By Susan Saldibar

The other day I received an email from Deborah Potter, VP of Consulting for Sage Age Strategies (a Senior living Foresight partner). Her purpose was to suggest a topic for our next article. There were some things she felt that she wanted (and needed) to say. After reading the email I told her I had no interest in writing an article. An article couldn’t do justice to the power and raw honesty of her email. So I asked her to add a short introduction. And let it roll.

As VP of Consulting for Sage Age and author of Sage Age’s GROW sales training, I do a lot of traveling to senior living providers. I spend countless hours watching professionals in our industry sell and countless hours learning and GROWing with them during sales trainings. I often leave GROW experiences with the same disturbing, yet exciting revelation:

We’ve been getting it all wrong . . . and yet there is opportunity to get it right!

We realize, after days of connecting and exploring together, that helping people cross an emotional, spiritual, and social threshold in their lives is meaningful, important work. The thoughts below are things I’ve learned from those growth experiences in our industry, and from the teams I’m lucky enough to GROW alongside, striving every day to get it right.

  • Follow the discomfort! Sales in our industry isn’t like retail sales where you’re selling a product. Sales in senior living are always based on some kind of discomfort—in some cases, outright painbut at the very least inconvenience. That means that selling will not happen without the ability to both prompt and navigate hard conversations. Repeat that 10 times in succession: SALES WILL NOT HAPPEN WITHOUT DEEP CONVERSATION. And yet, very few of us actually know how to or feel comfortable doing it.
  • Our job isn’t sales discovery; our job is to prompt our prospects’ own discovery! We’ve spent decades in our industry trying to teach people about things like contracts and lighting (and they are important). But that education will be completely unnecessary if the real conversations don’t happen first. Sales in senior living often teaches us our job is to discover what the prospective resident or their family member is thinking, but traditional “discovery” is really designed for manipulation. That’s not our job. Our job is to help the prospective resident and their family discover what they themselves are thinking, feeling, and experiencing—because in the middle of stressful or painful situations people often can’t do that for themselves—and then to make sense of those feelings so they know what needs to happen next.
  • Your the closet isn’t big enough to hold my pain! People come to us bewildered, stressed, concerned, and sometimes outright grieving. And we talk to them about spaces. If I’m trying to work out and deal with my mother’s daily loss of function—the slow loss of a person I loved and counted on—and the frame of the conversation is “closets”, no closet is ever going to be big enough, deep enough, organized enough, or in the right place enough to help me deal with that pain. So, as long as the conversation is about closets, I will never move my mother to your community.
  • Even for Independent Living, the sale is behind the discomfort. Maybe it’s coming to grips that, sometime within the next 15 or 20 years, something is going to happen that changes everything, and there’s no changing back. Maybe those thoughts start to creep in from simple inconveniences—not wanting to mow the lawn or deal with plumbing—but underneath that is the realization of my own mortality. And so, when an invitation to a CCRC event comes across my desk, I go. Maybe I don’t even know why.
  • It’s not about relationships—ah the blasphemy!—there I’ve said it! Senior living sales needs to stop saying our sales are about building relationships. Firstly, true relationship implies that, even if a prospect goes to another community, I’m going to stay in touch with them. That’s not the case! Secondly, the phrase “relationship-building” is not helpful. It’s too vague and ambiguous and often leads us to do things like send random presents to people as “creative follow-up”. Don’t do it! Senior living sales is about connection through empathy. Empathy is in the moment relating to someone’s experience. It creates in the moment connection and we can develop our empathy via practice and experience. Plus, it makes us better humans!

For those who may not be familiar with GROW, Deborah also shared some insight about the groundbreaking program. What comes across loud and clear is her passion for GROW and its ability to turn our heads around to a different way of connecting in a sales environment. Here are her thoughts: 

  • GROW is about helping sales counselors get beyond superficial conversation. It’s about creating a connection—with urgency—so that we become partners in a family’s decision-makingan approach that should reflect our mission of caring for that family from that moment forward.
  • GROW is not a system. So you don’t have to go back to your sales team and say, “We are switching paradigms, AGAIN.” You can put the GROW experience inside any other “system” you use from Bild, to Sherpa, to Action Selling and tell your sales team you’re providing advanced level training.
  • GROW is not a process. GROW is about developing skills we’re losing—human connection, empathy, authenticity—to fit inside any transactional process you’ve already been using or want to use. It’s not about prospect readiness. Communities can keep the stages they are accustomed toit’s about partnering with the family to create readinessno matter where they are right now.
  • GROW knows that empathy can’t be studied or learned. Empathy is practiced and experienced. GROW is built so that the experience itself begins the process of changing people from the inside—deepening their empathic skills for the prospective resident and their families, providing the words and questions that help people feel comfortable and open the right conversations, and then strategies for handling and navigating what comes next.
  • GROW is revenue-focused. Surprising right? All this empathy sounds too warm and fuzzy to drive sales? Turns out when you take the time to genuinely connect with people, develop the interpersonal skills to do it, and practice it, you increase sales. In fact, because no sale in senior living happens without deep conversation, it’s not ONE way to increase occupancy, it’s literally the ONLY way. It will not happen without it. Repeat that ten times.
  • The senior living industry MUST stop talking about closets. We must stop making our goal to ask the right questions so that people tell us what they’re thinking. Instead, our goal has to be the development and careful, intentional crafting of true connection so we can lead our families through their own journeys of discovery to solutions that help them come to terms with their mortality, their deepest wishes, their relationships, and yes, their lifestyle choices for some of the most poignant years of their lives.

You can learn more about Sage Age’s GROW program here. For more information about Sage Age Strategies, please visit their website.