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249: Lesley Durkan

Creating relationships, not just leads is the mission of Referah, a fully-funded industry venture by the senior living industry. Lesley Durkan, President and CEO of Referah, launches the company and announces on the Bridge the Gap Network. 

Listen in to the pain points Referah addresses and how it can save communities time and resources by increasing the quality of senior living leads through proper matching and lead qualification.

Learn more about sponsorship opportunities with Bridge the Gap. 

View the BTG Magazine Fall Issue here.

Listen to more BTG episodes here.


Welcome to Bridge the Gap podcast, the Senior Living podcast with Josh and Lucas, an exciting show and more breaking industry news. We have a great friend on the program today. We wanna welcome Lesley Durkan. She’s the president and CEO of Refera. Welcome to the show.

Lesley 00:57

Thanks. Thanks Lucas and Josh. I’m very excited to be here today.

Lucas 1:01

We are so excited to be talking about this topic in particular. As all of our listeners know, you know, our audience, these are operators, these are people on the front lines. These are people that are doing the heavy lifting day in and day out in the senior living industry. And everyone knows how emotional and how important that transition from home to your new home in senior living can be, and how challenging it can be to find a place that you fit into. And what is that process like? How are you guided through that process? And the industry has responded over decades of figuring out ways to meet people where they are and help to try to get them to their next destination inside a senior living community. But it can be a massive challenge. Lesley, the demand for senior living is growing, as you well know. The demographics are remarkable, and that causes other challenges that the industry needs to face, is how are we going to, as an industry, be able to place people in the right community to call their new home. You have a very unique perspective on this and a passion to solve this problem. With Refera, give some of your background as to why you have a special place and a special passion for this topic.

Lesley 2:31

Sure. As many of us have very accidentally tripped into senior living as a career out of college, certainly was not something I intended to do. I was raised by a nurse administrator, lifelong hospice nurse. Grew up around geriatric care, but was not something within my line of sight ever as a career. First job out of college, ended up being within senior living, and I never left. So, and that’s a story of a lot of people. I think you hear that story very commonly that you found something you loved, you grew a passion for, you found your niche within the industry, and you found your path and it grew and grew, and you and you loved it and you stayed. The genesis of what we are doing at Refera is from years and years of sitting in the operator’s seat seeing things through the eyes of operator, ownership, investor. And I’ve had the pleasure of working for, you know, publicly traded companies, privately owned companies, management companies that serve ownership groups. So seeing it through all of those eyes and understanding where the choke points are, where the pain points are, gave me a different perspective as I decided to make that shift from being an operator to serving operators. Very, very different perspective

Josh 4:00

Right there. That’s where I wanna dive in for just a minute, Lesley, because you brought up a really big topic, and that’s some of the choke points. And we know that there’s choke points for not only on the operator side, but also for the families that we’re serving, whether that’s the resident themselves or whether that’s the families. Can you begin to kind of break this down a little bit, those choke points, particularly on the community side?

Lesley 04:29

Community side, absolutely. Number one, feedback. Number one piece of feedback I get when I talk to senior level leadership about Refera and making a decision to work with Refera as a referral source is wasted time. They’re more concerned about wasted time in many cases than they are about the leads themselves. That’s always a very important part of the conversation, but we all know there’s a big team in a senior living building, but there’s generally only one or two people that are representing revenue, and the rest of the operation is extremely valuable, but they sit in the overhead part of the P&L. So protecting sales time is critical. It’s vital to the survival of every business unit. And when communities are receiving quantity of leads, not quality of leads, it’s a time suck. That is just a time waster that takes away from all kinds of other revenue producing activities and investments of time that could be happening within the business day.

Josh 05:44

Can you describe what you just mentioned? Because I think oftentimes we found that we take for granted we’ve got such a broad spectrum of listeners, but I think you made a very important point of quality versus quantity. What do you mean by that when you’re talking about leads? When we can get really inefficient in our operations? And we may not even be able to identify, like really early on, what is the difference in that? What should I be looking for?

Lesley 6:11

I’ll take that back to the person who’s sending you the referral themselves. And that could be a paid referral service all the way to your, you know, a discharge planner at your local nursing home that you work with who doesn’t have a good understanding still of what is a good match, how do you do great matchmaking with the person seeking and the community. So the quality versus quantity is measured twice, cut once. It’s putting the time in ahead to really understand who that person is that’s looking and what are you, who are you, where are they going to end up picking a place to live? You have to have a really deep understanding of those two elements in order to be a great matchmaker. So that’s where I go over quality versus quantity as an operator, as an executive director, as a regional or vice president, as a person sitting in the chair in the sales office at the senior living community. I don’t want to sift through 20 or 25 mismatched leads. Mismatched leads where I’m saying, “I’m not even sure how this ended up at my community. I’m a freestanding memory care. This is clearly someone who’s seeking an independent living situation or a room style. We don’t even offer all kinds of things, that could be a mismatch. And I think many would agree, I would rather have five very appropriately matched closable leads where I can have, where I can start off ahead of the game at a meaningful point with that family and that perspective resident then sift through all of the time that it takes to sift through things that may not even be a good match up front. It’s understanding both sides before even suggesting the conversation.

Josh 8:16

Well, that is a huge piece and I think probably so many organizations haven’t really clearly defined that, what you just talked about, and probably it’s really impacting conversion ratios and, you know, these teams are probably beating themselves up and getting beat up because they’re seeing these conversion ratios and maybe they’re not even qualifying these leads really well. And I, you know, I know from personal experience now, it seems like there’s so many different places you can get leads from now, more than it seems like even what there was when I first got in the industry, because of the digital world that we live in. But so often what you just touched on, we ended up just kind of chasing our tail because you’re getting more leads than ever, but the operations teams just spend so much time just trying to figure out, is this even a qualified person for our community? So, you know, what are some of the solutions that we have that you can offer of how to put a system in place to better qualify that lead to make sure it’s a quality lead coming in?

Lesley 9:31

The discovery process that we’ve developed is, I would call it closer to portions of the assessment, and maybe I shouldn’t use the word assessment, because I don’t wanna get into a healthcare term, but very much closer to the interview that a team at a senior living community would be sitting down and doing with a resident who walked in cold. We want to hand over a relationship. What we say at Refera is our mission is to create relationships, not just leads. So in order to do that, you’ve gotta ask some pointed questions. You’ve gotta go through a lot of different aspects of the resident and the family, what they’re looking for, what their preferences are, have a very deep understanding of how the community matches up. I mean, think about how you shop when, when you’re looking for a hotel and you put your information into a site and it, you know, you say, I wanna stay in Delray Beach, Florida, it’s gonna be for two people for a week.

And you get this giant list, and then you start putting in your preferences. Well, it’s gotta have free parking. I need WiFi, I wanna bring my dog, I’d like to walk to the beach. So you start kind of narrowing down. And that’s exactly what we do because our promise to operators and to families is to match you with the three communities that make the most sense. And that could be from a service preference, a geographic preference. It could be questions that aren’t being asked. I can’t waste a community’s time with a married couple that absolutely has to have a two bedroom, two bath apartment. We wanna keep mom and dad together, but it must be a two bedroom, two bath floor plan. And I’m sending leads to people that don’t even have that to offer or may not have that available in their current inventory.

So, and this is something hot. This is something that a family needs a solution within the next week or two. There’s that proper matching. People get exhausted, and I mean, consumers, residents, seekers of senior living, they get a little exhausted after looking at more than three, I’d say on average in the first place. It all starts to blend together a little bit. I think people take good notes, but they see things they like and don’t like, and then they start to remember, “There was the lady named Sarah in the red sweater. Do you remember that building?” And the other family member can’t remember which one then. So it’s that, it’s respecting the time by doing the correct matching. So that also solves things for both the senior living community and the resident seeking. I would say the other real distinguishing factor that we offer the industry is a non-biased financial referral.

Lesley 12:29

We are a mixed subscription and move in fee model. I have absolutely no financial incentive to refer to one community versus another because of an equivalent month’s rent or how a move in. What we call a family connection – when we make a family connection and someone moves into Lucas’ building or Josh’s building, and you two may have disparities in how you’re priced. There may be a $2,000 difference in how you’re priced, which in some referral companies going to make a big difference in how they are remunerated for their service at Refera. It is a flat price. My family connection agents have no motivation with their own pay, their own ability to do their job other than let’s make the best match.


Josh 13:41

Well, that is a very well aligned incentive, and I think you’ve touched on some of the common, probably choke points frustrations. If you could just boilerplate for us on the consumer side, on that resident, on that family side, what do you think that they are most frustrated with our industry in the process of looking and, you know, we hear these statistics with data supporting how many of the consumers are, are going online for their first search, but from that point to the point that they get to our community, where do you think it is that is their biggest need and frustration?

Lesley 14:26

Not understanding need. And that is not an insult to any person seeking senior living services, a senior living solution, but I think it is frustrating that people maybe don’t understand exactly what they’re looking for. We all know after all the years that we’ve spent in the industry, we speak the terms, we know our acronyms, We have our own language. When we stand at a conference and the people from another company’s conference walk by us and say, “What are those people saying? I can’t even understand their language.” But on the consumer side, there’s still, in many cases, there’s nursing home and there is not an understanding of everything in geriatric healthcare under that umbrella, nursing home being one of them. So I think that’s frustrating, not understanding or needing help navigating what is the right solution for mom or dad, and finding that they’ve wasted some time where if they had just known or they had just had some better foundational content with which to make a decision, they could have saved some time themselves, pointed themselves in a better direction, prepared themselves to look at different things and prepare themselves to hear things that maybe they weren’t prepared to hear.

Lesley 15:43

We’ve all had those conversations with families where we’ve sat down and families think they’re looking for one thing and you spend time conversing with them and asking questions and listening and you realize maybe they’re not understanding or maybe they need help, really a a third party giving them some insight into what mom or dad really needs. And sometimes those are hard things to hear. So getting someone better prepared with a digital online experience that allows them to do some research, that allows them past the front door before they are required to commit to disclosing a lot of personal information, that then results in contact they weren’t prepared for. They didn’t know they were going to be immediately hearing from a multitude of potential destinations for mom and dad. If they had been offered the opportunity or if information was more accessible and they could do some self education and some self preparation, I think that removes some of the frustration, a lot of the fear and prepares them for what they’re really getting involved with.

Josh 16:55

Well, so now back to the community side. I think I’ve either read or heard you say somewhere, something that I think I thought, well, yeah, that should be obvious, but maybe tell me what more, what you mean by it. And that was, I think you said something about a referral company should be working for the community.

Lesley  17:15

Yes. The community should not be working for the vendors, should not be working for the referral company.

Josh 17:21

Yeah. And I thought, well, you know, I had kind of this duh moment, but I feel like, you know, after I heard you say that, I was kinda like, you know what, she’s right. Why is it not like that? So, you know, compare and contrast a little bit and what your business model has kind of attached it to, to make sure that that happens.

Lesley 17:43

One of the main areas of focus is making data come alive. Any referral service is aggregating a lot of data and they can develop and produce and push out a lot of reporting, making that reporting come alive, turning it from numbers on a page into action steps and working cooperatively, bringing in curated training. Maybe there’s a specific challenge that an operator or a subset of communities at a senior living company, that something in a specific geographic market, that’s a challenge that we can send in those solutions and make numbers on a piece of paper or just a monthly report that maybe doesn’t even get read. You know, it might be something that’s just, “Oh, there’s the report,” we delete it, or we pop it over into that account file and maybe, or maybe not, we look at that information and maybe, or maybe not find it’s valuable.

Lesley 18:47

So partnering with our communities, our client success team focuses on exactly that. Let’s look at what’s happening. Let’s look at your top five performers and your performers over here that need some help. What can we learn and how can they help each other? These are just services and support that I did not receive as an operator, and it’s delighting, surprising the customers in our industry. I think they’re going to find that experience different and it’s how it should work. That doesn’t mean that when you work with a vendor, they don’t need to understand a lot about you. And when you kick off a relationship with a vendor or a new business partner, there’s that period of time where you’re learning about each other. But after that’s established, you should never leave a transaction as a customer feeling like you have homework, that’s wrong. And that’s one of the scripts that I challenged my team and set off in our mission to flip that script.

Josh 19:49

Wow. Well, Lesley, so many reasons why I love what you’re doing, but that last thing, I’ve never been good at homework, never liked homework, and you know what, that sold me right there. I gotta tell you, I am, Lucas, I’m super excited for our industry, what this is gonna do to help our team members, my team members, as this continues to be launched. And I couldn’t be more excited too, for all the families out there that are gonna have such an awesome resource. And you bring those two together, Lesley, like what your team’s doing. And I couldn’t be more excited for you and your team at Refera. And Lucas, you were early on this, the senior living fan is what told me about this. So you know, you’ve been on the insider scoop here and, and it’s so exciting,

Lucas 20:48

Well, it is exciting and it’s exciting for the Bridge the Gap Network to be able to talk about this. Lesley, as our listeners are hearing about these challenges and some of the solutions that you have been so passionate about and bringing to market these solutions with Refera, tell our listeners how can they get involved here? What is the next steps, where is Refera? How is this launching? How can they get a hold of you? What if they want more information? Pull back the veil here.


Lesley 21:23

Sure. It’s as easy as going to, become a subscriber, claim your community. We have, of course, we’ve got an inbound, you know, inbound inquiry sales team ready to answer questions and give demos so that we can spread the word that way. One of the smartest things that we did was make the decision to go fully industry backed with our funding. It would’ve been I don’t wanna say easy, but it would’ve been the faster option to fund differently. But we made the decision early on that everyone that would come forward and support our venture was going to be someone that was involved in senior living, that somewhere in the food chain of their business it touches senior living. Their business intersects. They have an understanding, they can bring thought leadership forward to be a part of constantly adding to our improvement.

Lesley 22:24

So there are a lot of people just within the industry that will connect you with us, but it’s as easy as reaching out requesting that demo, text in, catch us on LinkedIn, all of the social media platforms. We’re out there, we’re launching our visibility. We’re listening. We’re waiting to hear from you. A lot of you are hearing from us, but I know as the brand comes out over these first few months, there will be a lot of inbound leads. There will be a lot of inbound inquiries, inbound questions from the industry, and we’re very excited to answer those questions and show it a new and different way.

Lucas 23:04

So my final question here is, you know, people are listening and they’re thinking, “Gosh, you know, it sounds like I’m gonna have a better experience, higher quality leads.” You know, the question that I then have is like, all right, now how much is this gonna cost me? Can you give us a sense for, let’s just say there’s an operator out there that is heavily entrenched in referral based leads. Like this is a big part of their business. They’re used to on their P&L statement, there’s a line item. Like they know that they are spending for this and they may be having some success. It may be up or down they may have, you know, some likes and some dislikes. For that person out there, should they expect the cost to go up, stay the same or what?

Lesley 23:50

Absolutely the cost will go down. My inspirational moment that this absolutely had to happen was after sitting on a call, you know, I was in a management senior living management company and had eight or 10 management groups within my portfolio and had just had one too many calls with one of our ownership groups saying, “You’ve got to reduce these fees. We’ve got to do something to change this unbudgeted line item.” So I looked at it and I said, “What could be done to compress the amount of time that it takes each operator to become profitable with every single move in?” And then you look at some industry stats about how long does a resident, what’s our average length of stay? What’s happening in the financial cycle with giving away a month’s rent? Maybe there are communities that are giving a concession of their own.

Lesley 24:44

You do have your sales team and their compensation. You may well be into month, maybe month four before you’re able to see profitability. And that impacts everything about the way that you can serve your residents and take care of your team members. So absolutely, this will be a very dramatic reduction of working with leads from Refera as opposed to leads from the payment arrangements with other digital referral sources. We are a flat fee monthly, $300 a month subscription that allows a community to increase their search engine marketing exposure. For $300 to be able to hitch your wagon, as it were, to another form of search engine marketing to help bring traffic and visibility and awareness impressions to your brand is, that’s fantastic. Our Family Connection fee is absolutely a game changer for the operator and their expense control.

A move into their community is $2,000. So it is a market difference, roughly a third of the cost of what we see on some industry averages of paying a referral, a paid referral source, a digital referral source for a movement. Right now, we have some introductory rates through the end of 2022 to thank our early adopters to encourage more to come forward to claim your communities, join Refera and and be part of the industry locking arms and saying, “Hey, we’re really embracing this new option and this new way of doing business, this new way of bringing financial stewardship and financial health to our operation.” So we encourage people to reach out. We’re reaching out to you, but we encourage, we encourage folks to reach out to us sooner than later to get the conversation going.

Lucas 26:46

Lesley, it’s really exciting. I love the grassroots part of this story that this is built and backed by people that already have not only just a passion for the industry, but a long tenured track record of being great stewards and knowing the problems very intimately and coming up with solutions like this and Refera. We applaud you. We’re rooting for you, we’re excited about this launch here on the Bridge the Gap Network to break this story to the industry and encourage our listeners and our friends to go and check you out. We’ll make sure that we put all of this information in the show notes of your podcast player. Of course, you can go to, access this content, download the transcript, connect with us on social and connect with Lesley and her team at Refera. Lesley, great conversation. Thank you for your time today.

Lesley 27:39

Thank you Lucas. Thank you Josh.

Lucas 27:41

And thanks to everybody for listening to another great episode of Bridge the Gap.

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249: Lesley Durkan