Seniors Housing Operators See Rapid Rise in Online Leads and Universal Workers, Say InterFace Panelists

by Jeff Shaw

ATLANTA — Property managers rely on various tools and methods to boost occupancy at their seniors housing facilities. One common avenue is for operators to have reliable online lead generators that connect their sales teams to potential residents and their families.

Digital platforms in the seniors housing space like A Place for Mom and Grow Your Occupancy are churning out such leads for sales teams, and operators are saying that it’s a double-edged sword because they are coming in at a rapid clip.

“We love the leads but we have one salesperson per community typically,” said Don Bishop, CEO of Tallahassee, Fla.-based SRI Management. “The response time is important. Some leads take a long time to prospect and work through the system. Having too many leads is a good challenge, but it is a challenge.”

Bishop’s comments came during the operations panel at the ninth annual InterFace Seniors Housing Southeast, a networking and information conference hosted by France Media’s InterFace Conference Group and Seniors Housing Business. The event was held Wednesday, Aug. 17 at the Westin Buckhead hotel in Atlanta and drew 324 attendees.

Pilar Carvajal, founder and CEO of Innovation Senior Living, said that her firm has been discussing creative ways to “offload the workload” for its staffers when it comes to the wave of digital leads the company receives.

“We’re looking at call centers to be able to deal with the leads that are coming in digitally, as well as the referral sources, and incorporating chat boxes on our website,” said Carvajal. “We do want to respond to all leads, but it’s taking a lot of time.”

Responding to each lead generated is important to property managers to maximize occupancy, and thus increase revenue for all stakeholders. Bishop added that the seniors housing industry at its core is about caregiving for the elderly, and when one senior citizen or family member reaches out, it’s only humane to circle back.

“When people don’t respond back, it devalues that person,” said Bishop. “If someone is willing to connect with us, whether it’s digitally or a phone call or a drop-by, we owe it to them to call them back, which demonstrates the value that we have for that person.”

One issue that panelists discussed was how reliant the industry has gotten on digital leads since the COVID-19 outbreak in early 2020. David Adams, president of TerraBella Senior Living, said that operators have forgotten how to do the basic blocking and tackling of generating leads and building relationships themselves.

In addition to this overreliance, sometimes friction occurs when a referral source and the property management office don’t see eye to eye. Chris Sides, president and CEO of Senior Solutions Management Group, told an anecdote during the panel about a lead source that decided to litigate against his firm. The referral company contended that it wasn’t compensated for a resident it brought into the facility.

“They came after us pretty strong,” said Sides. “They got really aggressive on what they thought they were owed. But it was through a previous owner, and we never signed the contract or found the existence of one.”

The ‘Universal Worker’

A major theme of this year’s operations discussion was how property managers are recruiting and retaining their staffers. The panelists talked about compensation, incentives and training methodology.

Lisa Lacy, senior vice president of human resources at Discovery Senior Living, said that her firm and others are laser-focused on their onboarding processes as those first few months are proving to be critical.

“We’ve expanded our onboarding to really try and get that person trained and well-engaged right away, and we’ve really honed in on the first 90 days because that’s when the majority of our turnover happens,” said Lacy.

“Before they start, our executive directors send a personalized video to the new hire to draw that relationship right away. It’s an expanded orientation, and there’s been a little resistance because our department leaders want that person out on the floor right away,” she explained.

The operations panel occured at the ninth-annual InterFace Seniors Housing Southeast, a networking and information conference hosted by France Media’s InterFace Conference Group and Seniors Housing Business. The event was held Wednesday, Aug. 17 at the Westin Buckhead hotel in Atlanta.

Lacy and other panelists said recruiting and retention is treated as high a priority as sales now for property managers.

John Lariccia, CEO and founder of WelcomeHome Software, moderated the operations panel and brought up the concept of the “universal worker,” which is defined as workers who are cross-trained in various departments and work in different capacities, sometimes within a given shift.

“We’ve used [universal workers] for employees who couldn’t work on a traditional schedule but are great teammates,” said Bishop. “So we said, ‘Well, you can do four hours of dietary and then three hours of housekeeping.’ This is how the schedule is going to work, and we’ve been able to retain the employee by being flexible. We’ve had to do that because turnover is an issue.”

Carvajal said that universal workers are a key component behind the successful operations at Innovation Senior Living.

“It’s been a necessity, but we’ve happened upon the universal worker as what we do at all our communities,” said Carvajal. “It allows for a career for an individual. The resident care aide is delivering resident care as well as assisting with housekeeping and serving food. And they get a real bird’s eye view into a lot more departments than typical.”

Carvajal added that universal workers are also vital because they have insight into the day-to-day life of the residents and can speak to how a senior is sleeping and behaving if a problem were to arise.

“There is a lot of accountability that we can rely on as a result of universal workers,” said Carvajal.

Bishop added that he’s seen universal workers used more at memory care facilities because there’s been some pushback from residents at assisted living and independent living facilities.

“What we’ve seen in the past is residents say ‘Wait, you just helped me in my room, and now you’re helping me in the dining room? I don’t like that,’” said Bishop.

The panelists all said that it’s been a grind to attract and retain talent, as well as bringing in new residents. Sides said that Senior Solutions has simplified its operations approach. He said the firm has five tenets that, if followed, guarantee success for operators, owners and residents alike.

“Keep the community clean and provide consistent care. On top of that, serve good food, keep the community safe and keep the residents active,” said Sides. “We’ve never had a day where we did all five flawlessly, so until we do, we don’t need to look outside of those goals.”

— John Nelson

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