There are lessons for senior housing to be gleaned from the experiences with other industries.

By Jack Cumming

Not long ago, I flew Delta Airlines coast-to-coast in First Class. I am one of those rare customers who actually pay for First Class. I had booked a seat in the second row, but along the way, Delta changed aircraft and reassigned me to the bulkhead. Not only was there no leg room but my briefcase had to go in the overhead.  

Just before the doors closed, a deadheading stewardess got on the plane. Her luggage was jammed into the overhead, slamming my briefcase into an unnatural bend. Then the deadheader took one of the jump seats where she spent the flight distracting the working flight attendants, but not lifting a finger to help them. Service suffered. First Class today is distinctly second class.

When Customers Are Less Valued

Now we have the example of the mistreatment of a United Airlines passenger and a CEO so insensitive that his first reaction is to defend the airline’s “re-accommodating” a customer for the convenience of the airline. We live in an era in which many established businesses take their customers for granted.  

It’s not the CEOs responsibility to serve the customers; it’s marketing’s responsibility to ensure a steady flow of customers. The CEO serves the narrower interests of the business. The CEO maximizes profit and minimizes risk even if that means that the customer experience is diminished.

This corporate culture is found not only in airlines. It’s part of the tenor of the times. Yes, there are businesses, mostly entrepreneurial enterprises, that still obsess about creating a better experience and value for their customers than do their competitors. One thinks of Jeff Bezos or Jack Ma, but many of today’s executives came up through the ranks in central offices far removed from customer contact. This isolation from customers can result in a distorted vision of what the leadership challenge is.

The Age of Narcissism

There are lessons for senior housing to be gleaned from the experiences with other industries. To begin with, the culture of the times is very inward directed. Some term this the Age of Narcissism. Self-aggrandizing, self-asserting narcissistic traits can infect the executive suites of even the seemingly most outwardly altruistic, mission-oriented service enterprises, whether they are nonprofit or tax paying.  

When they put enterprise before customer, it is the residents who suffer and the executives may rationalize their decisions much as United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz did when he asserted the airline’s need to re-accommodate paying, booked customers.

Who is Most Important Staff or Residents?

How does this apply to the senior housing industry? Of course, it is important to value staff. They are the frontline of interaction with residents. But the messaging from senior management has to be clear, consistent, and compelling that residents’ needs are paramount or the reputation of the senior community in the marketplace will begin to suffer.  

Otherwise, it is easy for staff to slip into a me-ism that condescends toward residents, many of whom may be cognitively slipping. When recurring resident activities are displaced to allow for staff training events, to cite just one example, the message sent to residents and beyond is clear that staff needs take precedence over resident needs.  

Training For (or With) Residents

Picture this scene which is not uncommon in senior living communities. Staff from many affiliated communities are bused in for an all-day training session during which they brainstorm on what they might do to better interact with residents. Residents are excluded from these sessions, which are carried out behind closed doors.  

When lunchtime comes, an attractive buffet is laid out for the visitors just outside the meeting room. Residents are forbidden to partake as they pass by on the way to resident dining. Imagine how you as a resident might feel about that exclusion. Imagine what you as a resident will share with your friends about your experience. Of course, the event is well-intentioned but the impact on the organization’s reputation in the marketplace has gone unnoticed.

Whispered Murmurings

There can even be parallels with the United Airlines fiasco, though the public outcry is less aside from the whispered damage to the industry’s reputation. In the senior housing example, a resident with a continuing care contract who needs services beyond the scope of the senior housing provider’s license are required to find alternative lodging elsewhere. In the minds of the grapevine among residents and prospective residents, this amounts to an involuntary eviction, not unlike the removal of a passenger from an airliner.  

The grapevine doesn’t know of the counseling efforts that may have preceded the eviction. The provider is relieved of a resident with advanced needs and the promise of peace of mind inhering in the continuing care contract is permanently damaged.

Lessons for Success

What more can senior housing providers learn from the United Airlines fiasco? It’s the same lesson that anyone who has ever started a business knows intuitively. Those who start businesses all remember their first customer, and they understand, as no business school can teach, that without a customer there can be no business. United Airlines, and for the most part the airline industry generally, by the negativity of its examples, teaches us that to thrive a business has to obsess about putting customers first.  

Let’s put this in positive terms. Those businesses, especially senior housing enterprises which depend on long-term customer trust, will thrive if they put the client, the customer, the resident first. That means reserving entrance fee funds to meet those deferred promises, the grounds on which the entrance fees are solicited. They are contractual payments and not at-risk investments. That means financial standards – a positive net asset position – that ensures enterprise sustainability. That means treating those residents, who have the interest and the ability, as equals and not as aliens from a former generation.

Building Your Brand

Putting residents first creates a brand identification that needs to be declared to the marketplace, and to the wider world, that residents are elevated above other corporate interests. Putting residents first will bring positive identification from prospective residents seeking a secure haven for their retirement.  

Putting residents first will result in demonstrated value for residents who choose your branded senior housing venture. Putting residents first will reassure family members that all is well, and they can rest assured, as their parents and loved ones descend into the cognitive darkness that too often accompanies aging. Putting residents first means a high calling to stewardship in which the provider can be trusted to act at all times for the sole benefit and in the best interests of the residents.