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CW 83: Christy Cunningham

What does it take to actually BE excellent and innovative instead of just TALKING about it? In this final episode Contributor Wednesday, Christy Cunningham breaks down three ways you can take your intentions to rock and convert it into effective action. 

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Hello and welcome to Bridge the Gap Contributor Wednesday. I am Christy Cunningham and it is… dun dun dunn… the last one of the year. Sales and marketing week here at Bridge the Gap Contributor Wednesday. And this is my last Contributor Wednesday as a part of the Bridge the Gap Network. I wanna say a big thank you to the Bridge the Gap team for all of your help with my episodes and for giving me the opportunity to share my insights and thoughts and controversy with the senior living industry. It has been such a blessing and such a pleasure to have had this opportunity this year to deliver 12 episodes, one per month, on the last Wednesday of every month, to my senior living peeps. And certainly I wanna give a big thank you to all of you listeners who have been listening to my podcast episodes all year, have been messaging me, calling me, debating me.


I have had an absolute blast and I am so grateful for each of you and all of the connections that have been made along the way, so thank you everyone for this great opportunity and all of our fun times that we’ve had together. This being the last episode, I was feeling a little bit nostalgic actually. You know, I have not had a master plan when it came to all of my episodes. I really had a rant or a question or a hot topic that I brought to our audience for us to talk about throughout the year. So when I was reflecting on that and saying, okay, what topics are still left to discuss, obviously there’s a ton that we didn’t get to this year, but I really took to heart, all of the episodes had some things in common.


And I think that is the, you know, purpose of my Contributor Wednesday, as I look back on it, it maybe seems more clear is, really trying to stir up the discussion with everybody around what our rule book says in senior living sales and marketing, to challenge some of the ideas that we all hold so dear about how things have to be, or the best way for us to get results and be great leaders and be really excellent with our customers, and to try to inspire us to think about new opportunities and new ways of doing things that might help us be more successful, and illuminating some of the missed opportunity that might be there for that. So I’ve covered the gamut of topics from concessions to a sales mindset; differentiating the experiences with established businesses from startups and what we can learn from that; virtual experiences and why that should be a part of our everyday experience; why sales people in senior living are at risk of going extinct. 


We’ve talked about marketing, smarketing. A lot, a lot, lot of stuff in between. So please, if you didn’t listen to some of those episodes and some of those topics sound really good to you, go back. You can find the episodes in your podcast listing, you can also find it on YouTube and on the Bridge the Gap website. But I’m still interested in hearing comments and debate on even some of those earlier episodes. So please don’t hesitate to reach out if something catches your ears as you listen. But as I reflect on all of these topics, and I look at what I was really trying to do in the industry, I thought that for this last episode, I could talk a little bit about three things that I think we need to consider as we become truly innovative, hopefully, in the industry.


And I say hopefully, because, this is gonna sound a little pessimistic, but what I hear, you know, you make your way from conference to conference, so there’s a lot of people that sit around in a big room with fancy suits and talk about innovation. And they talk about the progression of the industry. And then they go have drinks with the same people and they talk more about it. And then they go back to their businesses where they’re doing things very, very similarly to how they’ve always been done. And then the conversation about innovation just continues to be a talking point, as opposed to something that we’re actually taking action on. And that needs to change on a lot of levels. Maybe we need a different group of people in the room talking about innovation than just the very heads of companies. Maybe we need to do something other than just talk about innovation and progress in senior living. Who knows, I don’t have all the answers, but what I can say is that for those of us that are truly in pursuit of excellence, that are truly in pursuit of being the best, we are at a moment where we have no choice but to innovate. We have to go beyond what everybody else is doing.


And this can’t just be words that I’m spewing, because I know that there are people out there who agree with me wholeheartedly, who want to do that, who want to be that, but find themselves over and over and over again, really very, very, very similar to what everybody else is doing. So how do we break that? How do we take our desire to innovate and our desire to progress ourselves towards excellence, and break from the pack? How do we actually act on that and make that happen? 


So there are three things that I’m taking into my next year, because I’m still on this same trail that you all are, we all are, we’re in it together. And that is, a trail that says, I wanna leave that past behind and I want to go pursue an excellence that hasn’t ever even existed before, right? So there are three things that I think we can do to help turn that intent into action, into reality. The first is, we have to see that we are all following the same rule book, right? And we have to detach from it. So yeah, I know that many companies in senior living, y’all think that your sales training is different. It’s not. It’s not. I don’t care who sales training methodology you subscribe to, it all comes down to the very same fundamentals delivered in a slightly different way. Sometimes not even that obviously different way. You think that your advertising is different? It’s not. Looks the same as everybody else’s. You think your website is that different? It’s not. Looks the same as everybody else’s. You think your sales experience at the building levels is different? No, it’s not. You think your product and the community that you’re selling and the individual things that are happening within that community and the life that’s happening in those communities, you think it’s all that different? It’s not. 


We gotta get real about the fact that the reason why it’s not different, is because we’re all following the same playbook. We’re all following the same rules. So if you want to start breaking from the pack, you have to start to challenge those rule books. Who says things have to go a certain way? Who says that imagery has to look this way instead of that way? Who says messaging has to look this way instead of that way, right? We have to start to challenge that. And this is really tough, especially for those of us who are established in our careers, whether you’re at the community level or corporate level, to start to challenge that rule book, because that rule book is safety. That rule book is knowledge and experience. That’s why you’re in the room. So challenging that rule book, or starting to say, well, maybe that’s not the only way to do it, is kind of scary, because now you no longer know the answer when you start to do that. 


Now you’re no longer the smartest person, you know, in the room. Because there might be somebody else sitting in the room who thinks that they know the answer because they’re following the rule book, right? So it can feel a little unnerving, but we have to start to separate ourselves from the pack by seeing that we’re all following a very, very similar version of the same playbook, the same rule book. So yes, at that point to win, to be really excellent, and this is I think the path that we’re on, and what I hear a lot of sales trainers and leaders and everybody trying to kind of push on is, we’re trying to differentiate ourselves, we’re trying to really be excellent, by just being slightly better at the same playbook than our competitors. So, you know, we’re gonna win more business in the market, by our sales people being better at discovery than the other sales people.


Well that lasts about as long as that salesperson sits in your building, which on average is a year to two years, by the way. So then you’re right back to where you started and somebody else gets the upper hand, and you’re just basically squabbling over these scraps, squabbling over these marginal, marginal differences, that from a customer’s perspective may not even be all that important. And we’re putting our energy into competing in those marginal ways, instead of really breaking from that rule book and thinking a little bit beyond trying to find other paths to success. 


So the first thing that we wanna do, if you are really in pursuit of excellence and really pursuit of something that has never existed before, a success that hasn’t existed is, you’ve gotta detach from the rule book. And so many of my episodes guys, are just trying to illuminate that. So if you go back, you wanna hear some parts of the rule book that we need to detach from, go listen to some of those episodes. And I’m sure, that there’s more, so add to the discussion, if you will, in your own content, your own posts, everything else. We need more of this challenger, sort of, mentality in senior living if we’re ever really gonna change.


Enough on that. If you’re gonna be the person that detaches from the rule book, well now you’re in no man’s land, right? Now, you’ve got some hunches, you’ve got some instincts, you’ve got some questions about what else you might do. If you’re not following the rule book, then what else would you do instead? So the second thing that we have to do is we have to have a framework for that. Like, all right, if I’m not following the rules, Christy, but I’m also doing something that’s never been done before, or I’m doing something slightly different, then how do I execute on that in a way that makes it viable? How do I convince people to take that risk with me? Well, you do it by having a methodology, right? And we have all learned a methodology, from the time that we were in our elementary school days, of the scientific method.


We have to think like scientists. If you’re breaking from the rule book and trying to go pursue the trail that is unblazed ahead of us, then you’ve got to be very deliberate about that approach. So taking the questions that you have, taking those hunches and those instincts, that’s your hypothesis. Setting up a testing of that, so how could you test that hypothesis? How could you set up a forum to get the answer to the questions that you have? And how are you gonna know, what’s your measurement gonna be? And this is really vital is, before you really start to move the train off of the tracks and into the gravel, you should know what your plan is, to know whether you’re gonna be successful. To be able to recognize if you’re going to be successful or not, right? You have to have a plan to measure it.


And this is dramatically missing from senior living sales and marketing strategy. We might play from the rules majority of the time, we feel real fat and sassy when we get to deviate a little bit from the rule book and we feel like real innovators. The problem is that we’re not gathering data. We’re not measuring our results. So it’s all anecdotal. And this makes replication, this makes knowing when you’re on the wrong path before it’s too late, this makes selling, trailblazing to maybe your CEO or even your team really, really tough. And you know, I had a big wake up call that I talked about in one of my earlier episodes about virtual sales, and challenging our current mentality around our sales process. 


The wakeup call came when I went to go do research on virtual sales experiences in senior living, and there was almost no data. Like minuscule little puffs of data that exist in different nooks and crannies that I had to go find. Yet as an outsider to other industries, I was able to do some really easy Google searching and find real estate, multifamily, hospitality, higher education, and many other industries where that data about virtual customer experiences at every stage of the customer journey was readily available. There’s a problem here guys. And I think that it starts in the way that we approach our strategies, because we don’t have a deliberate methodology. We aren’t following the scientific method and setting up our parameters for measurement at the onset of our tactical moves. So if you are deviating from the rule book, good on you. Step one, you’re great. But are you setting it up in a scientific way where you’re actually able to gauge the results in a quantifiable way, and replicate them, or find out why things didn’t work and go reset up another experiment.


I guarantee you’re not doing it. We’re moving too fast. We’re not really thinking strategically about what we’re doing, we’re just sort of impulsively trying things out. And that’s helping us to build a stronger and stronger hypothesis, but until we really set up a true test and we’re truly measuring it, it’s nothing more than an anecdotal thing that we did one day. And that really has to change, if you wanna be excellent. You have to get a little bit more formal in how you approach your deviations from the rule book. So at the micro level, whether you’re a salesperson and you’re just changing up the way that you’re doing things, think of yourself like a scientist. What’s the question? What’s your hypothesis? How could you experiment with it and test it? And then what timeframe? And then how will you know? What’s gonna be your measurement of it? If you’re at the regional level, if you’re at the corporate level, if you’re in marketing, if you’re in sales, this applies to us all. And we should be in a constant state of testing, it’s never done. It’s never done.


Last is, being a leader, being out in front pursuing excellence instead of a follower in the pack, means that you’ve gotta have some thick skin and some blinders on. That you’re not overly preoccupied with what everybody else is doing. That you can take some heat because not everybody’s gonna understand what it is that you’re trying to do and what it is that you’re trying to pursue and why you don’t wanna stay in the safety zone of what everybody else has been doing for 30 years. And you’re gonna have to defend that. I tell you having a methodology that you’re using to test your hypothesis and prove out your hunches, that will go a long, long way to convincing other people to hop on board, especially your CEOs and other folks that wanna know that you’re not squandering time and money and resources on a hunch. 


But this is really hard. It’s hard to be different, because sometimes being different makes you look crazy, right? It’s not always sexy, glam different. Sometimes you’re doing something that maybe fails. Sometimes you’re doing something that isn’t perfect, and you’ve gotta be comfortable enough with that and humble enough with that to say, yeah, I’ll take the heat. Because in pursuit of excellence, in pursuit of the trailblazing, is gonna come the mistakes, is gonna come the visibility that you are standing out from the crowd.


So to have the fortitude to say, I’m gonna keep on keeping on, in a way that has a methodology behind it. In a way where I’m really thinking like a scientist and I’m being very deliberate about my moves, that’s how you’re gonna get to where you’re going. Don’t cave to the peer pressure. Don’t cave to who’s getting the attention at the moment on LinkedIn or at the conference, or whose website earned an award. Brush that off and stay focused on your journey. Stay focused on your testing. Stay focused on your results, because that’s the path to getting answers that other people aren’t already getting. And I know that this is tough, because it’s not just us getting distracted. You know, our CEOs go to a conference and they come back and hand you a pile of papers or a stack of emails that says, look at these, look at this website that won an award, our should look more like this. 


Well, yeah, but you actually run like a speed test on that website and it sucks wind. And that’s not a good performing website, but it looks pretty, right? You’ve gotta help your team members, including those that might be above you in the food chain, or parallel to in the food chain, help them understand that we’re not gonna be overly concerned about what everybody else is doing, right? And help them get their thick skin and feel confident about the fact that we’re pursuing a trail that hasn’t already been blazed for us, because we’re not wanting to be just the best of the pack. We wanna break from the pack and be truly excellent in a way that has never existed on this planet before. And if they can buy into that and you can have a good structure and strategy, you have your thick skin of armor on, and you’re humble enough to say when things aren’t working, even if it’s visible and very public, and you just keep staying true to this idea of I’m challenging the rule book, and I’m gonna go pursue my own way to excellence, that is gonna take you some place different. And senior living is so, so, so desperate for people to help us see new places we can go. All of us who have worked in this industry have to remember that in the absolute best markets across the country, we are only truly persuading 10% of age and income qualified people to move into any senior living community.


Let’s get real about that. As great as we all think that we are, how great can we really feel knowing that 90% of the people who could afford it, and who are in the right age range will never. Our jobs are not done. The rule book and the playbook of 30 years ago that’s still being pedaled around our industry is not going to help us win a bigger margin of that population. To do that, we have to break from it. And being willing to challenge that status quo, being willing to think like a scientist and get out of some of the baked in, impulsive decision making without measurement that we’re so prone to in senior living, and putting on that coat of armor, making sure that we can stand the heat when our experiments don’t go our way or when other people question us, or when we start to look different and stand out than other people and get a little uncomfortable doing that, that’s gonna be a way that we win.


So, I love the senior living industry, and I’m grateful for all the years that I’ve had and all the experiences and all the leaders and all of the wonderful, wonderful lessons. But this year into next year has to be a pivot point for all of us, to really start to let go of all that comfort zone of all that knowledge and experience we think we have, and go branch out and do something that nobody else has ever done. And I hope that in a small way, the conversations we’ve had via this podcast and the way that we’re debating each other now together, that that is a start to where we need to be. 


So again, I wanna thank you for listening, and I wanna thank the Bridge The Gap podcast for this great opportunity. This has been another, and the last, episode of the Christy Cunningham Sales and Marketing Contributor Wednesday Show. I hope everybody has a great finish to the year, and a fantastic 2022. Take care.

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CW 83: Christy Cunningham