By Lola Rain

Happy New Year readers! I am very excited to share with you a conversation I had with Cindy Longfellow, Vice President at Juniper Communities. Cindy oversees business development, sales, marketing, internal and external communications, and PR for Juniper’s independent living, assisted living, and skilled nursing communities in Colorado, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

Cindy and I discussed our top predictions for sales and marketing in senior living, and whether or not occupancy will rebound to pre-pandemic levels this year.

Prediction #1: Companies Will Shift Focus From Marketing to Sales

Sales and marketing are a delicate balance. If you spend too much time marketing and not enough time selling, you will have more leads but fewer conversions. The digital marketing hype of the last few years is not just a trend anymore, it is a challenging reality. Everyone uses the internet in their search. For the most part, senior living companies have learned how to compete using Google AdWords. If they haven’t, they are behind.

Sales is one area where all companies need to invest time and money this year. It is essential to have the right sales program in place and the entire team needs to be trained on using that program. A really good sales system will be a requirement in 2021 in order to compete and rebound.

“We recognized in 2019 that, over time, we got lopsided and became more focused on marketing and less focused on sales,” Cindy admitted. This led Juniper to hire a sales specialist and hold internal focus groups. Cindy explained how they retooled the sales process. “It was nothing earth-shattering, just refocusing on sales, relationship building, and prospect development.” They also developed a rigorous protocol for online leads such as the number of times sales follows up and how often before the inquiry is moved to a 30-day follow-up or put in an automated nurturing system.  

Online leads are an entirely different beast and require a different approach. “They can easily disappear into the ether,” said Cindy. “When someone makes the call to the building at 7 pm, and you actually speak to them, you have something you can hang on to. They were desperate and reached out.”

Talking on the phone allows you to ask questions like “What caused you to pick up the phone to call us right now?” On the flip side, Cindy explained, when they fill out a form online at 3 am and receive a reply 5 hours later, that sense of connection and urgency is often lost.

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Prediction #2: Virtual Selling Is Not Going Away

“Virtual selling and the rise of the online lead has accelerated during COVID and is not going away,” said Cindy. “We need to hone in on our virtual selling skills to connect and nurture those online leads.”

Sales and marketing teams will learn how to work together and nurture leads.

In all my years of marketing, I’ve encountered the same reaction over and over again when I talk about lead nurturing: Uncertainty. Marketing and sales don’t see eye to eye because they use different terminology. A marketing funnel and a sales funnel are not the same thing. This is the year that sales and marketing learned to communicate using the same fundamental language.

The customer journey to a salesperson may look linear: a phone call, a tour, a follow-up call, a second tour, and a deposit after the prospect agrees it’s the right community at the right price. Virtual selling is not linear. How do you even get the prospect on the phone? How do you get a prospect to agree to a virtual tour? These critical questions need to be part of the sales process.

From a marketing lens, a prospect begins by searching multiple websites using keywords and asking trusted sources (word of mouth and referral sources). There are dozens of touchpoints with all your competitors before they even reach your website or Google My Business page. Once the prospect reaches out and becomes a lead, they still may not be ready to talk. Here is a brilliant solution: a lead nurturing program. You reach them through multiple digital touchpoints, phone calls (if they’ve trusted you enough to share their number), and even direct mail, if your form captured their address.

This solution goes hand-in-hand with having more innovative and robust tools, such as a really good CRM (see prediction #4). This is the year we all are going to excel at lead nurturing, or at the very least gain a solid understanding of the process.

Prediction #3: Events Will Become a Necessity in 2021 – Both Online and In-Person

Not all communities have been holding online events during the pandemic. In fact, the Zoom meetings and webinars Juniper has tried have not gotten a huge turnout. But this means we need to manage our expectations on what a good turnout is. If you only have five qualified prospects in your database, and only five people come to a virtual event, you are doing a great job! 

Events will be essential for communities to bounce back. It will take trial and error to create attractive events for potential residents, family members, and referral sources. Marketing them to the right target audience with enough lead time (one week is not enough) will be crucial to the event’s success.

Cindy agrees that more events for prospects are needed. And they will most likely still be virtual in the first quarter. But after that, Cindy predicts, “People are going to be so hungry for connection when we first open our doors. The interest and the positive vibe about senior living is going to be up to us.” It’s in our hands to make these events a success.

Click here to watch a LeadingResponse (a Senior Living Foresight partner) webinar about virtual events.

Prediction #4: Having the Right CRM Partner Will Become a Priority This Year

I am always shocked when I talk to a community that doesn’t use a CRM. Perhaps they have one, but the sales team doesn’t like it. Or they have low adoption because the company lacks a CRM champion. There are no excuses left in 2021. Your company must adopt a technology that will help you measure ROI and be more efficient with time. Gone are the days of keeping track of leads in a spreadsheet.

The right technology will hold marketing accountable for driving leads, and sales accountable for following up with leads.

Cindy agreed. “It’s time to find a more robust CRM.” Juniper recently partnered with WelcomeHome Software (a Senior Living Foresight partner) because of its ability to automatically document activities such as follow-up calls, texts, and emails. “It will save our team members time and provide leadership with more actionable data,” Cindy explained. Juniper also uses HubSpot for marketing automation which allowed them to ditch Constant Contact and have a more integrated system for digital and email marketing.

Prediction #5: The Media’s Perception Will Begin to Change, Thank Goodness!

“We were not treated kindly in the press,” said Cindy. “Now the whole story has turned, but it’s hard to get past the early frustration and resentment.”

Through the lens of the media, our industry is the villain. While this has been the overall sentiment since early in the pandemic, it has also been a consistent message for many years. Every time one senior living community was found guilty of abuse or neglect, the entire industry was scrutinized. In the media’s eyes, we are all “nursing homes”. And they don’t seem to want to, or care to, explain to their readers what a nursing home is, by definition or regulation. It sends me into a tailspin each time I read an article and it’s apparent the writer has no idea how a “nursing home” differs from independent or assisted living.

On a side note, it bothers me so much, that I am ready to spearhead the change by educating as many people as possible that there are HUGE differences between levels of care. Keep your eye out for some upcoming educational webinars on this topic.

Now that the vaccine is here, the narrative has changed, Cindy pointed out. “We are not vilified to the same degree we were six months ago.” While it has gotten better, we still have a long uphill struggle ahead. In order for our staff to feel good about their career choice, they need to stop hearing the media beating up our industry.

Everyone Wants To Know: Will the Industry Rebound as Quickly as It Sunk? Yes and No

Juniper saw a glimmer of the rebound in late August through mid-October. Right before the resurgence of the virus — a calming before the storm. While the analysts are concerned with the industry-wide drop in occupancy over the last several quarters, Cindy uses her experience as a gauge. “It will be more of a curve than V-shaped,” she said. The incline won’t be as sharp as the decline, but it will come, and we all have to do our part to get there. The five predictions above are the start of the recovery.

What else can you do to ensure your building is set up for success? We want to know what our readers think. Tell us about your predictions below.

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