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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 6, 2013 8 years ago

Retirement consultants

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It could take months for someone to decide whether to move into a retirement community. Patience is the key.
by: Jean Gruss Contributing Writer

At Cypress Cove, a retirement community in Fort Myers, salespeople are called “retirement consultants.”

That's the first clue that selling retirement care takes a certain kind of finesse. “It's not like buying a sofa or a car,” says Nicole Muller, director of marketing, who dropped the sales titles. “We're not here to sell, we're here to educate you.”

It also takes patience.

On average for the industry, it takes about a year and a half to close a sale. At Cypress Cove, it takes Muller and a four-person staff three to six months on average, faster but still a long time in the world of sales.

Cypress Cove is classified as a continuing care retirement community. In exchange for a sum of money plus monthly fees, Cypress Cove promises to care for older people in independent living and through assisted living and nursing care through the rest of their lives. At Cypress Cove, the entrance fee starts at $120,000 and the monthly fee starts at $2,000.

The team's success is measured by the occupancy. Today, 94% of the 362 apartments and villas have been sold and occupancy increased from 75% in 2011 to 88% today. There's even a waiting list now.

When Muller joined Cypress Cove in 2011 after 17 years as a consultant to retirement communities, she built her team to make sure they gelled. “Our employees are not driven by money,” she says. “They're driven by mission and service.” After all, Cypress Cove is a nonprofit organization.

While there are financial rewards to meet sales goals, they come as a result of helping prospects reach a decision they're comfortable with. “We're here to serve and educate,” Muller says. This includes both individual and team awards to promote cohesiveness.

And the rewards aren't limited to the sales team only. When Cypress Cove's occupancy hit the 85% benchmark, the community's managers organized a surprise party with a steel drum band. “We gave every one of our employees a bonus check,” Muller says. The message was clear: “It's not just marketing and sales, it's every part of this community.”

The marketing department has its own rewards, too. Muller will soon be taking her team to Naples for a day at the spa. “We celebrate our successes along the way,” she says.

On evenings when they call prospective customers on the phone, Muller says she takes her team for a pedicure after work and before they hit the phones. “I want them to feel valuable every day,” she says.

To generate sales, Muller says Cypress Cove opened a design center so buyers could choose their lighting, cabinetry and other interior decorating. Muller says that was preferable to dropping fees to generate sales. “You have to be able to meet the desires, wants and needs of the customer,” she says.

That doesn't mean it shies away from promotions, but it's about giving people choices. For example, Cypress Cove offers $5,000 to decorate the second bedroom of a two-bedroom apartment as an “anything room” for use as a sewing room or home office, for example. “We wanted to move more of those smaller two-bedroom units,” Muller says. “The first day we sent out the direct mailer we got four phone calls.”

Choice is another reason why Cypress Cove now has four different plans residents can buy. When Muller arrived, there was just one plan. “They are looking for flexibility, options and choice,” Muller says. Besides, more choices mean fewer reasons to object.

Frequently, the person making the decision to move into Cypress Cove isn't the only person involved. That's because adult children also want reassurance that their parents will be OK. “You're selling to multiple people,” Muller explains.

Patience is key. “They need to understand what's included,” says Muller, who might spend two to six hours discussing options with a single customer. “We're not rushing anyone out the door.”

The improving occupancy at Cypress Cove creates a better financial picture because the community was able to refinance its bonds at more favorable terms and embark on a capital campaign for renovations and to open a 44-bed memory care facility in early 2016. “That's created even more momentum for sales,” Muller says.

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