By Jack Cumming
Most of us learn by personal experience, but it’s much less painful to learn from the experiences of others. By chance, recently, I’ve been privy to four real-world selling experiences. Sure, these are just anecdotes, but they’re anecdotes from which we can learn. Names are fictional for privacy.
Ruth is a tough customer. She was a career Marine, and her performance expectations are as high as those of the Marine Corps. You likely know the Marine motto, “Semper Fi”, but there’s also an informal motto, “The difficult we do immediately, the impossible takes a little longer”. While this motto may not have originated with the Marines, they readily made it their own as they coped with impossible beach landings in World War II.
Ruth brings that standard to her dealings with businesses, so it’s not surprising that she grew impatient after she had spent over five years on the waiting list for a CCRC without a relationship-building word or encouragement from the marketing people. She would follow up with them from time to time, but they were always off-putting, talking about the length of their waiting list.
Finally, the indifference triggered her rage button, and in a fit of pique, she called to ask for her deposit back. She began to take steps to move into a more welcoming community. As she did, though, she realized that her first preference really was the community with the exasperating marketing department. She called back to tell them she’d changed her mind and that she wanted to be reinstated. Too late, they replied, we’ve already cut the refund check. You’ll have to start over at the bottom of the list.
This story might be as simple as a highly attractive community with a multi-year waiting list if it weren’t that a few apartments on campus were going begging at the time. If marketing had told Ruth that she could have one of them, but that she’d have to move in right away, there could have been a sale. Ruth thinks that she was turned away because she hurt the rep’s feelings. It’s true that the most desirable apartments seldom become available, but in this case a sensitive marketing representative cost the community. It’s not easy to be in sales. Accepting criticism and rejection and turning those negatives into positives is part of the job.
Mark is not an ordinary shopper. He and his wife are still in their early 60s, but Mark had a recent hospitalization. They took that as a warning and decided to look into senior living options, planning to move into one if they found something suitable. It helps to know something about Mark. Before he took early retirement, he had been the Chief Financial Officer of a Fortune 50 company. Not surprisingly, he wanted to understand the finances of what he would be getting into.
Mark and his wife decided that the lifelong commitment and the continuum of care concept inherent in the CCRC living model would be best for them. They started their research online and narrowed their list to five communities at which they had friends. They made appointments with marketing at the five CCRCs, two of which called themselves Life Plan Communities.
After meeting with the marketing folks, and being given the tour, at the first two communities on their list, Mark called a friend, who was already a resident, with a question he had trouble getting his head around. “Doesn’t the entry fee give you any ownership?” Mark asked. “No,” the friend answered, “it’s just a down payment on future benefits.” Mark was incredulous. The friend encouraged him to think of the entry fee simply as prepayment for fees that would otherwise fall due in the future.
A year later, Mark ran into his friend while they were both attending the theater. “Are you still considering moving to a CCRC?” the friend asked. “No,” replied Mark, “it just makes no sense to us. We’ve decided to live on our own until the time comes when we have to make a move and we’ll choose something then.” This time, it’s not the marketing people who cost the sale. It’s the foundational entry fee concept that is unappealing to someone with Mark’s financial background.
Mary and Sam
Like Mark and his wife, Mary and Sam are in their early 60s. As Sam likes to say, “We’re getting older, but I’ve still got gas in my tank.” They are beginning to think about how they would like to live as they age, but they know that they have many years before they have to think seriously about making a move.
Mary took the initiative. Her parents had lived in their own home, the house in which Mary had grown up, until they were in their late 80s. Mary had seen the toll that took on her father. Fortunately, when her father was 89 and her mother 87, their friends had moved to a new CCRC, and Mary’s parents decided that might be good for them as well. Mary and Sam had seen the lift that communal living gave her parents. Mary’s parents lived into their late 90s, and Mary attributed their longevity to life in a CCRC.
With that in mind, Mary and Sam started visiting CCRCs in their area. They were fussy about the kind of living unit they wanted. They liked their house and wanted a similarly spacious retirement apartment. Of course, those were the most desirable apartments, which were seldom available.
Their top CCRC choice, a youthful feeling place with a large number of their friends, had a unique rule. Existing residents, those who were already living on campus, had first right of refusal for all apartments that came available. The on-campus residents had to enroll on an inside residents’ waiting list, and they were given just 24 hours to decide whether they were ready to move or not. Still, the effect was that the best units went to the inside residents. Outsiders seldom got a crack on those prime units.
Mary and Sam decided to move in right away, despite their youth, since they wanted a chance to move later to the apartment of their choice. There was some adjustment. They were used to having two sinks in the master bath, so it was an adjustment to have to alternate getting up in the morning, but with time they did adjust.
Surprisingly, though, a year later, when their dream unit was suddenly available, they decided that they were content where they were. They had found their new home; they loved their new life; they decided to stay put. Within days, not unexpectedly, marketing had found takers for the more palatial unit Mary and Sam had passed on.
Nora, too, is a woman in her early sixties. Recently, she went with her mother, Marilyn, 86, to look into senior living. Her mother was beginning to find living alone a burden and sought the support of a community. Things took an unexpected turn when they met with the marketing representative for the most prominent community in town. First, they had to wait days for an appointment. They had walked in, only to be told that no one could assist them and that they would have to come back later.
Then, when they did meet, the representative insisted on talking only to Nora about her mother, as though her mother weren’t there. This went on for several minutes, after which Marilyn asserted, “I’m the one who’s thinking of moving to your community. Why are you talking only with Nora?” The interview ended quickly and, fortunately, Marilyn was able to find another community which welcomed and acknowledged her. She’s now living there and loving the lift that it has given to her life. Nora, too, is thinking of taking an apartment in the same community with her mother.
The takeaway from these instances is that marketing is a calling that requires the ultimate in human understanding. In the first instance, it required a thick skin to know that sometimes the most critical shoppers can become constructive residents. In the second instance, the industry’s love of entry fees without resident ownership may be an impediment preventing the industry from realizing its full potential. It’s not positive for the industry if the most sophisticated shoppers become critics instead of residents. The third instance illustrates the principle that favoring the outside market over existing residents is not always the best strategy for enterprise success. Finally, the most important value that senior living can give to residents is a sense of belonging, purpose, and meaning. That value is diminished when adult children are seen as the primary clients.