. Whether you’re conducting training in-house or using an outside specialist, one thing is certain: That training must be dynamicadapting and recalibrating to adjust to the consumer.

Self-educated consumers

The sales team at The Splendido, a Mather Lifeways community in Tucson, Ariz., celebrated after having reached a milestone goal for pre-sales on Villa Homes in record time.

“You can’t do what you’ve always done,” said Morgan. The biggest challenge is just trying to keep up with the changing consumer, who wants complete customization and may have different expectations than what providers have come to anticipate, she said. Mather LifeWays, which enjoys an impressive 98 percent occupancy, operates luxury communities in Chicago and Arizona, with another opening soon in Washington, D.C.

“They want to self-educate before they call us,” Morgan said of today’s prospective residents and their families. “More than half of our move-ins come from 12- to 18-month leads. That used to be three years,” she continued. As a result, sales and marketing professionals have had to learn how to establish a relationship in a shorter period of time with less face time. “People used to answer the phone,” she said. “Now, staff have to learn how to have a conversation via email that is conducive to establishing trust and building a relationship.”

Morgan has the advantage of a veteran sales team, most of whom have worked for the company for 13 years. Her newest team member has been on staff for three years. Still, they know they have to be nimble. “We’re training them now to say to the lead, ‘Did you see our Facebook story? ‘Did you see our blog?’” Thanks to technology, companies know what prospects are seeing, how much time they’re spending on website pages, and what they’re visiting first. “We have to consider what prospects have already seen,” said Morgan. They already know the floor plan, the dining options, and the activities offered.

This reality creates a fine balance of electronic and human interaction. “Communities and customers expect salespeople to manage local social media,” added Angela Green Urbaczewski, Solutions Advisors vice president of sales and strategic services. “We have to use personal texts and emails strategically to get that face to face, but customers won’t buy into a process that’s simply driven by technology.”

Another consideration: Electronic interactions may not be limited to the sales and marketing team. AdWeek recently reported that it’s no longer just the “marketer’s responsibility alone to deliver exceptional consumer experiences. The interactions people have with brands today span marketing communications, customer service, sales, and more.” As a result, “Companies will begin to experiment with organizational structures that facilitate cross-functional collaboration and co-innovation.” The person who answers the phone, for example, may be part of the marketing team.

Seventy to 80 percent of leads are lost over the phone, pointed out Mike Miller, president and CEO of Primo Solutions, which offers mystery shopping and sales training for senior living providers. “The number one reason is because we do not build rapport with the prospect. It is impossible to get to the emotional level and truly understand the needs of our prospects unless we build rapport with them first,” he said. “We have to gain the prospect’s trust and they have to know we genuinely care before they will ever become vulnerable enough to share their true emotions. Gathering valuable, relevant, and actionable data from humans about their experiences is a tough task. Each person comes into a situation with differing expectations, past experiences, needs, and wants.”

Karon Porter, associate vice president of sales for The LaSalle Group, a memory care provider, agreed. “I believe there are different questions you ask when the buyer is not the end user,” she acknowledged. However, “sales is still sales that requires empathy, consistency, and answering the customer’s problem at hand.”

The bottom line, said Urbaczewski, is that “facts don’t persuade, feelings do. We train on seven powerful elements of storytelling to gain a better emotional understanding of prospective residents and what’s important to them as they contemplate making a major life change.”

Homegrown training and development

At Mather Lifeways, training is focused on leadership and communication, “not just on how to handle an objection,” said Morgan. The company holds a three-day retreat once a year where topics like demographics and psychographics are discussed. The training is homegrown and home-delivered. Well before the retreat is planned, Morgan asks sales directors to share with her their biggest challenges. The retreat content is built around those issues and delivered by Mather Lifeways associates in a highly interactive format.

In 2015, Mather developed a program called Ways to Lead Well that trains strong department managers to ensure the company has more bench strength for senior management positions. Two years later, the company added the Ways to Manage Well program, focused on improving day-to-day management skills. Again, the training and development programs were created by the company and are delivered by the company. Morgan said she often looks outside the senior living business for content and ideas. “We are big benchmarkers,” she said. “We look to other industries.”

Senior Lifestyle has also developed an in-house program…READ MORE.

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