Inside The Senior Living Pricing Conundrum

February 1, 2018, Elizabeth Ecker, Senior Housing News - You’d think that obtaining senior living pricing would be easy.  Finding the price of a good or service is a pretty straightforward process in most markets.  In retail, in hotels, in air travel, restaurants, even hair salons, pricing tends to be listed on the item for purchase or on a menu of services that are available.  But in senior living, for some reason, it’s different.

We’ve written about this topic on Senior Housing News and so has the mainstream press.  There are two schools of thought: one is to make pricing transparent by listing it online.  Others prefer to capture lead information upfront and control pricing information until further inquiry.  Maybe it’s to avoid consumer sticker shock or because so often listed pricing is discounted.  Or, as providers told Forbes in 2017, because the services are customized to each resident and it’s difficult to capture a set price for a particular care setting.

I set out to find out for myself how easy it is to obtain senior housing pricing by calling a handful of communities to inquire about pricing and availability for a “couple seeking assisted living.”  As the “adult daughter” of this couple, the conversations went smoothly—that is, when I could get someone on the phone.

Of seven communities I contacted on the East Coast and West Coast, I reached a live person on every call.  However, I was only able to obtain pricing information in a timely manner for about half of the communities—most of which were communities operated by large national providers (Sunrise Senior Living and Brookdale Senior Living).  In three of those four instances, I was connected immediately with a representative who shared detailed community pricing information.  The base pricing for two Sunrise communities in greater Boston was around $7,200 per month; neither community had availability.  The base pricing for a Brookdale community in San Diego was $2,057-$3,400, depending on unit size and location, plus a $750 charge for the second person in the couple, plus additional fees for services like medication management ($552 per month per person) and biweekly bathing ($110 per month per person) which can be added or subtracted as needed.  A fourth community, a representative for which called me back in response to a voice message, started at $6,300 in greater Boston.

I also filled out an online lead form for a community in California, to see what the response time was for an internet lead.  I had a personal call back within about three hours.

But for the three other communities, I’m now a disengaged lead.  I’ve left messages, given my email address and mailing address, and left my name and phone number with the promise of a follow-up.  Maybe I’d hear back later that evening, or later in the week, but as someone who is theoretically looking to make a timely decision (and was on a reporter’s deadline in this case)—every day and sometimes every hour can be critical.  There’s actually some research on this from Lead InSite, which in a 2016 study showed better conversion rates among providers once they had added financial information to their websites.

Lead InSite’s 2016 ORB 1.0

It seems simple.  If someone wants your business, you should answer the phone.  Call the person back.  Or at the very least, list your pricing so that part of the inquiry process is off your plate.  I know that not all of these communities are at full occupancy—the average statistics show us that sales and marketing teams should be working harder than ever to combat national occupancy pressures.  The Brookdale community sales staff I spoke with me offered up that the community is 90% occupied.

But there’s also an unfair advantage here for some providers, and that is the largest providers can employ people, and even call centers filled with people, who simply take inquiries and share pricing, keeping prospects engaged and showing a high level of response time and service.  Smaller, independent operators might employ one sales person (as in one instance, the person who normally handles these calls was on vacation, and I was directed to the business development director, who never called me back).  That person could be giving a walk-in tour, in a meeting, and unable to return calls until the end of the day, or even longer.  In fact, I had a wonderful and highly informative conversation with a saleswoman at a family-owned community who did not answer my initial call but who did call me back.  Despite being at full occupancy, she encouraged me to visit a lot of communities, get a sense for the “heartbeat” of each one and find the right fit.  She took her time, did not rush, and wasn’t pushing a hard sell.  I felt like I was being advised, not sold.

Why let my business hinge on something as simple as price transparency?  By not offering price transparency, those three non-responsive communities have lost me.  If I could have viewed the pricing on their website, I could have kept them on my list of prospective communities and then followed up later, not expecting necessarily to get someone on the phone immediately.  Now, I’ve called. I’ve been put off.  I’ve made an assessment of how responsive they are and I’m frustrated.  From a consumer’s standpoint, pricing seems easy. Straightforward.  A fixed number.  Just tell us what it is.