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CW Ep. 40: Christy Cunningham

What if we did something different? If you find yourself contemplating why things are the way they are in senior living sales and marketing, come join the tribe! In this episode, Christy Cunningham opens the door for debate on a couple “sacred cow” strategic beliefs and asks – Is there a better way?


Welcome to Contributor Wednesday on Bridge The Gap network. In this series, you’ll hear from thought leaders on a variety of topics, dedicated to inform, educate, and influence the senior living industry.

Welcome to Bridge The Gap Contributor Wednesday, I’m Christy Cunningham. And guess what guys, we made it! It is the last week of the month. Woohoo. Which means it is sales and marketing week here at Bridge The Gap. This is also a birthday week for me and to reign in a trip around the sun, we’re going to shake things up a bit. Today’s episode is meant to be a little bit provocative. I want to spark some debate, it’s time I think, and this is going to be fun. So in today’s episode, we’re going to talk about a couple of sacred cows. Meaning a couple of things in senior living sales and marketing that you don’t dare question because you kind of feel a little silly doing it. There are some rules that are very entrenched that you feel funny, you know, saying, well, I don’t think that that rule is true anymore. Especially in the face of, you know, consultants and leaders who have been out there doing things for a lot of years and have a lot of experience dating back into like the nineties and beyond… way longer than I’ve been in senior living.

It can be a little uncomfortable. So I’m putting some discomfort out there because I want to spark the discussion. I want to spark the discomfort, or I want to ignite those of you out there who have been walking around thinking, “gosh, why do we do things this way?” I want you to find a tribe with me and let’s play with some of these rules and really evolve where we are in today’s sales and marketing world. So that’s what today’s episode is supposed to spark. And it was really inspired by the senior care sales and marketing summit in 2020. Which if you guys don’t know about that conference, it’s called smash. So you might know it by that name. I’m still surprised by the people who don’t know of smash. It’s fantastic. If you’re a sales and marketing person in senior living, definitely look into that conference.

But this last year I was a part of a discussion group that fell a little bit flat, I’ll be honest. We were all a little, maybe tired or not prepared for the discussion to talk about what metrics, you know, should we be challenging in senior living. And I walked away from that session and the conference being really vigilant about what are these norms, what are the sacred cows that we should be challenging more? And that just seems so normal, we don’t even think about there being an alternate reality, right? And there’ve been two that have just repetitively come up over and over and over and over again that we’re going to dive into. One is the performance expectations in sales. And the second is business development and what business development really should look like. Both of those things have been in as far as I can observe very impacted by the changes we’ve experienced as an industry with where our leads are coming from today versus where they were coming from 20 years ago when the rule books on these topics were created. And the customer experience, the expectation, the way that people want to connect with us, and the timing that that requires to be really successful, it’s all so different today than it was 20 years ago.

Our professional referral sources have different expectations too. The days of just having a signature treat and prancing around our cities, handing them out, have kind of passed us by and we need to evolve if we want to get better and stay better in today’s market. So we’re going to talk about those two things today. Buckle up, let’s dive in. All right. So the first sacred cow we’re going to dive into are over-generalized performance metrics. So what do I mean by that? I mean, anyone who tells you a hard and fast rule for what inquiry-to-tour should be, or tour-to-move-in should be, or how many move-ins senior living communities should be getting, and then they try to apply that to your building and your situation. That’s a red flag for me in today’s environment, right? There are many metrics that I’ve heard for years and years and years, people just repeating and I’ve been one of them.

I can raise my hand that through periods of my career, I had been indoctrinated into, you know, a 60% inquiry-to-tour, a 30% toward a move-in, and a four move-in per month expectation for the sales team that that’s performance. Right? And I was so bought into that definition of performance that I was out there, just peddling it, driving people to it, believing, truly believing that that was normal. That was normal performance, that that’s what everybody else was doing. And if you weren’t hitting that, then there was something wrong with you and, and your skills and behavior. And we needed to dig in and figure out what that was. And some of the thrust of that, you know, having benchmarks and being able to have kind of a generalized idea of what is normal that’s healthy. What I think has happened though, is that there’s so much variance in today’s world, between, you know, lots of different types of communities and market situations, and we haven’t become more agile with those benchmarks.

In some cases, we’ve still continued to say over and over again, the same numbers that we were saying 15 years ago, 20 years ago, before I was ever around, probably even longer. I don’t know those of you who have been around the industry for a long time, might remember these numbers from way back when. And I think that’s what’s become unhealthy, is that we’ve prescribed benchmarks from 20 years ago to performance today. And then it becomes very troublesome in how we build our strategies. When your strategies are built on flawed assumptions, flawed benchmarks, maybe, then how achievable is it going to be to reach the goals that you want to reach through that strategy? That might be a challenge. It affects us with our talent, right? We create these outlandish expectations or what feels outlandish under today’s circumstances.

And then we blame the salesperson sitting in the seat when those expectations aren’t met. And I’ve personally had the experience of talking with leaders who have been long time, you know, folks in the industry who remember the birth of some of those metrics. One, in particular, told me that, “Hey, I made up the four move-in per month rule because we were averaging somewhere between two and three move-ins per month, kind of at a wide level and in the division. And I wanted to push us, I wanted to stretch us. So I created the four move in expectation, and I wanted people to really be kind of scared, striving for that.” And then what happened was that was a part of a larger organization who decided, “Hey, look, they had some positive lift in their performance. Let’s everyone adapt a four move-in per month expectation and see if we can drive performance everywhere that way.”

And the result, I think, has been a lot of salespeople who were discouraged in their performance or who were, you know, PIPT performance improvement planned out of their roles or who left because it just didn’t make any sense. There wasn’t a realistic expectation behind those benchmarks. So I’m not saying that any particular number, I want it for the record, not saying that any particular number, whether you’re striving for that 60%, 75% inquiry-to-tour, or the 30% tour-to-move in, if that’s you and that fits you and your strategy and what’s possible and achievable for your community, then good on you. If the number four move-ins is the right number for your community, then fantastic. The problem that I’m trying to point out here is when we’re over-generalizing those things. When we turn what might be true for a particular set of communities and decide that we’re going to prescribe that across everyone. Or when we’re talking normal, you know, what was normal performance maybe 20 years ago, and trying to assign that to today’s world.

That’s what I think we need to challenge. And what we have today that we haven’t had all of these years is we have actual data, right? We have actual data. Our CRMs today are much more sophisticated. Our data is more complete. We’re not necessarily relying all the time on our sales team, manually entering every lead. So we can really see more transparently what actually happens and what performance actually looks like when you remove the human element, a little out of it. And, you know, shout out to the Enquire CRM in particular, who I know is a sponsor of Bridge The Gap and who do great work, but for years now, they’ve been publishing industry benchmark reports based on data that they collect through the years that if you haven’t downloaded. Guys, go to their website, I’m going to actually link to it in the podcast because it is phenomenal.

I don’t see the 2020 benchmark report out yet. It’s probably coming, but the 2019 benchmark report is out and it breaks it down by different care levels, different community types. You know, whether your rental, you’re a life plan community, they do a really great job. And when you look at the actual data, you can see that inquiry-to-tour conversions are much lower than what the old school rule said that it should be. The old school rule said it should be like 50-60%. And there are still people peddling that number as being the number you should be reaching. The average is actually somewhere in the thirties based on that benchmarking data. And when you check yourself against those benchmarks or check your beliefs against what’s actually happening, you start to see, wait, maybe things are a little bit different. Maybe there’s a different way to perform than just by banging on people to hit these unrealistic expectations.

It poses some challenges to those in the C-suite and those at, you know, regional or management-level positions because we have to be more thoughtful. We’ve got to be more creative with our expectations, as opposed to just rattling off a standard number and blanketing that across everything, we’ve got to dig in just a little bit deeper and maybe find other ways to get to performance that might be a little more specific to different markets and locations, and, you know, try to culminate that into overall performance. So it poses some challenges for us, but it really offers a totally different idea of what we actually need to be focusing on. So I throw out this idea of over-generalized or grossly generalized metrics in saying for anyone that’s still peddling those around are still claiming to have the answer, that it’s time to retire that.

It’s time to retire the idea that there is a hard and fast rule because there just isn’t anymore. And we need to accept that. And especially the rules that were made up way back when they don’t really apply to today. Right? So inquiry-to-tour in particular, I think is one that I see, being the most dramatically impacted. And that really has to do with the fact that our market sources are just different. You know, the volume of leads that we’re getting from say digital sources is very different than what we ever had received before. The overall volume, the total volume of leads that we’re driving into our buildings, is also different than what we’ve seen before. So of course, that inquiry-to-tour conversion is going to be affected. And that shouldn’t be something that we throw shame at our sales team for not being able to hit some random number.

And it’s also something on the marketing side guys that we need to be a little more accountable to. Is that, Hey, we’ve got a lot of different market sources, they each perform very differently and not all inquiries are created equal for our sales teams, right? So you should know, what your conversion rates are on each of your market sources. Like how many of those inquiries convert to tours? How many of them are lost closed? And you should be at, at like a corporate marketing level, really in tune with your own performance in that way. And, you know, really trying to help those sales teams, get the best leads that they can. The next sacred cow is business development. And this idea, again, that, you know, I’ve, I’ve seen and heard and been a part of cultures that have a rule book that say, “Hey, a salesperson in the building, you need to be spending 50% of your time or 60% of your time out of the building doing business development, hitting the pavement.”

And when I look back on the performance, now, when I look at the actual results that I’ve seen in buildings all across the country over all of the years that I’ve been traveling, what kind of stands out to me, is that for a while now, we haven’t really been getting great business development results in a lot of places. Granted, there have been a few that have just really done a great job, and they’re really filling their buildings with, you know, through their business development efforts, and kudos to them. But there are a lot of places, but that’s just less and less true. It’s just not working like it was. And the mindset has been well, we just need to train harder. We just need to do it better, have a better strategy. And, and you know, maybe some of that is true, but what if, what if we are a little over-focused on business development?

What if 50% of the time out of the building is actually too much? Like what if we could be getting the same results that we’re getting in our business development efforts today, by spending, by sending our salespeople out of the building for less time than that? Like, what if, what if they were just allowed to go out to work their plan, you know, and that it’s a focused, maybe even a little modest plan that’s really built around, where am I going to get the return on the time that I spend out meeting with professionals and building relationships and generating referrals? What if we gave permission for it to not be such an intense part of their days? In a lot of places, I really wonder if we would be getting the same results that we’re getting today if our sales teams were spending maybe just a few hours a week out of the building. Versus, you know, their EDS, those of you out there, you know, the plight of trying to push your salesperson out the door to get them out, to go do their business development. Or the regionals that are having to harp on business development and how much time. We also spend a lot of money, in some cases on goodies and treats and drive buys and, all kinds of very creative, business-to-business events.

But I’m not sure that those really are doing as much for us as we think they are. You know, our sales teams, at least those that I have often felt like they don’t really have enough to do to fill the time that they’re supposed to be out of the building. You know, whatever the rule book is that they’re working with. And so they don’t want to go out of the building because they, meanwhile, while they’re out of the building, have new leads that are coming in, that they need to, to jump on. They’ve got databases of hundreds, if not thousands of people who they need to stay on top of. They’ve gotten the fresh tours and hot leads that they are really engaged with and really trying to invest their time in. And then business development literally pulls them away from that. And we can try to give them technologies, like apps or, even just email notifications, right?

Where they can just respond to inquiries while they’re out and about. And we’ve just told them, “Oh yeah, you know, you can, you can keep your toe in the water with what’s happening inside your community while you’re out doing your business development.” But ultimately that’s not true. Ultimately, they’re not very good at multitasking all of that at the same time. And if the risk is that in the pursuit of achieving X number of hours or X number of sales calls, that might’ve been sort of arbitrarily set for them, if the risk is that while they’re doing that, they’re missing on the opportunities that have already been delivered to them, right? That they’re squandering the marketing dollars that have already been spent to generate the web inquiries or the walk-ins or the advertising inquiries, the word of mouth inquiries, squandering that experience so that they can go out and just fill their time.

I don’t know that just doesn’t seem all that smart anymore. And because the volume in many places, and I know that during COVID, this is not as true as it is under normal conditions, but I’m optimistic guys that we’re going to get back to more of a normal place. I think we’re already seeing that in a lot of places, some, some pickup in inquiries that our volume of new business and existing business is so high that, and everything is coming through the same place everything’s coming through that salesperson. So that person needs to be so focused on delivering the best experience. We complain about them not doing that a lot, you know, not sticking to the frequency of touches for new inquiries or being as swift to respond to new inquiries, yet we’ve kind of tethered to them beliefs that like they have to be out of their building for X number of hours or for X number of sales calls.

Not because it’s necessarily giving them actual results, but because we think that that’s what it takes to get results. And I’m just not sure that in today’s world, that that’s true anymore. Like it once was. And I’ve seen a lot of communities that have been willing to not put the emphasis on business development have been, have been a little more muted. They’ve been strategic. They haven’t necessarily been absent, not advocating for absence in the marketplace, but they’ve just been conservative. They’ve been focused. If I’m going to be out of the building, and if I’m going to risk missing opportunities that are happening in the building, then it’s gotta be for good reason. It’s gotta be because I’m actually getting a return on that. So when you think about, the salesperson and what you know their salary is, and you imagine that, Hey, we’re telling them, Hey, 50% of your time needs to be spent outside of the building.

We’re saying, okay, half your salary we’re investing at plus whatever additional spend you’ve allocated in your budget for them to use on their goodies and little business to business events and that kind of stuff like you’re putting all of that in a pot. You’re saying, okay, we’re investing, I don’t know, $30,000 a year, maybe more, maybe a little less, depending on where you are in business development. And then you think about, well, how many referrals am I actually getting that are converting to move-ins, that are directly tied to my business development efforts? And you think like, does it justify that spend? Does it justify that spend? And I’m not just saying like, can I cover the spend? But a real ROI, like you want to see a return beyond what was spent, right. I should be seeing multipliers of what I invested into something versus what I’m getting out of something.

And I’ve looked at some old reports that I’ve had from my years. And when I look at it through this lens, I just, I actually don’t know that I really was getting the ROI when I put it in that context. So I introduced this topic to sort of spark debate. I know that there are folks who are supreme business development people and who are very successful at this. And they might work for the right level of care, in the right market, in just the right situation that they’re finding a lot of success. So I definitely want to hear from you guys, if you think anything’s changed. But also, you know, what about the other communities? What about the other communities that aren’t finding success? You know, who’s professional referral sources that have been tried and true for years and years and years won’t even let them in the door, because there are so many competitors, not just even senior living providers, but people who are competing for that referral sources time that are knocking on their door or calling on their phones or trying to get them on webinars.

They can’t even get in the doors anymore. And guys, I get it. There’s a creative strategy for everything. And maybe that works once out of every five or 10 times. I don’t know you tell me. But I wonder how hard we’re going to push this rock uphill before we realize that maybe the better path looks a little different. Maybe we can strategize differently and budget our time differently and achieve even better results. Particularly when the movement of our customers and their behavior is going more and more online, right? They might get a list from the social worker true, but they’re ultimately substantiating that list with what they find online. They might even be converting online as opposed to calling you off of the list that they received from the social worker and are articulating that that’s exactly where they heard from you.

So when there’s so much being cultivated via other market sources, like, I’ll use digital marketing as a key example. And we’re spending a lot of money. There’s a lot of energy and resources going into making those mediums successful, yet we’re not properly working those leads. We’re not managing those leads very well over time. You know, the argument has been made, “Well, that’s why you focus on your business development or that’s why you focus on trying to get those professional referrals because they convert after they’ve inquired, they convert at such a high rate compared to other market sources, that that’s where you, you know, should be focused.” But if ultimately, yeah, I mean, you, you get three professional referral sources and one of them moves in or you get three professional referrals, sorry. And one of them moves in then yeah, then that’s a 30% closing rate on that market source, but you only got one move in.

Right? So like going out and getting to get two move-ins, you have to get six referrals where that conversion rate is really high. And I see that argument, the output of it can be really minuscule. And then when you compare that to other lead sources that you might be getting 50 or 60 leads per month, and the argument is, well, we’re only converting that at like a 3% or 5% conversion rate. It’s like, yeah, but we have like 50 swings at-bat here or 60 swings at-bat here. How can we optimize that better? You know, is there other opportunities there that we’re missing to be better salespeople to be better integrated with our marketing departments to have better marketing? That’s integrated with our sales departments? Like what other opportunities are we missing? Anyway, I’m starting to ramble. And I think it’s because I’m in a room by myself and I need people to debate me.

So without further ado, I’m going to cut this off. But I’ve introduced a couple of topics that as you can tell are not fully formed ideas yet. They’re questions. They are, you know, maybe silly, but maybe this leads to some breakthroughs that we need, to confirm what we choose to bring forward in the years to come in our performance and in our sales and marketing efforts versus the ones that we let go. And maybe this isn’t industry-wide, maybe it’s just in your community or in your region or in your company, that you look at things a little different and you see a different path, right? Or you question your reality a little bit more and confirm what you’re doing is exactly what you should be doing, or maybe challenge you to pivot into something else who knows. So with that, thanks for listening to this week’s BTG Contributor Wednesday, please connect with me at BTGvoice.com.

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CW Ep. 40: Christy Cunningham