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My First Calls: A Lesson in Learning

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Prior to starting my senior living career journey many years ago, I spent time working for the American Cancer Society at the National Cancer Information Center in Austin, Texas.

I was in my early 20’s, knew nothing about how to help families affected by cancer and the focus of my entire job was going to be fielding phone calls from people impacted by a cancer diagnosis. To say I was mildly terrified to take my first phone calls is not an exaggeration!

I didn’t know it at the time, but that work experience was going to have many parallels to working with families in senior living and it prepared me with a foundation that I think could be – and should be – mirrored in senior living sales.

Here are the four lessons that stand out to me…

Onboarding Systems are a Must Have

Prior to taking any calls at the cancer information center, I had to undergo hours of training, and demonstrate competency through testing and role play. By the time I took my first call, I had listened to dozens of recorded inquiry calls and shadowed live ones. While I was nervous to begin taking my first calls, I felt well-prepared and ready to dive in.

Take a moment and think about our onboarding processes in senior living sales. Are we setting everyone up for success? Does sales onboarding reflect the real life situations someone is going to face on day one? Are we giving people the tools to be successful?

A strong onboarding process should include proactive content that prepares sales professionals for a day in the life of their role: product or service training, clinical education for a non-clinical role and common consumer scenarios practice are great examples.

Tackle Emotion Head On (Yours and Theirs!)

For me, one of the hardest parts about working with families affected by cancer was being able to handle my own emotions and what to do when I was faced with someone else’s emotion. The stories I would hear on a regular basis would be heart-breaking, but the people calling weren’t looking for my sympathy. They wanted someone to listen and someone to help guide them. They needed help.

Many times, callers would exhibit the full range of emotion: some would have a hard time opening up and were very guarded, some were angry and some were just shell-shocked or completely frustrated. Everyone was calling for the same reason but no call was ever the same. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

We talk a lot about empathy in senior living sales, which always gains general agreement. I’ve yet to hear someone in sales training object to being empathetic! But what does that mean? How does it come to life in our sales process? How can we do better to prepare sales professionals for facing emotional situations and challenges?

A frequent comment heard in sales training is “I’m a little worried about asking questions that personal…”. Often times, this fear of asking questions becomes an obstacle to growing one of the most important skills in senior living sales: the ability to build a trusting relationship

Be Passionate about the Problem

It is easy and simple to say the American Cancer Society cares about people impacted by cancer. At the information center, we had to go beyond the surface level and provide real-time support and resources to individuals. This meant as an organization, the American Cancer Society had to understand the real struggles and pain points people experienced – both the individuals calling and those working at the center.

In order to help be part of the solution, they became passionate about the problems everyday people faced, and they built a tremendous amount of resources and content that addressed those concerns.

Do we really do this in senior living? Are we passionate about the problems our prospective residents and their families face? Think for a moment about the most difficult points in the senior living sales process and at what point families get stuck. Could we improve our sales education and processes to include teaching adult children how to help their parents? There is a world of opportunity here to differentiate our communities by looking at how we help and support the very consumers we are trying to attract.

Foster a culture of learning

I was excited to begin taking calls, and it was so rewarding to begin trying to do my best to help at the information center. That excitement turned to panic as soon as I realized that all of my calls were being recorded and on a regular basis, I was going to be required to…to…listen to myself!!! The horror!

It was an important part of the ongoing training and coaching process, and the leadership team took it seriously. There were office spaces reserved with headsets and audio set up so you could walk in, put on the headphones and replay your own calls in a quiet spot. I remember how nervous I felt the first time my supervisor asked me to listen to a call. I convinced myself this meant I had done poorly – surely the only reason they would put me through that would be because I did a terrible job. I was so wrong.

They were doing it because they understood I would learn more from listening to myself and identifying what I did well and what I could improve on for next time. It made me stronger, it expedited my learning and created a culture where it was okay to make mistakes.

Now, let’s look at senior living. Calls are rarely recorded, and if they are, they are buried in call tracking database and never see the light of day. Most people never hear their own calls with real prospective families. Could you imagine what would happen if we began taking a similar approach, like what I described above?

The position I held at the American Cancer Society paid me a salary of $23,000 per year. That’s it. Yet, they invested more in training, coaching and ongoing education than any organization I have ever worked for since.

I’m grateful for all the experiences I’ve had, and I feel lucky to be part of this unique world of senior living sales. I want to be part of changing it for the better.

What about you?

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