By Rebecca Wiessmann

Deborah Potter, vice president of consulting with Sage Age Strategies (a Foresight partner) talks with Steve Moran about emerging trends in senior living marketing and about the importance of empathy in all your senior living staff. Below are some (lightly edited) takeaways from the recent podcast, which you can listen to here.

Steve: What are you seeing operators struggle with in the whole world of marketing and maybe in sales? What are the big,1, 2, 3, 28 things you’re seeing?

Deborah: As a full-service marketing firm, we do see the breadth 1, 2, 3, to 28. But now, what I see is this kind of deep craving for connection as well as a personal relationship and ongoing partnership. I think in a way that I haven’t seen with provider-vendor situations in the past.

Steve: From a practical standpoint, if I’m an operator, what are the implications of that?

Deborah: One is that everyone is struggling with staff. So there is this tension. From a sales consulting standpoint, how do I promote growth, continue to create revenue, and be fiscally responsible, but also care for my folks? And, there’s a sort of a COVID backlash in that the more we bring in from a sales standpoint, the more work we give operators with less staff.

Mission Culture

Deborah: So there’s a tension right now that is a window of opportunity for us to say, how do we finally bridge this operations-sales gap and start using bigger language? Let’s not do sales culture anymore. Let’s talk about mission culture.

I’m married to a nurse. And when you try to talk to a nurse about sales during a shutdown, especially in a time of grief, it doesn’t play well. But if you talk to a nurse or a social worker about mission and you start to say, “Hey, what about years ago when you didn’t have people in your building? What was your mission to those people out there?” And suddenly we have a language that we can share. Not only for occupancy and census increases but also for those organizations that are looking for long-term culture change toward being fiscally responsible and driving mission at the same time.

Lip Service

Steve: One of the things I worry about is that, too often, there are organizations where they say their mission is one thing but they behave in another way. Do you have thoughts on mission alignment with practice and then maybe, thirdly, with messaging?

Deborah: Consulting is kind of a fascinating practice in that the client is our boss. The client has also said to us, “tell us the truth.” So I hire consultants for their technical skills and expertise. But I also hire consultants who have the soft skills to be able to earn trust and help an operator or a sales team feel that they can be vulnerable. So when they say their mission is one thing, and we don’t see it being played out and it’s hurting them, that they can hear that. Sometimes that takes time. But the other piece that you hit on is sometimes it’s about remembering who we are. It’s a real opportunity for us to help organizations get back toward their mission and be re-inspired by it.

Getting Clarity

Steve: So, if people are struggling with who they are, do you have any ideas about how people can go about getting clarity?

Deborah: I feel like having a partner is really important. I laugh about the Fabreeze commercial. You can’t smell your own house. It’s like we’re nose-blind, right? So even creative agencies need some outside perspective about who they are. And it’s interesting because we have developed a sales training program that is focused completely on empathy and operationalizing empathy. Not just “can we be empathic,” but how to be empathic. And I feel like our job, as an agency, as a consulting firm, is to, in the operation of empathy, ask great questions that lead to provocative thought and reflection that sometimes organizations have a hard time taking the time to do. But the payoff in terms of who we are, the clarity about who we’re marketing to and who we want is just tremendous.

Working Together to Develop Culture Change

Deborah: The most at-risk organizations our consulting department works with are those organizations who, years ago, just had people walk through their doors. They didn’t have to do sales. So then they got to a place where, “I know where my church pew is every day, so I don’t want anybody sitting in it.” You get fixated on those in-house. I see a lot of organizations waking up from that after COVID and going, wow, we can’t do that. And also realizing this is not a short-term thing.

It’s about working together over a long period of time to develop culture change. And you can’t do that without a partner. In the consulting department, we’ve started asking “how can we address that need industrywide?” And I’ve actually started to reach out and say, “take me on as your corporate trainer.” So we have been super focused on empathy in our sales training. But then I go and I visit our client organizations, and their operations teams say, “show us how to do empathy.” And so, more and more, I think we’ll be doing less of the drop-in intensive, fix it, occupancy increase stuff. More and more, we’re doing a lower level “let’s talk about the next three to five years. Let’s chart a path together.” And, once a month, let’s think about who in your organization needs the boost of training or coaching and inspiration so that we can start to put all of those pieces together.

Staffing, Staffing, Staffing, Staffing

Steve: So you do sales and marketing. What’s that got to do with staffing?

Deborah: It has a lot to do with it. In fact, it’s interesting, because I think the focus is on, of course, staffing to care for people. That’s the crisis. But maybe what we’re not looking at is, where are our salespeople coming from? Because we are not pulling more people and talent into the industry. So there are a couple of things happening.

I see organizations finally maybe waking up. And I say that maybe a little arrogantly. But I do think it’s really important that we decide you can outsource marketing better than you can outsource direct sales. So the marketing can be done by an agency, whether it’s SageAge or someone else. Have a partner so that when you have limited resources on-site, put that person in front of people and teach them how to do what we’re just talking about.

The Next Generation

Deborah: The other thing that I have not worked out yet, because it’s a longer-term problem, but I’m dedicated to and fascinated by, is how do we bring more talent into the industry? And what does the next generation look like? And maybe I’m focused on that because I have many young adults who are my children making their way into the workforce right now.

One of the things that we’ve done for organizations who’ve said, “I just can’t find somebody. We need someone.” We used to try to sort of land someone in their market to live there. It’s hard on the person doing that, it’s expensive, and it’s not a terribly practical solution. In general, all the super-talented people out there already have roles. So the person you get to fill your open position is not necessarily who you want. So what we’ve turned to, not perfected yet, is what about the next generation? What about these young adults who have a lot of raw talent, some of them, how do we garner that?

Steve: One of the things that we’re seeing more and more are young people coming out of high school saying, “I don’t know about this college thing because I’m going to end up with $150,000 to $200,000 in debt.” And I wonder if you could create some sort of a high school to sales program. I’m sure most operators listening to this are going, “Wait a minute, I’ve got to have college-educated people.” But, I don’t know, maybe not. Because we come back to empathy, right? If they’ve got empathy, that’s probably the most important thing.

Deborah: 100%. Yes, you do have to have polish. One of my pet peeves about what people say when they’re looking for a salesperson is “let’s look for someone bubbly.” Bubbly can be nice, there’s nothing wrong with bubbly. But empathic, intelligent, and knowledgeable about how to manage and navigate a meaningful conversation. If I can get someone to do those three things, I don’t care whether they have a college education. I don’t care if they came from senior living.