Peter Robinson, Partner at ProMatura’ London office, explains how his company helps create fulfilment for residents and profitable businesses in the USA

The last thing the UK social care market needs is the Americans telling it how to run its business. As I am British this can hopefully be avoided, but it is fair to say current UK industry debates often miss key human aspects on how best to house and serve the ageing UK population.

Businesses must always address the significant budgetary aspects of land, planning, site maximisation, IRR and shareholder value. But such an exclusively top-down approach can easily lose sight of delivering customer satisfaction and we can attach a business value to that.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons 65+ year age-qualified housing has just 0.5 per cent UK market penetration, whereas it is 5.5 per cent in Australia and New Zealand.

But as capital, land owners and entrepreneurs gather to drive UK growth I think two of the key challenges will be a lack of human consideration and commoditisation.

We know this to be true from our work in the States where we cover all aspects of site selection, concept creation, buyer intent, pricing, demand & sales modelling, resident and employee satisfaction surveys.

Make them feel at home

Customer satisfaction is not always easy to deliver, particularly in the current UK headwinds, but let’s take a look at what residents in the USA seek in entering service-enriched housing.

Singling out our 2014 Independent Living (IL) study for ASHA (American Seniors Housing Association); “Make them feel at home” we surveyed over 6,800 IL residents in 11 US cities. Drop me a line if you would like a copy of the 60-page report. We are currently working on a similar study in the UK with our report due in May of this year.

I will later turn to how businesses can underpin this simple objective at the project planning stage, building and delivering only what the potential resident wants and at a price they can afford and are willing to pay.

“Make them feel at home” may be a simple notion, in promissory marketing brochures, but it is also a mercurial intangible to effectively deliver. But do you know how important it is to IL residents in the USA?

Over-amenitised facilities are not good value

In our 2014 study, out of nine attributes and services identified as impacting overall satisfaction, just one claimed 49 per cent of the total vote – ‘Strength of feeling at home’. Perhaps surprisingly, the quality of daily activities and common living areas scored a total of just 10 per cent.

We see this key element echoed in our private client research findings where new, over-amenitised facilities (with associated higher entrance and service charges) do not deliver proportionate human value, relative to their cost. They are slow to fill-up and experience high levels of churn.

People understand that moving to any new community will change their lifestyle and social identity, making your biggest competitor someone’s existing home.

In our study, those residents who researched as being ‘very satisfied’ with the homeliness of their residence would recommend it to their friends, creating new customers, those merely ‘satisfied’ would not.

The take-out is clear; if you want happier customers and more referral business you need to increase the number of customers who feel at home.

Of those research respondents who said they were ‘Not at Home’, they described difficulties making friends, being lonely, not fitting in, not having common interests, bullying by cliques and missing their friends. Cliques are classic bullying, this is explored further in our report.

So how do you deliver ‘I feel at Home’ responses from your residents? Here our respondents told us that groups of friendly people, having their own belongings and furniture, friendly and caring staff and being with friends made them feel at home. The study then goes on to recommend a number of specific actions to deliver this. Storage, light, decoration, camaraderie, ‘being in control’ and other factors are also covered. We will mirror this in our forthcoming UK report.

Building what people really need

Let’s now return to the top-down business planning process mentioned earlier. I have worked across many industry sectors including 11 years in advertising for FMCG, retail and automotive companies.

My clients knew exactly who their customers were and meticulously planned a product or service to precisely meet their needs. We do not see this practice widespread in age-qualified housing.

Some desk research is done — poring over generic market data — but what we have found in the States and the UK is that a specific plot of land /project is binary with a geographic /demographic defined potential market from which it will attract its residents. The many new market entrants lining-up for UK age-qualified housing with plans to roll out a cookie-cutter approach with identikit multiple sites need to think this aspect through very carefully.

As such, we undertake for our developer, operator and financial clients ‘Community Planning Research Seminars’ with actual potential residents for a site identified and recruited by us to give their views and explore various product, service and pricing options. This is not a sales event and we have done this many hundreds of times in the States.

The results are highly illustrative — imagine actually building specifically what people really need, want and are willing to pay for…?

Such a group also offering potential for a later consumer focus group with which to test marketing messages – so much age-qualified marketing misses the mark and is highly patronising. Many from this initial contact group will then become the first residents in our client’s facility and they were not sold anything, they helped design something for themselves.

The power of the iPad

Bigger picture: we know the UK has a drastic housing shortage, that older residents often occupy a home that is inappropriate to their needs in terms of size, utility, lifestyle & companionship. But when, seemingly, the only option is a care home no matter how good and appropriate that may be for their needs, it shall ever be thus – avoided for as long as possible.

I shall finish with a comparable. Do you remember the launch of the iPad? Who knew we needed a 4th option in the crowded tech space that already had the desktop and laptop computer plus smartphones?

What the iPad created was a 4th tech category that it is now hard to imagine being without. The intuitive and human-centric ‘tablet’ was also responsible for introducing many of our senior citizens to computing and the internet, for the first time.

My mother is testament to that. Should our industry take a similar category approach; first flat / small house / family house / NEW age-qualified & service-enriched senior housing category / care home? It’s going to take an industry collective to deliver, happy to be part of that debate.

About ProMatura 

For 33 years, ProMatura has provided research & consultancy on age-qualified, service-enriched housing in the USA. With a focus upon identifying best practices for great communities and great service for customers of Active Lifestyle, Independent Living, Assisted Living & Memory Care Communities, ProMatura works with operators, developers, financiers and other industry stakeholders. They are now providing their services in Europe out of London and Peter may be contacted through; probinson@promaturainternational.co.uk. www.promatura.com