Mike Peacock: This episode of Cosmic Soup is brought to you by the Community Coach at 3rdPlus, a vision-driven company with the raison d’etre to make aging better by supporting senior living communities like yours.
Mike: Welcome back, Cosmonauts, to another delicious episode of Cosmic Soup. Today’s topic is super cool because we’re talking about selling potential. So, if you’ve been dreaming about expanding your community or upgrading an area of your campus but you need the revenue and financing to make it happen, well, today’s show on Blue Sky Selling is custom-made just for you.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “But, Mike, this Blue Sky Selling has me all kinds of stupefied. I’m freaking out over here. I don’t even know where to start.”
Well, friends, that’s where we come in. It just so happens that our very own VP of sales and marketing Don Warfield is here today. He’s going to blow your mind with his next-level expertise on this topic.
Of course, the Soup just wouldn’t be the Soup without our very own captain of the cosmos, Cynthia Thurlow. So, we canceled all of her appointments and Zoom calls today and tricked her into hanging out with us.
Hey, Don. Hey, Cynthia. Welcome back to the show. Thanks for joining me in the Soup today.
Don Warfield: Great to be back with you, Mike.
Cynthia Thurlow: I love being in the Soup.
Mike: [Laughter] Awesome. Well, this is a really cool subject that I’m excited to talk to you about, Don: Blue Sky Welling. Before we jump into the meat and potatoes of Blue Sky Selling, just give the listeners a little bit of background about yourself.
Don: I’m happy to do so, and it is an exciting topic because my background is all about sales, about 34+ years now. Hard to believe because I’m such a young guy.
Don: I’ve been selling and marketing. Most recently, almost coming up on a year that I joined Cynthia, you, and the team at 3rdThird Marketing. But prior to that, I was in sales at three different senior living communities.
In the last two, I was the director of sales and marketing and went through two forms of Blue Sky Selling there, so I’m excited about this topic. I live and breathe sales all the time, so it’s great to be back in the Soup with you.
Mike: Yeah, and you are a strapping young buck.
Don: Thank you, Mike.
Mike: And so, your vastly expansive sales experience, it’s shocking when people look at you, I’m sure.
Don: [Laughter] It is. I go into communities and they say, “You give us great advice, Don, but when are you moving in, because we know you’re qualified?”
Mike: Hey, well, you know you’ve got to be a product of the product, right?
Mike: And, of course, Cynthia, as always, the pilot of the mothership, good to have you here as well.
Cynthia: It’s good to be here. I’m very excited to hear Don talking about Blue Sky Selling because it’s a very cool thing that works.
Mike: Yeah. Well then, with that being said, let’s just dive on in. What do you say, Don? What is Blue Sky Selling and why do you love it so much, because clearly you do?
Don: Yes, I do. I do, and that’s a great question because there are a lot of folks out there that think they have an understanding of the concept of Blue Sky Selling, and they just don’t. When we talk about Blue Sky Selling, at least within the senior living industry, we’re talking about marketing and selling something that does not yet exist. I say it could be tangible or intangible because we may be Blue Sky Selling a service in the future that’s intangible; it’s not there.
But when you look at it, Mike, we’re really focused on three aspects of Blue Sky Selling, two of these which I’m very familiar with because I just recently went through them.
• One is the repositioning of an outdated community, so that could be one form of Blue Sky Selling.
• Another could be an expansion project. My last community, we expanded the community and we went through a Blue Sky Selling process to do so.
• Then there’s from the ground up, a new community, a new community that does not exist, or maybe it’s a part of a larger community but it’s on a different property, so it’s brand new from the ground up.
These are all Blue Sky Selling programs that really are unlimited in scope. It’s really about thinking outside the box, which is one reason – to answer your question, “Why do you love it?” – because there’s so much great potential and you’ve got to be able to sell that potential without having something in your hands to show or have something there to touch.
Marketing and selling a future brand and lifestyle, it’s a vision. That’s what Blue Sky Selling is all about.
At the same time, you’re also selling the current when you’re focused on selling the future. In sales, if I’m in a community and we’re talking about Blue Sky Selling, I’m getting pretty excited because not only can I sell the current, but I can sell the future. For sales, it doesn’t get much better than that, and that’s what I really love about Blue Sky Selling.
Mike: Right on, and I’m guessing that because Cynthia is here today, there must be some kind of a heavy reliance on an epic marketing strategy in order to pull off a successful Blue Sky Selling campaign. Am I right?
Don: Oh, absolutely a marketing component to Blue Sky Selling.
Don: What really amazes me is how many community operators or developers don’t recognize the importance of the marketing component and the strategic messaging that must be developed prior to selling. Unfortunately, Mike, what happens is we often see today developers creating these incredible, beautiful buildings or these new communities, and their philosophy is that if we build it, they will come. It sounds like a movie we’re all familiar with.
Mike: Yeah, right. [Laughter]
Don: Right. If we build it, they will come. That is a philosophy of failure in modern elder living today. It just won’t happen.
Marketing and sales must work hand-in-hand for any type of Blue Sky Selling. If you ask me what the magic formula is for this process, I believe it really boils down to marketing and sales having the marketplace intel.
How do you get that marketplace intel? You’ve got to do your research. You’ve got to conduct focus groups. You’ve got to do competitive analysis to ensure the greatest potential for success while reducing financial risk as much as possible.
I can’t stress enough you have to know what the market wants. If you don’t know what the market wants, your process of Blue Sky Selling is going to be tough to do. So, you need to appeal to today’s boomers and understand what they want.
Last, but not least – and I’m going to have Cynthia obviously jump in here because I don’t want to do all the talking, Mike, but I am in sales after all—
Don: Salespeople are on the frontlines. Since we’re on the frontlines, it’s critical that the sales understand the market demands and, in doing so, works with the marketing genius like Cynthia out there to develop a marketing message that drives interest and qualified Blue Sky leads. They have to know what’s going on in the marketplace. They have to take that intel and work hand-in-hand with marketing.
Cynthia, I think this is a great opportunity for you to jump in here and give your thoughts on the marketing side of Blue Sky Selling.
Cynthia: Thank you, Don. Yeah, we love developing marketing for Blue Sky Selling because it’s fun, it’s exciting to sell the future, and it’s really cool. For any kind of resident (independent living or assisted or even memory care, really) sometimes there are those prospects out there. They’re not ready yet. They don’t want to buy yet. Maybe they are ready and they should buy, but they’re not actively doing it.
Blue Sky Selling to that audience is easy because they feel like, “Okay, this is safe. I’m just checking it out. Maybe I will. Maybe I won’t.” Then it gets them in front of the sales team to help them see their future.
In Blue Sky Selling, we’re always moving people towards something. in other words, we’re not moving them away from something like, “I have to give up my house. It’s sad. I don’t want to do it,” versus “Wow. I’m moving toward this really cool community, this beautiful setting, these awesome neighbors,” so the tone of it is really fun to develop, and it’s a key piece of selling the whole community.
For instance, in life plan communities, I know from experience when we’re marking, Blue Sky Selling marketing a piece of the community, all of the community starts filling up faster. That means all levels of care.
We recently had an example in Orange County where we created a brand, a memory care brand that was truly retail, consumer, beautiful community. We branded it around outdoors and gardening. When we were preselling that, Blue Sky Selling that community, everything got a lift: their independent, assisted, and skilled.
Anyway, it’s very fun to sell the future.
Mike: I love that, “Selling the future.” I think I’ve said that a few times. Every time that phrase pops up in language, I’m just like, “That’s just so cool, selling the future.”
That’s a really, really cool concept. Now that we’ve identified what Blue Sky Selling is and kind of how the marketing behind it has to go hand-in-hand with that, Don, what are some of your top tips and tricks on how to successfully execute Blue Sky Selling?
Don: Absolutely. What I’ll share, I’ll stay to the sales side and let Cynthia absolutely jump in on the marketing side.
When we talk about some of the things you can do and these tips and tricks, they should be two-form. Many of you folks listening today—hopefully, CEOs, presidents, executive directors, whoever you may be in the leadership side of a senior living community—these are going to sound very familiar, but they oftentimes get overlooked when we start getting excited about putting the Blue Sky Selling process in place. Meaning, “Let’s get going. Let’s get the remodel going. Let’s get the expansion. Let’s get the shovel in the ground.”
We have to do these things upfront and make sure they’re in place before we start. One of the first ones I always mention is, do you have the right starting lineup? I’ll use a sports analogy.
You’ve got to make sure you put the best team out front, and you’ve got to have the best team on the field at all times. You must take the time to analyze your sales team. Are they the right team in place?
Really, the proof is in the pudding. If you’re selling an expansion project or repositioning, you have the track record right there to see how they’re doing. If they’re doing well and you think that they’re the right team, then move forward.
If not, you’ve got to invest in the right team. That’s really crucial.
Another tip is, utilize your current waitlist or preferred resident club. Wow. This is a goldmine of information. If you have a long waitlist, depending on if you’ve been in business a long time or you have a preferred resident club, that’s your future audience. Go to them. They have the intel you need. Learn from them, and get them in the process early because, guess what. When you launch, they’re going to be your early adopters, your early depositors.
Another tip – you’re probably familiar with this – is SWOT analysis. Some of us may not understand what a SWOT analysis is, but it’s a strength, weakness, opportunity, and threat analysis of your community today and the future.
Really, I should move this right to the top. This might be the very first thing you do, Mike, before you even consider doing a repositioning or expansion. Do the SWOT analysis. Know about who you are and where the opportunities exist.
Get a competitive market analysis. Is there financial viability in the marketplace for what you’re planning to do? Get an outside source, someone like us to come in and give you a competitive market analysis. They’re not that expensive, but you’re doing your homework.
Another tip is to sell access to a priority list. What I mean here is this is a method of trial closing before you even launch into preconstruction sales. Selling access to a priority list can be anywhere from $100 to $500 deposit, refundable deposit.
It’s a telling sign. If you can fill up a priority list, then you know you’re doing the right thing. If you’re having a hard time selling a priority list before you launch pre-construction sales, you’re going to struggle with preconstruction sales. Sell that priority list and develop it. It’s a trial closing before you go to pre-launch.
The last one I’m going to share with you before I turn it over to the marketing genius is sales compensation must have a value attached. If you’re going to have a sales team that’s going to be required to sell the current or the future, you have to make sure there’s value in both. You don’t want them leaning too much on the old and not paying attention to the future and you don’t want them leaning too much on the future and paying attention to the old because most of these Blue Sky Selling projects require financing.
The underwriters aren’t going to give the money or the funds to fund it unless there’s a proven track record of high-level census. So, you have to have a sales compensation that pays the salespeople for doing both: taking care of the current and selling the future.
Don: It’s a lot. That’s a lot, right?
Mike: Don, you’re a wizard, my friend, with the information. Cynthia, that’s a tough act to follow, but what do you want to add to that?
Cynthia: Well, Don, I love hearing you talk about the SWOT analysis and I also love hearing you talk about research as a place to start with a repositioning or Blue Sky Selling project or even new building, new construction.
I can tell you that there have been many times that we start working on a project for a new community that is already built and we find out that there are lots of one-bedrooms that nobody wants to buy. [Laughter] So, it’s great to learn from the market first, “What should we build? What amenities do they care about? What kind of food do they want to have?” because that’s going to dictate the architectural plans of the kitchen and everything about the dining program.
Anyhoo… I like where you’re going with that.
The other thing is to sell the potential of the future and, any time anything is changing, we know that the market responds. For instance, if you have an older community, you’ve got some outdated apartments, they’re in a cluster. Maybe you’ve got some cottages freestanding that have been sitting there not selling.
You can actually micro-reposition those, Blue Sky Sell them, and add some amenities. That’s going to lift all of your censuses. That’s another, I think, tip and trick that’s easy to pull off and it’s something that can happen without a ton of financing. We’ve been helping clients with that, too.
As far as the creative goes, it has to be disruptive. Certainly, putting pictures of gray-haired people on all of your ads is not going to sell the vision of a lifestyle.
There’s nothing wrong with people with gray hair. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is, sell the potential of the lifestyle with visuals, and some disruptive visuals as well that are conceptual, big headlines, and then consistent marketing.
You’ve got to keep going at it month after month after month. It’s not something that you can turn the faucet on and turn it off and expect the leads to keep coming in. You’ve got to keep the faucet dripping.
Those are my tips.
Don: Yeah. You know what? Let me jump in there, if I could, Mike. You couldn’t have said it better.
When I see it being done, some people do it right. Some communities do it right, some don’t.
You have to really sell the sizzle here, right? You’re selling the sizzle, not the steak. You’re selling them what the potential is.
One of the analogies that I always use is like the cruise industry. When they’re advertising, they’re marketing everything that excites people to want to jump on the cruise and go out there and take the cruise. You’ve got to sell that lifestyle, that fun, that next part of what you don’t have today that you want so badly.
You cannot – and I said it earlier – you can’t go with the theory that if we build this shiny new building or reposition this old community to a shiny, remodeled community that the people are just going to show up. It just doesn’t happen.
Cynthia and I recently entertained helping a development company back in the East do exactly that. They came us a month away from opening the doors because they did not market right up-front. They did not do the pre-marketing. As a result, they were opening up the doors with maybe one or two residents committed, and you cannot operate a community that way.
You cannot fill a community that way. You can’t employ people that way, especially in today’s market where employment is kind of tough for recruiting. It’s just a recipe for failure, Mike.
I’m glad Cynthia hit on some of those marketing tips and tricks that really make a difference.
Mike: Yeah, and I also like the fact that she told you, Don, that it was okay for you to keep that gray hair.
Don: Yeah. [Laughter] It’s not going anywhere. I’m just happy to have hair, Mike.
Mike: Ha-ha. Right?
What about common mistakes, obstacles, pitfalls? I’m sure there are a ton of them, all the way from approaching it wrong or just being afraid of trying something new, Don. IN your experience, what are some of those common mistakes and pitfalls that we can help to avoid?
Don: Unfortunately, Mike, I speak from experience. Sometimes that’s the best way to learn. We just mentioned some.
From a sales standpoint, going into a project and you don’t have a development – you haven’t developed a long-term plan. You have to have a long-term plan.
One of the most recent projects I completed was a $143 million brand new high-rise tavern downtown Seattle. We started building the marketing plan two and a half years prior to even pre-sales. We really incorporated everyone in the project.
That leads me to my second point is a lack of alignment. Sometimes communities fail or struggle through Blue Sky Selling when they lack alignment. When I say alignment, I mean between the operations team, current residents, board members. There’s a lack of shared vision and, oftentimes, it becomes a battle internally.
You need to make sure the operations team is all on the same page. You need to develop (if it’s a current community) champions within the resident base. Create a liaison group of residents that are going to be a part of the planning process. For nonprofits, the board members have to be on the same page.
Here’s another one that we see happening. This one will cost you money and may stop you from getting the funding you need, which is to neglect the current while focusing on the future. Cynthia just talked about that.
Salespeople, we like to sell the new thing. We want to sell the new technology. We want to be in the forefront, but you can’t neglect the current inventory you have. You’ve got to focus on that. You’ve still got to market to that. You’ve got to renovate those. One of the best ways to make sure that you don’t make this mistake is, commit if you can, a budget to renovations that might match what you’re doing in an expansion tower, building, or a new tower.
Hire the right partners. I’ll say it again. Hire the right partners. Find true partners when you look at a consultant, an architect, the contractor and, last but not least, the marketing and sales agency, someone like us, like 3rdThird Marketing. You need to hire the right partners that understand the industry, done it before, and will be true partners. Meaning, they’re going to be with you every step of the way and they understand that.
Then last but not least, don’t embrace the future. For communities that don’t embrace the future and recognize the need for change and go at it from a piecemeal approach, Mike, it’s tougher and it’s more expensive. That was the first community – not the first community, but one of the ones I went to where we did a repositioning.
I walked into this beautiful community sitting on lakefront property, a one-of-a-kind gem. It had about 80% occupancy. But when you walked in there, it was 20 to 25 years behind the marketplace. To embrace the future allows us not to fall 20 to 25 years behind because all know, when you play catch-up, it costs you more than staying out in front.
Those are some of the missteps people take or things to avoid. Cynthia, do you want to add to that on the marketing side?
Cynthia: Yeah. I echo the not planning two and a half to two years ahead. I see that a lot, a common mistake, especially with new developers who have not worked in the senior living space.
Not budgeting sufficiently, I see that quite a bit in the new players in the market. They need to understand how much does it cost to lease up the building and/or pre-sell the building.
The other thing that I’ve found – and I know it sounds harsh – just realize the public really doesn’t care about your building. They don’t care about you or your building.
What we have to do is give the public something of value, information they’re looking for, information that is intriguing, events and programs that build your brand, that will also attract because if you invite people, “Come and see why this community will be unprecedented,” without giving them information about the community, there’s no real reason to respond to that.
You have to make it about the prospect, what’s in it for them, so that they will act because that’s just going to make your job easier and your ROI is going to go up.
Those are my top things.
Don: I think it’s critical, Mike, too. I want to add this, too, that a lot of times you’ll see all the work being done. The consultant, the architect, the contractor, everything is in place and they’re getting ready to roll. Then it’s, “Well, okay. We’ve got to get the marketing message done. We’ve got to find someone, an agency or a partner in marketing,” which is fine, but I think that your marketing partner should be upfront, be with you at the start, and have them involved in all the focus groups, hearing what the market is saying.
Don’t come in on the tail end of it. Make the decision (you operators out there) to bring a marketing team upfront with you and start the process and walk the walk with you because when it comes to the pre-launch and the selling, you’re going to hit a home run with it that way.
Mike: Awesome. Great, great, great information. For those, Don, that are finally willing to take that leap to move into bold new territory and they’re like, “You know, Don Warfield, I’ve been listening to the stuff that you’ve been saying, and I’m ready to make this happen,” how can people get started in Blue Sky Selling? What do they need to do to actually make this happen?
Don: Well, the easiest thing they could do is reach out, connect with me, connect with us from the marketing and sales standpoint. We have a lot of incredible information.
We can do parts of it, a lot of it – from culinary to branding to marketing to sales support. We can be a consultant.
As I said earlier, the best way to get started is to get a market analysis done. Know what your market wants. Do focus groups. Get started. Then get your board members involved with it.
Reach out to us at 3rdThird Marketing. We’d love to talk to you. We’d love to share more with you about the successes we’ve had with other communities that we’re working with and some of the current communities we’re working with.
Mike: All right. Cynthia, final words.
Cynthia: Well, good luck to everybody and anybody who is embarking on this kind of an effort. It’s really fun. There’s a reliable formula to it. When you follow the process, it’ll work every single time. Good luck, and we would love to hear about your project.
Mike: There you have it, folks. Simple words of wisdom. Follow the process and it’ll work every time.
Don, Cynthia, thank you so much for hanging out today on Cosmic Soup. Always awesome to have you here. I know we’re going to talk to you again real soon.
Don: Thank you, Mike.
Cynthia: Thank you, Mike.
Mike: Thanks, as always, to all of you out there in radio land for tuning in and hanging out with us on the air. But wait! There’s more…
Now you’ve got an opportunity to hang out with us in person. That’s right! Our teams from 3rdThird, Culinary Coach, Community Coach, and our newly launched parent company 3rdPlus will be at the Leading Age National Conference in Atlanta, Georgia, October 25th through 27th. Stop by booth 2637. Say hi and let us know how we can help you get to the next level. See ya’ there.