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Listening: THE most important skill in SL Sales Directors

Listen to Humanize

The Single Most Important Skill Senior Living Sales and Marketing Leaders Should Look for When Hiring Sales Directors


Listening, Skills, Sales Directors, Senior Living


I’m an avid boater and two years ago was devasted when my father-in-law called to tell us that our boat, on a lift behind his home, had sank. The galvanized pully on the aft of our boat snapped in the middle of the night dropping the back of the boat into the water. It proceeded to fill with saltwater, ultimately sinking. It’s safe to say that this boat, Endurance, didn’t quite live up to its name!


It took a good year to settle with the insurance company and sell our boat for parts, but we were finally ready to start our search for a new one. Dave and I were 100% aligned on what type of boat we wanted to include size, type and budget, but were also open to ideas. As we began to shop, I was shocked to find the buyer experience for such a high-ticket item so impersonal.


On our first visit to Marine Max where we had purchased two boats prior, the salesman completely ignored me, deferring to my husband the entire time. Bad move. This guy was on autopilot and clearly assumed my husband was the sole decision maker. Yet Dave and I are a team, and it was important to him that I was part of the process. As soon as the salesman walked away, Dave and I looked at each other and said, “let’s go!” We were both offended by his failure to address me or even include me in the conversation.


The second boat we went to look at was docked in a marina an hour from our home. We were so excited to see this boat. When we got there the boat was a complete mess. Just returned from a boat show, the salesman didn’t bother to clean it up or in this case, show up at all for our appointment. We waited fifteen minutes and left irritated. There was no way I was buying a boat from someone who couldn’t even show up for a scheduled appointment. Once again, we were nothing more than a transaction to a salesperson on autopilot.


I won’t bore you with our other attempts to purchase a boat, but I will say that the buyer experience was so bad that I removed myself entirely and Seniors, Family, Stories, Listen, Bild & Coresigned myself to never replacing the boat. Dave began working with brokers behind the scenes and a year later found what we were looking for, vetted it out and then presented it to me. What the salespeople failed to realize is that our purchase wasn’t really about a boat at all, but our family- weekends on the water full of conversation, laughter and joy, minus cell phones and technology! It was an escape and something all four of us loved to do together as my kids were raised on a boat.




As I write I can’t help but relate to the seniors who come to tour independent and assisted living communities with their adult caregivers only to be ignored by salespeople speaking to whom they feel is the decision maker. I’ve seen this on many tours and it’s always made me cringe, the lack of emotion, empathy, and connection with the actual prospective resident who will ultimately live there. No wonder the sales cycle is so long; seniors can’t get excited when they feel ignored.




Chapter 10 of Fanocracy is a powerful reminder of the importance of listening to humanize.  Less than 10% of Sales Directors mystery shopped, to gauge the buyer experience, have this skill and it’s a game changer for independent and assisted living owners and operators.


Humanize: To make human, humane, kind, or gentle


Steamrolling through a sale results in closing those who must move now, not those considering a move, or who have other options. We need to slow down and show the human side of what we do. Yet to make independent and assisted living or memory care relatable to prospective buyers, we must first understand who they are, what changes have occurred, their fears, concerns, goals and most importantly, their story.


Seniors, Senior Living, Listen to their stories,


Each day in senior living communities across the nation, leads who would move upon finding the right fit hit pause and wait it out due to a poor experience. Seniors and adult caregivers ready to move their loved ones and that have the funds, are left exhausted and confused by what quickly becomes a time-consuming search. What should be easy, is in fact incredibly difficult. We fail to answer our phones or send qualified buyers to voice mail, return calls three to five days after receiving them, talk rather than listen, attempt to pre-qualify in order to save time, show disorganized model apartments, rattle off pricing, ignore seniors while catering to their adult children, and then find ourselves shocked when these individuals move to competitors who show more compassion.


Yet our single greatest failing is our ability to equip salespeople with listening skills.


If your senior living portfolio is net negative or net zero month after month, quarter after quarter, even now in a COVID-19 world, if you improved just this one skill, the ability to listen, the velocity of sales would increase.




The authors of Fancocracy state that when people talk WITH each other rather than TO each other, it becomes an effective conversation. Not just going through the motions but really listening to what people have to say. This is so important in senior living. Understanding that what an adult daughter wants for her mother is very different than what her mother wants for herself, which requires slowing down, having a willingness to spend time talking to both individually, prompting thought with open-ended questions, actively listening and repeating what’s been heard with all parties involved to help counsel, advise, and bring resolution to an overwhelmingly difficult decision.




In his 1963 book The Birth of the Clinic, French philosopher and social theorist Michael Foucault wrote about the “medical gaze” – the separation between a patient’s mind and body that occurs in the mind of the physician. As technology grew more precise, Foucault says that doctors became more drawn to lab numbers and biological signs and symptoms over the suffering person, reducing the patient from a complex human in sociological context to a single diagnostic condition.

Records, Narrative, Listen, The same can hold true in independent living or assisted living, even more so in memory care and skilled nursing. The higher acuity the level of care, the more assumptions salespeople make about prospective buyers. We all do this at one time or another- dissect, judge, and tag the people with whom we work or meet for the first time. We divide people into pieces and use those to signify the whole.



Just as common presentations of frequently seen diagnoses are a quick way for doctors to understand and treat conditions; sales and executive directors can be quick to use “levels of care,” and “income” to determine if a prospective resident is a fit for their community or not. Oftentimes, due to lack of discovery over the telephone, leads are lost that otherwise would have been ideal if more time were invested into understanding what the real situation was.


While these are important tools and necessary to determine who can move into your senior living community, they must also be used with the knowledge that they cannot replace the individual experience of each prospective resident and their story that can only be uncovered by listening and more importantly, listening to the details that others rarely hear.


With patients, doctors slip into insider language like calling someone “the diabetic” or “the trauma case.” In senior living it’s typically a “hot, warm, or cold  .” It isn’t that people don’t care. Often it’s because they are busy and have so much on their plate that they rely on tricks and shortcuts to get work done. But when the “diagnosis” becomes the whole of who a person, it becomes more difficult for that person to have a voice. Salespeople, just like doctors end up putting people into categories, making assumptions and talk to people, rather than with them, resulting in a lack of trust and connection.


The authors state that the bigger challenge is that it’s almost impossible for us to undo this sort of logical framing once it ocSeniors, Senior Living, Community, curs. When we strip people of their personalities and mark them instead as in assisted living, “hot, warm, or cold” we miss key information, misdiagnose, and alienate. We degrade any trust that might have existed and then, inevitably, our efforts to connect or advance them to the next step in the sales cycle suffers. We assume we know more about them than they do themselves, ignoring any objections or discomfort they may have.







In the early 2000s, a group of clinicians and scholars teaching at Columbia University established the beginnings of a program to counter the idea that signs and symptoms alone rule any interaction with a patient. Instead, this program aimed to treat each person as an individual, using the study of literature and the spoken word to teach the skills needed to understand empathy in patient interactions. They did this because they believed that better care can be achieved if we train physicians to skillfully receive patient stories. They called this approach narrative medicine.


In 2009, Columbia welcomed its first students into their brand-new master’s program devoted to helping medical practitioners to learn and to integrate this narrative medicine concept into their work. When a patient goes in for a conventional medical consult for a thyroid nodule found during a routine checkup with their primary care provider, for example, they may meet with a surgical oncologist who will read the results from the ultrasounds and biopsies and suggest a course of action. It can be a sterile interaction where a patient feels they have to say “yes” to a procedure because the doctor tells them it’s what’s needed.

Doctors, Listen, Stories, NarrativeHowever, a doctor versed in the principles of narrative medicine would recognize any nuances of subtext and language in how patients talk about themselves. This surgical oncologist trained in narrative medicine has learned to ask specific questions designed to draw out the fears or speculations that his or her patient may have been uncomfortable to discuss.


With the questions, the patient would share the things that mattered most to them. What if that patient was a singer who feared the loss of her voice from a procedure, or a young father who lost his own father to cancer and is worried that the doctor might make a mistake with his diagnosis? They want to know they can trust the doctor and have confidence that the doctor’s plans meet their needs. The doctor will know to pause if the patient grows quiet and fidgety and ask if it would be better if the patient went through their options with a patient advocate, a trusted friend or family member. This amounts to the medical practitioner having a more in-depth and intimate knowledge of not only the patient’s signs and symptoms but also their story.


There is so much to learn from this chapter, that is applicable to seniors housing sales and marketing. As an industry we have yet to master the human side of the buyer experience nor what it takes to build trust, loyalty, and value with prospective buyers who don’t want deals and discounts but the right community that is a fit for them and their lifestyle. We tell sales and marketing directors the importance of listening, but we don’t teach them how to do it. Most executives assume this is a natural skill but it’s not by a long shot.


Listening takes time that most salespeople don’t feel they have. It’s all about practicing how to coax the truth from others and see beyond the surface. It’s the deep understanding of voice, subtext and observation that creates true connection and understanding.


A fandom business is human centered instead of data obsessed. Your relationship with your customer starts with your curiosity about them.


Senior, Couple, Interesting, Listen, Stories


While people in senior living tend to think lost leads are due to a competitor who offers a better deal, I can tell you with certainty that most are lost to those competitors who understand the art of human connection and who have mastered the skill of listening. We must get back to learning the story behind the person we desire to move in, not their age, income, zip code and timeline, but how many children they have, what their passions were and still are; what they are most proud of and still want to do with their lives…that is what creates connection and move ins. Understanding this as well as how to bring these stories out makes all the difference in a community sitting at 80% and one sitting at 98% with a wait list.


Not so sure? Challenge your salespeople to tell you not the facts about five leads they are working, but instead the story behind those leads; who those individuals really are at the core. I’m confident you will quickly realize there is a huge opportunity to better train your salespeople and in turn grow sales, move ins, revenue and most importantly , the buyer experience. No time to do this right now. No worries! We have your back. Click Here and we will conduct three complementary mystery shops on your communities and share the findings with you within five business days and then you will know.


Want to speak directly with Traci about your 3Q20 and 4Q20 strategic sales, marketing, and operational goals? Access her calendar here.


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