Unit and concord in multiethnic team, all hands together

Ritz-Carlton Approach Gives ABHOW an ‘Advantage’

Plenty of senior housing operators say they strive to offer a “Ritz-Carlton” level of customer service. One California-based senior living provider with that same goal went out and nabbed an executive with Ritz-Carlton ties to make that happen.

And the provider says it worked.

American Baptist Homes of the West (ABHOW), a nonprofit that currently operates 49 total communities in California, Arizona, Washington and Nevada and is soon to merge with be.group, set out to change employee culture and customer service back in 2008. The task was not taken lightly.

Today, ABHOW is fully committed to ABHOW Advantage, a program that took years to roll out and a hefty amount of cash to implement.

“Everything about ABHOW Advantage is a big commitment,” Pam Stephens, ABHOW’s vice president of learning and organization development, tells Senior Housing News.

But it’s a big commitment that’s paying off. As workers have become invested in providing top-tier customer service, ABHOW also has seen major employee engagement gains.

ABHOW’s Advantage

ABHOW first looked into developing an exceptional customer service program eight or nine years ago, with the intention of creating one on par with those found at Disney, Nordstrom, Ritz-Carlton or Four Seasons, Stephens tells SHN. The senior housing provider brought Stephens on board in 2008 to help develop its culture program, recruiting her from her position as director of learning and development at Marriott International.

To get off to a good start, ABHOW consulted the pros: Ritz-Carlton. The luxury hotel chain is a subsidiary of Stephens’ former employer. At her direction, the ABHOW leadership team took part in the luxury hotel chain’s Executive Education series to receive customer service training, Ritz-Carlton style.

By 2011, Stephens and her team at ABHOW began designing and developing all of the components for the provider’s own customer service and employee engagement program. The program they conceived currently has several facets, including a daily huddle, a company motto, a credo and a rewards and recognition program that recognizes employees with innovative or cost-saving ideas.

The daily huddle is meant to last between 10 and 15 minutes at the start of each employee shift. To some extent, it is designed to connect everyone at the community — including residents, if they wish.

“Our daily huddles are in very public spaces, and residents will come and join us,” Tyler Ichien, the executive director at ABHOW’s Terraces of Los Gatos, a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Los Gatos, California, tells SHN. “The residents understand.”

Individual team members rotate the responsibility of leading the huddle each day, and all team members working that day, regardless of how long they have worked for ABHOW, take part.

“It’s not like a private meeting that happens behind closed doors,” Ichien explains.

During the huddle, employees learn a “quote of the day” and discuss the company newsletter, InTouch. For consistency, every ABHOW community discusses the same common topic, which is outlined weekly in the InTouch newsletter. The topics vary week by week, and range from building trust and accountability, to ABHOW history, ageism and dealing with difficult people.

Card-Carrying Credibility

The ABHOW Advantage program also involves extensive training for new ABHOW employees. Each new employee goes through orientation training for his or her first and second days on the job. Then, on 30 days into their employment, they take part in a refresher program to review what they learned before taking a certification quiz.

The certification quiz covers different aspects of the ABHOW Advantage program, Stephens explains to SHN, such as expectations for employee attitudes and behaviors. Every employee gets two chances to pass the quiz. And ABHOW takes the quizzes seriously — if employees don’t pass, they’re subject to termination.

That’s not something Ichien worries too much about.

“If we see team members struggling, we’ll take extra time to coach them and get them where they need to be,” Ichien says.

One year into their employment, on day 365, workers look back and reflect on how they lived the ABHOW Advantage commitments. The employees also take part in another ABHOW Advantage “refresher” before taking another certification quiz.

All the while, every ABHOW employee, including the higher-ups, is expected to carry a card with at all times that outlines the company’s foundational values, or “pillars of service.” If an employee has the card memorized, he or she doesn’t have to carry it, but most employees carry it in their in badge holders, wallets or purses, Stephens says.

The “ABHOW Promise” that is printed on the card puts the connection between customer service and employee engagement front-and-center: “At ABHOW, our team members are the most valuable resource in providing extraordinary, personalized service to our residents. ABHOW treats each team member with honesty, respect and fairness. We encourage individual growth and the ability to achieve maximum potential. We promote a work environment where diversity is embraced, family is valued and the ABHOW advantage is strengthened.”

A Sense of Meaning

After ABHOW Advantage was implemented in all ABHOW communities — 11 CCRCs, 34 affordable housing communities and four third-party assisted living communities managed by ABHOW — the company saw its employee engagement score go up 26%, Stephens says.

On the resident side, research has shown that employee engagement levels influence health outcomes: the higher the employee engagement, the better the health outcome. Additionally, an engaged workforce can affect business outcomes, including boosting occupancy rates and increasing resident referrals.

At ABHOW, surveys have shown a slight increase in resident satisfaction from 2014, when ABHOW Advantage was first implemented, to 2015, when implementation was fully completed.

Company leaders have no doubt about the Advantage program’s benefits. As an executive director, Ichien has seen the program’s positive results first-hand.

ABHOW leadership has received “very positive feedback” about the daily huddles, which have allowed team members to build a bond.

“The daily huddle, daily check-in — it really gives frontline team members more visibility to their managers, and across teams,” he says. “People feel like they have a voice on a daily basis,” Ichien added.

On top of that, Ichien believes the program has instilled in employees a sense of purpose.

“There’s meaning behind the work that we’re doing,” he said.

Written by Mary Kate Nelson