I have a memory seared in my mind, that I’ll never forget so long as I live.
I was in the U.K. doing work for HC One care homes. As I was touring properties with my driver, I saw a sign to a care home that was not on my list. I asked him to stop so I could run in and compare this to the other locations I was visiting thinking perhaps it was a competitor the operator had missed.
As I was leaving the community, I saw a regal gentleman walk in the door with whom I assumed was his daughter. Brown leather suitcase in hand, a 1950’s style fedora hat atop his head, a tan trench coat with the belt hanging loosely along his waist; he stood looking around. He was so poised, and in his eyes, I saw that he was doing his best to be brave despite his fear of this place, clearly his new home.
Yet he didn’t fit in. It was like putting the Mona Lisa not in the Louvre, but in some obscure museum with unknown artists. The lights were flickering above his head with several burnt out, there were ceiling tiles missing where work was being done, and a cold, empty reception desk with no one to greet them.
I have chills as I think about it because all I wanted to do was yell to this wonderful man, “Run!”
I can’t help but wonder what was going through his mind…
What about his daughter? It was clear that she too, was trying to be brave and who knows, maybe they did run after I left because this was no place, I would ever leave someone I cared about.
Returning to the car, I broke down in tears. My driver tried to comfort me, but it took some time to compose myself and after visiting a few more communities I started to feel better. Even so, I’ve never forgotten this care home, or this sophisticated gentleman from another time who was being dropped into an entirely new life, uncertain as to what the future might hold.
I don’t remember the name of this care home or even why I stopped because it wasn’t on my list nor was it one of my client’s properties. When I think of it, I can only imagine the fear seniors have as they contemplate moving to an assisted living here in the U.S. and recall memories of their own. For my mother it was seeing her father, Grandpa Harold, strapped to a chair in his nursing home 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, only to be freed when his physical needs required it. While I can tell my mom all day long that independent or assisted living is not the same as skilled nursing, it just doesn’t register (just as we see in the media).
We all have fears about what our future will hold as we enter our twilight years. “What will happen to me, will I suffer, who will take care of me, will I end up in a nursing home with no dignity intact?” This is the reason I choose this specific book The Relationship Economy. We aren’t selling an apartment or healthcare; we are selling a human experience that will determine the very future a senior has in the final years of their life. The choice an individual or family makes regarding where a loved one moves will determine the final years of their life and the experiences had.
Even more important, the choice senior living executives make about the importance of relationships and the human connection, training and educating staff on how to impact both when engaging with prospective and current residents will determine the quality of experience each of your residents has during the most vulnerable time of their lives.
My biggest takeaway from this amazing book club study, The Relationship Economy is that we must pivot and invest heavily in the retraining of our employees if we expect to win over the baby boomer generation. We don’t need a rebrand, we need a rewire, where people turn off auto-pilot and get back to what made them fall in love with seniors housing, people.
Employees must slow down and invest in meaningful conversation with residents and prospective buyers so we can step into their shoes and understand what they feel. When doing so, empathy will come naturally and the desire to make that person’s life better- thus drawing out one’s passion for the community and why it’s a fit. Most importantly, we need to teach our employees, both department heads and line staff to connect with prospective and current residents as well as adult children; taking the time to dive into the details that makes that individual unique and their experience better.
Walk into a grocery or home goods store and odds are you will see four to five self-check-out lanes. Call your health insurance or credit card company and you’ll be greeted by a robot that is so well programmed you will think it’s a real person (until they can’t answer you back personally). Ask a retail clerk where a specific item is like, “can you tell me where the coolers are?” and he or she will point off into the oblivion and say, “It’s over there, I think on aisle 4” as they go back to staring at their phone.
As a society, we’ve become so used to the lack of service that it’s to be expected. People are detached, uninvested in the companies they work for, and watching the clock tick away in hopes of their shift coming to an end. The result is constant turnover resulting in untrained employees who are simply trying to get by until the next best thing comes along. There is no loyalty to you or your customers. By 2025, just four short years away, there will be more machines in the workforce than humans. Artificial intelligence will power 95% of all customer interactions and sadly will be more efficient than people filling the same role.
Yet on that rare occasion that we come across a company that goes above and beyond, who takes the time to really help you, connect, and interact in a way that is personable; we want to tell everyone about our experience. Because it’s so rare!
I have a garden center I am obsessed with, Landmark Nursery, here in Tarpon Springs, Florida. Within a few minutes of exiting my car I am always, 100% of the time, no matter how busy they are, asked if I can be helped. As an experienced gardener I’m always there for a specific reason. I might need a new shade plant or something that can take full sun and saltwater 8-10 hours a day. No matter what I ask or what employee I get, they are 100% focused on me and my mission to improve my garden. Each person is incredibly knowledgeable, goes out of their way to make suggestions I might be unaware of, walks me to the plant options, talks to me about pros and cons, and most importantly; I am never, ever rushed.
It’s as if that employee has all the time in the world and I’m the center of their universe. Now compare this to Lowe’s or Home Depot where no employees are in sight and if you do stumble upon one in the garden center specifically, they quickly walk the other way. How do you think that makes customers like me feel?
The answer is, I no longer go there. Instead, I’ll drive 10 minutes further and spend a little more to go where I can receive stellar customer service, be educated, engaged, and made to feel like I matter. More importantly, I tell everyone that talks to me about their plants or garden about Landmark. I’ve personally driven three of my friends there just to experience it in the last month alone!
The world is changing and while tech is not slowing down, people are. There is a deep desire to personally connect with one another in a meaningful way that makes people feel better because of doing so. As we learn from this book club study, we are moving into The Relationship Economy. To dominate your market service area and make the competition irrelevant, you must intentionally train employees to avoid the traps of low service aptitude and embrace the customer’s perspective.
Imagine how different the experience would have been for the gentleman in the U.K. if the maintenance director had made it a priority to fix the blinking and burnt-out lights and install ceiling tiles where they were missing. How might he have felt if someone had been there to greet him, “Hello Mr. X, we’ve been expecting you and are so glad you’re here, we have your apartment ready for you!” While he may have felt somewhat fearful or cautious, those emotions would have been quickly replaced with the feeling of importance and welcome. It doesn’t matter how new or old your assisted living community is, what does matter is how well trained each member of your staff is to engage and connect with your customers.
Companies spend millions creating and advertising their brands, yet the customer’s experience is what truly drives customer perception, retention, and valuable referrals. In this chapter we are challenged to think about what might happen if you reversed your budgets
In my experience of being a seniors housing consultant for over two decades I can tell you candidly that I’ve never seen a line-item expense dedicated to customer service. In fact, we have a concept in our training program called “The One Extra” that involves purchasing a personal gift for prospective buyers and residents. We fight tooth and nail to get Executive Directors to approve a modest budget of just $50-$100 a month to execute on this training focus that time and time again results in an expedited move in or raving fan customer.
What I consistently see is a $1,500-$2,000 monthly spend on marketing with the intention to drive leads. The problem is ads are randomly created with no specific call to action, they lack call tracking numbers which means communities can’t measure their effectiveness, and when people do respond by calling or emailing to inquiry, we fail to capture and convert the lead to an on-site visit! Despite constant frustration over marketing spend and outcomes, executives do the same thing over and over; month after month hoping to get a different result.
Imagine the possibility of putting that budget of $1,500-$2,000 into customer service. If you have ten communities and allot $20,000 per month to wowing prospective and current residents it would completely transform your organization. Not only would revenue and net operating income increase but employees would be more loyal resulting in drastically reduced turnover and the associated cost with replacing them. Referrals would flood in and the need to discount go away.
There is so much energy focused on getting new residents yet little to no training or focus on creating the type of experience that would compel them to move in and most importantly stay for the duration of their life. Customer service and soft skills, whether courting a new customer or serving an existing one are not common sense. People are not born with these skills. Your employees curate the experience customers have and the way they make people feel comes down to one thing only: the service aptitude of every employee in your organization.
Just as sales can no longer be placed solely on the sales and marketing directors lap, customer service and resident retention is no longer resident services job or that of operations; it’s every single employee’s job; to deliver a one-of-a-kind, raving fan customer experience where relationships are front and center; more important than anything else.
How a customer feels about you determines who they tell about you and, what they say. Want to compete without using discounts and incentives? Train your employees to recognize opportunities to meet and exceed customer’s expectations, regardless of circumstances. Not sure where to start? The most important thing a leader needs to know is that most employees have extremely low service aptitude and there are several reasons for this:
DiJulius goes on to say that:
1. Employees do not know what “world class” service is. Being that most have never experienced it themselves, how would they understand what it is? Odds are your housekeeper has never stayed at The Ritz Carlton.
2. Your employees are not your customers. In most businesses, especially assisted living, customer-facing employees can’t relate to their customer. Most frontline employees are under forty and the individuals they serve in their late eighties and nineties. Consider the vast difference in life perspective and experience.
3. Your employees are not looking at a situation from the customer’s perspective. Because they have yet to (in most cases) experience assisted living themselves, employees simply can’t comprehend the mindset of a customer. As a result, they find it difficult to empathize, be compassionate, and anticipate a resident’s needs. As leaders you must teach them to view the world from the resident’s perspective, their point of view versus their own.
4. As a business, you compare yourself to the rest of your industry which is a mistake. As a senior living consultant, who touches hundreds of companies each year, I see this a lot. Executives who are failing to hit financial performance goals say, “well, I learned at our executive round table that most operators are in the same position right now, sitting at 75% occupancy, so we are not doing too bad at 76%!”
5. Your employees work on autopilot meaning they simply go through the motions and oftentimes become insensitive to their prospective buyers or residents. Just this week a receptionist told a mystery shopper who was inquiring about the community, “Our marketing director is in a sales meeting, can you call back later?” Hold the phone! A prospective buyer who is going to spend $60K plus per year is interested in a move to your community and you want her to call you back when the salesperson is no longer too busy to take her call? How do you think this makes the caller feel? While this was a shopper, how many other people did she tell the same thing to?
TAKEAWAY: To dominate your market service areas within your own assisted living or life plan portfolio in the Relationship Economy, organizations must intentionally train their employees to avoid the traps of a low service aptitude and embrace the customer perspective.
It’s not your employee’s responsibility to have a high service aptitude; it’s the company’s job to teach it to them. Remember, you get what you put your focus on. As a leader within your organization, we have entered a new era, that once understood, will serve the assisted living industry well because nothing is more important to what we do than the relationships we have with our customers. Those operators that teach and reinforce the importance of empathy, connection, and personalization will dominate our space, sell at market-rate rent, retain employees, and have a company that is the envy of its peers.
It won’t be easy to make the shift into the Relationship Economy as it involves people and training a workforce is never easy but when committed to, followed through on, and made part of the organizational culture; can create a cult-like following other leaders only dream of. You’ve got this, all you must do is take the first step.