How to Adapt Your Sales Approach to Fill a Community in Today’s Changed World

By Ron Wiggins

About 45 years ago I attended a seminar on improving sales. The moderator presented his hypothesis with a statement that has stuck with me since that day: “In order to change you’ve got to change.”

Establishing relationships with potential customers or clients is something almost everyone does. Your favorite barista at Starbucks® gradually learns what you want and soon asks if you want the usual when you’re ready to order. That’s relationship selling that has little to do with the fact that they’re selling coffee, because they’re really selling that interpersonal connection. But what happens when a catastrophic event disrupts the normal selling process? And how do you sell when the disruption becomes universal and long-lasting?

COVID-19 decimated the senior living industry in pre-vax 2000, closing many nursing homes and locking down scores of independent living communities. Suddenly, the focus of the communities shifted from staying full to keeping people alive. National press came down hard on nursing homes, where infection and mortality rates soared, and the media seemed unable to distinguish between nursing homes and full-service retirement communities.

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View our webinar, “How to Fill a Community in Today’s Changed World,” to hear additional insights from Love & Company’s Genie Heer and Joan Kelly-Kincade, Strategic Sales Advisors, Tina McLeod, Vice President of Strategic Marketing Services, and Rob Love, President/CEO, as they explore more about how to evolve the sales process to motivate more prospects to make the decision to move to our communities.

Selling Differently

Just as the way of life within the communities changed, so did the ways of selling new prospects on the advantages inherent in the communities. In-person meetings were impossible during lockdowns, so sales teams were forced to pivot and adopt virtual means of communication.

This change in the world was also an ideal time for some introspection. Smart sales teams began to realize that the early stages of selling are less about tangible details like floor plans and more about the intangible value of interpersonal relationships that start with meaningful conversations.

Joan Kelly-Kincade, a Strategic Sales Advisor with Love & Company, says, “The tangible might get them in the door, such as when they read about an amenity on a website or see a beautiful picture of a home. But it’s the way it makes them feel that makes them want to call. That’s the intangible.”

This was new territory for sales teams that had begun to equate the more emotional stages of selling with the later, more transactional stages. Fortunately, the quick ascension of Zoom meetings and increased use of apps like FaceTime made it possible to connect one-on-one with prospects without being in the same building. And equipping the teams with what they needed became a priority. This included business cell phones with cameras and video capability, a quality headset, two monitors—including a larger one with a camera—and installing apps like FaceTime on laptop computers and tablet devices.

“It takes time for a new thing to become a habit, and there are a lot of ways to try to make it happen. But you do have to practice it. I have some teams that are more believers, enough so that it really is part of their process—it’s built into it consistently. They respond to every inquiry with a video and an email,” says Genie Heer, a Strategic Sales Advisor with Love & Company.

Guerilla Marketing

While the pandemic was throwing all conventional thinking about census building out the window, clever marketing by developers and real estate companies started to erode the continuing care advantage that Life Plan Communities had enjoyed for decades. They marketed 55+ communities and similar concepts as “wellness-based,” skirting the advantage of lifelong healthcare services, with no mention of skilled nursing.

Tina McLeod, Vice President, Strategic Marketing Services with Love & Company, sums it up, saying, “The safety net for Life Plan Communities is the skilled nursing care, and when that became a fearful place for people, that safety net was no longer quite the value proposition that it once was.”

Today’s seniors can choose from a continuing care community, a 55+ retirement community, senior cohousing, senior home-sharing, and more. But there is still one advantage to a Life Plan Community that the other models can’t possess in quite the same way: the potential for a daily connection to other residents. A Life Plan Community is, by design, a closer-knit community than other, more real estate-based models.

The Attraction of Home

In lieu of choosing other models of living, many prospects believe they’re better off staying at home, especially after experiencing three years of convenient grocery deliveries and getting rides to appointments through Uber®. The pandemic instilled a newfound sense of “safe independence,” and the rapid growth of at-home care made this choice seem even safer, despite its high cost. But once again, staying at home lacks a built-in community and carries a real risk of isolation.

Tina notes, “The flag that every community should be waving is that we are better together. The stories of residents who lived in our communities during COVID illustrate how important this is. You simply cannot replace connection.”

The Real Product

Life Plan Communities should be selling their real product, which is a mix of tangible and intangible core values. But selling in this way requires a different approach. It requires connecting emotionally with a prospect long before discussing the nuts and bolts.

A conversation can start with the idea that community living provides person-to-person connections—something that’s harder to achieve while living alone. It can show how independence can be redefined as interdependence. It can introduce the fact that lifespan and wellness often improve in a community setting. Connecting before selling also has the benefit of gradually encouraging a prospect to ask about the more tangible advantages of a Life Plan Community.

Joan describes this approach, stating, “It’s asking someone, ‘I’m interested to understand why you decided to visit with me today. Can you share with me why you chose us?’ When they answer, you’re finding out how they see their life, what makes them happy, and how they could see themselves having that much happiness while living someplace else.”

Tangible Decisions

Once connections are made and discussions have revealed true needs and desires, trust is earned. Then, the sales counselor can begin to focus on the more transactional details of the selling process, like selecting a specific residence.

Joan notes, “So, someone says, ‘What is the square footage of this residence? This is nice.’ And now you realize they’ve shifted from an intangible early stage to a more tangible discussion about something that is starting to get transactional. And then it gets more so as you go on. This is where we can address problems and provide solutions. All while still listening and connecting.”

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