By creating a strong platform for consistently excellent service experiences for your prospects and existing clients, you can create a powerful engine for growing your reputation and building your occupancy.

By Adrienne Mansfield Straub, Sage Age Strategies, a Senior Housing Forum Partner

As any savvy marketer will tell you, “word of mouth” is free and remains the most credible and influential form of advertising in the business world today. Now, traditional word of mouth has been made exponentially more powerful by social media with its instantaneous nature and large scale sharing capabilities.

If you weren’t focused on the importance of word of mouth advertising before, you should be now.

It used to be said that consumers who have a positive experience with an organization might tell up to six or seven others about it, but those who have a negative experience are likely to tell 20 or more.

Bad news still travels fast – more like at light speed today – and now the number of people hearing an unflattering story about your community can be mindboggling. Simply put, the rise of social media can make or break you. Therefore, being at your best every day has become not just a goal, but also an imperative in the increasingly competitive senior living space.

Customer Service: A Dying Art or a Huge Opportunity?

Karen Nelson Crolius, Senior Vice President & Senior Consultant for Sage Age Strategies, says, “I routinely remind industry groups that the key to positive word of mouth lies in the day-to-day customer experience. This applies to virtually all customer groups including new prospects, current residents and their families and referral sources.”

“Today, it seems that great customer service has become a lost art, but for those who do it well, it serves as an effective strategic tool for helping them to stand out in the crowd.”

For some people, a pleasant demeanor and a helpful personality come naturally. For others, it is not so innate and is a skill that must be learned and consistently applied.

Adds Karen, “As many communities have experienced, you are only as strong as your weakest link. Unfortunately, a few bad apples can tarnish your entire brand. As a result, I spend much of my time conducting training for sales staff, first contact employees and care providers on best practices in service excellence and sales and retention optimization.”

What Creates Great Customer Service?

A person’s attitude, personality, demeanor and sense of service are among the critical factors for delivering superior service. Superior service encompasses the entire customer experience – from the moment a person logs onto your website, picks up the phone to call you walks through your community’s front door for the first time or beyond.

The real competitive edge is found in the way you treat your customers every day through every shift. Great service is found in simple acts of kindness, being understanding, empathizing, listening, being honest and showing a genuine desire to help. Great service is an advantage that costs you little or even nothing, but adds huge value to your community by creating new customers and keeping your current ones.

Great customer service happens by:

  • Developing trusting relationships
  • Taking the time to make every customer feel important and know you care
  • Listening to every customer like it’s the first time you’ve heard a story like theirs (even if it isn’t!)
  • Being flexible to meet with specific needs of each customer

Customer Service Is NOT A Department!

“When I’m asked what department should be in charge of customer service, I tell people that it is not a department, it is EVERYONE’S job. In fact, I encourage communities to include service excellence in every employee’s job description, from CEO to housekeeper, from the highest to lowest ranking employee.” Karen says.

What customer service is:

  • A personal commitment
  • Everyone’s responsibility
  • Part of everyone’s job description
  • Starts at the top of each department
  • Consistently role modeled by all members of the leadership team
  • Being available to customers when they need you
  • Going “the extra mile” to help them solve a problem

The First Point of Contact Is Crucial

First impressions count and they are lasting – both good and bad. What kinds of first impressions are you making every day? Are they consistently good? Are they exceptional and a legitimate point of differentiation from your competitors?

Karen says, “Those who are the first point of contact are the face and voice of your community. They hold your customers’ first impressions and potentially your customer’s business in their hands. They set the tone for what that customer’s experience with your community is going to be like. Do your first contact people sound cheerful, personable and engaged or passive and disinterested? It all starts with them.”

“Because of their importance and the potential for helping or hurting your organization, first contact training has become a major priority. A friendly, helpful and competent first contact person can help your clients feel at ease and confident in your community. And, in our business, trust and confidence are everything.

For many prospects, the first human touchpoint is a phone call. Karen offers the following telephone contact tips:

  • Ask for permission and wait for acknowledgement before you put customers on hold
  • Do not put customers on hold for more than 1 minute
  • Always listen completely
  • Help them – try your best to accommodate
  • Thank them – even if you’re transferring their call
  • Always ask permission to transfer their call
  • “Hold on, I’ll transfer you” is not sufficient
  • Take the time to communicate before making the transfer
  • Announce who you are transferring them to and direct a call back number
  • Let a staff member know the name of the person and reason for the call

Small Things Can Be Big Things to Customers

Karen says, “When I was in the hospital having major surgery, I closely watched every staff member come in and use the hand sanitizer before they approached me and before they left my room. This was a huge deal for me because I knew they were doing it to minimize my chance of infection. It was an important demonstration of the hospital’s customer-centered service excellence and what performance improvement organizations call a key ‘cue for quality’.”

There certain basic “cues for quality” for customers that can make a major difference in their perception of and experience with your community. These include:

  • Cleanliness – Keep it clean and keep it friendly. Seems almost too simple to mention – but that’s exactly the point.
  • Appearance – Hand-in-hand with cleanliness is the personal appearance and hygiene of staff. Do they represent you and your mission well? Do they look and act the part of service providers
  • Communication – Be clear and convey important information consistently and in timely fashion to your team. Do not assume employees know what’s expected of them. Tell them. In fact, tell them in every way you can from memos, posters, emails, tweets, staff presentations and one-on-one conversations. Leave no room for misunderstanding. Clarity and consistency are vital.
  • Thoughtfulness – Make sure to focus on each customer individually. Go the extra mile to ask thoughtful questions. Make them feel special.
  • Knowledge – Are employees well trained and educated? Do you test their knowledge? Are they evaluated based on their service skills with customers and fellow employees?

By creating a strong platform for consistently excellent service experiences for your prospects and existing clients, you can create a powerful engine for growing your reputation and building your occupancy. As many experts on the subject have written, service excellence truly is the ultimate weapon in today’s competitive marketplace.

We Would Love to Hear from You!

If you have comments or questions on the value of trait-based recruiting practices and best-practice sales training, we’d love to hear from you. We also encourage you to share any experiences you’ve had in these areas, whether they have been successful or not. Please share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.

Sage Age Strategies is a multiple award-winning, strategic growth and marketing organization that operates exclusively in the senior living industry and was recently named one of Inc. Magazine’s Fastest-Growing Private Companies in America. For more information, please call or e-mail Adrienne Mansfield Straub at 570-601-1720 ext. 202 / [email protected].