Senior living is as emotional as customer experience gets. It’s the definition of ‘always on’ too, as customers live with them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days of the year. To deliver on its mission to enrich lives, Brookdale Senior Living has put CX at the heart of its business, helping employees get closer to their customers and going the extra mile to deliver on each of their residents’ dreams.

In the latest in our series of Customer Experience Visionaries, Jonathan Ruchman, Senior Director of Customer Experience at Brookdale Senior Living talk everything from literally living the experience of his customers to helping seniors live with dignity.

If you want to hear more from Jonathan, he’ll be speaking at this year’s X4 Summit so don’t forget to register for the event.

On working in Customer Experience:

It’s one thing to develop a brand image, but another thing to pay it off.

Before working at Brookdale Senior Living,  I specialized in brand experience, meaning, brand strategy, advertising, brand image, brand building, and also touched on customer experience.

It’s one thing to develop a brand image, but another thing to pay it off. I’d always felt it was a one-two punch, that’s why I went into customer experience to bring that brand credibility to life in new ways.

On working in a 24/7 customer experience industry:

the only category where the customer lives with the brand 24/7/365. Not even hotels or college dorms provide that.

Senior living is the only category where the customer lives with the brand 24/7/365. Not even hotels or college dorms provide that. It definitely has some unique challenges. We always have to be on and the expectation is that there’s little room for error. You’re dealing with people’s loved ones and lives.

On connecting feedback to Brookdale’s mission:

Our mission is to enrich lives, everything we do is to enrich a life.

Our mission is to enrich lives, everything we do is to enrich a life. Feedback is a big part of our culture, so we use the term “feedback is a gift”. We are focused on feedback everyday and have a resident-family connection hotline to solicit feedback. We want to make sure that we exceed their expectations.

On connections between the employees and the customers:

It’s easy to find anybody but we don’t want just anybody.

I’ve been working for almost thirty years, but from all these different experiences I’ve never seen a closer relationship than that between customers (residents) and our associates (employees) because our customers live with us. I would ask the associates, “Tell me about the relationship you have with the residents” and happy tears came to their eyes. They literally teared up. And then I would talk to the resident. “What do our employees do for you? How do you feel about them” and their eyes would tear up with happy tears. It’s just such a special culture and a special relationship.

It’s really the associates at the community level who do it. I love this and I feel like I’m helping, but I’m in a corporate office. So it’s a challenge because we want to have the right people delivering the mission who love seniors. It’s easy to find anybody but we don’t want just anybody.

 On being a customer of your own company:

I had the unique opportunity, actually, to live in a community as part of my interview process. I had no experience in senior living or healthcare so they asked how I planned on learning it. I said, “in all my years in marketing and customer experience, I was always taught you want to get as close to the customer as possible; so that being said I want to move in.” The interviewer sat back with a puzzled look on her face and said, “What do you mean you want to move in?” I got the job and then lived in the community for one week.

The biggest benefit is there is no way you can possibly understand your customer unless you live their experience. You can’t learn about it on a webinar or a PowerPoint presentation. You have to live and breathe it.

On the importance of learning from data:

I’ll take an executive director or district leader through their survey results and their feedback results, go through their numbers, and say “The story people are telling about your community or your district. Is it a good story? Is it a bad story? Are they telling any story at all?”. To find out the “why”, you really need to dig into the more qualitative feedback, such as the customer comments. It’s very important to show both the quantitative and the qualitative feedback because many times in the comments there are a lot of recognition opportunities. Names are mentioned, best practices are shared, and opportunities for coaching are created.

On working CX into long-term goals:

taking complex data and translating it into plain English and I think that’s our job as leaders to do that.

Net Promoter Score (NPS) is our key metric, I recognize that this is not right for every brand and category. For us because our business is a referral business, it’s great. We could go with overall satisfaction as a key metric, but being in a business that’s so emotional, if someone’s going to refer a place for their mom or dad to live, at a minimum they have to be satisfied to put their own credibility on the line by recommending a place. So that’s why going with NPS raises the bar and it completely aligns with our business model. It’s taken all our leadership skills to the next level. Using Qualtrics and NPS, it’s a tool that our leaders love because they can have a completely different business conversation, taking complex data and translating it into plain English and I think that’s our job as leaders to do that.

 On personalizing the experience for clients with unique needs:

Some of our residents have Alzheimer’s or Dementia. The philosophy is who you are before Alzheimer’s is who you deserve to be with Alzheimer’s. It’s not a tagline, it’s a philosophy. The disease shouldn’t change who you are as a person. In a community in Houston, Texas the maintenance director noticed that the electronic keypad we have to keep the residents safe kept resetting and he could not figure out why. He stayed up for a couple nights and discovered a resident kept walking up to the electronic keypad and kept pressing the buttons triggering a reset. The main thing about this is who this resident was in his career. He worked in Houston as a rocket launch director for NASA. The maintenance director was a special person. He literally built a fake keypad with a NASA logo on it for this resident and put it somewhere else away from the real keypad. He stayed up again to see and it worked. The resident would go to the NASA keypad and he would “launch the rockets” that way. It’s really truly amazing.

On applying lessons from the senior care industry to other fields:

I would challenge any brand out there to identify their moment of truth and how you show up consistently at that moment. What story do you want them to tell?

It all comes down to a moment of truth. Every brand and every category has moments of truth — it’s all about how does the brand deliver at the time when you really need it most. For example, life insurance. You’re paying insurance premiums all these years and then you file a claim, are they gonna come through or not? It’s all about the expectation that a consumer has and at that moment of truth, did the brand deliver on it better than the expectation or below the expectation or is it at the expectation? Based on how that experience goes, that customer is going to tell a story about how you delighted or disappointed them in that moment of truth.

So I would challenge any brand out there to identify their moment of truth and how you show up consistently at that moment. What story do you want them to tell?

This is the second installment of our new blog series, “Customer Experience Visionaries.” In each post, we feature highlights from a conversation with a Customer Experience thought leader on creating a world-class customer experience, empowering employees to take action, elevating the voice of the customer and so much more.

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