Everybody knows some of the challenges we have in the industry right now, and that 2016 marked the first time there were more cremations than casket burials. Now, as we approach 2020, the cremation rate in the US is expected to be about 56%. This is one of the biggest challenges we face every day. Additionally, studies show that the percentage of people who feel a religious component is necessary to their service is declining rapidly. Five years ago it was about 50%, this year it’s about 40% -- a loss of about 10% of people who feel a need for a traditional religious component to their service.
Some more challenges: 70% of baby boomers do not want the same type of service that their parents or grandparents did and 62% want a much more personalized approach. Many of us, even some reading this, still only offer the very traditional services that we offered several years ago: 90% of cemeteries and funeral homes only offer very traditional things. So though consumers say they want something different, we offer them the same. We have a traditionalist mentality and the statistics mentioned above support that.
This one is probably our fault: 68% of families want an organized gathering of some sort, but only 16% know that they are able to have one. We’re the ones that said “Hey, let’s call this direct cremation and we can sell this for $495, $595, $695, $795 – cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap!” Finally, about 70% of families know they have an ability to be in a cemetery. I grew up in cemeteries, I’ve been in the cemetery business for 30 years – that statistic drives me absolutely nuts. We need to evaluate all of these challenges and find strategies to overcome them.
Strategy: Relevant Offerings
When we talk about relevant offerings, we need to give people a reason to see us other than visiting a loved one. In order to do this, you need to produce some relevant offerings at your location.
In cemeteries, I suggest having multiple products in one area: in-ground, above-ground; multiple price points – 6 or 7 is a good number (less and you look like a tightwad, more and you’ll confuse not only your families, but your staff as well); personal and private. Picture a planned community with some private homes, clusters of quad homes, and then a high-rise condominium that houses 800 people. You have a couple options as you flow through the space. But again, you have to make sure that you are giving people a reason to come visit you without visiting their loved ones. And it can be done.
Many businesses in our industry are opening their doors to other events. The right space can be used for a field trip, a wedding, and other community events. Relevancy is something we need and lack in this industry and we have to get out of our own way sometimes.
Offering food and beverage is one of the hottest trends in this industry. We’re trying to find ways, especially with our cremation consumer, to create value in what we do. Remember only 16% of families know they are able to have a gathering but 68% want one. How can we bridge that gap? It’s simple, folks: when a death occurs, between the death and when the service or cremation occurs, people eat an average of 7-9 times. That means we have 7-9 times to serve a family other than “Hey, how about a direct cremation today? Great, hand me your $695 and let’s go home.” Valuation consultants estimate that if you were to add just 12 hospitality services a year, it could bump the value of your business up $400k. With 12 a year at $600, that increases your sales and the value of your funeral home or cemetery.
Keep in mind that hospitality is a strategy. You’re not selling food, you’re not selling beverages, you’re not selling your room rental. We have to stop thinking like that. You’re selling experience and convenience. A widow who just lost her husband of 60 years has family coming in but the last thing she wants to worry about is how she’ll feed them. It’s an added stressor, so offer food trays and include it with the service or with the opening/closing fee. It becomes an automatic add-on – provide a nice platter to the family every time they come in. Stacie Schubert corporate catering for SCI, and she says “catering is for the busy, not the affluent.” Change your mindset. We think, “Catering? That’s going to be really expensive,” but it’s for people who are too busy to worry about eating the 7-9 times after a death occurs and before a service happens.
How can we plug in hospitality as part of what we’re doing? We don’t have to, but I can promise you somebody is. It may be your local hotel, country club, banquet halls, and restaurants. Every one of them is in the funeral home and cemetery space getting $1,500 for the ballroom plus food and we have the same facilities and can do the Same. Darn. Thing.
We need to create a space to hold a non-traditional funeral service. Today’s consumers are telling us repeatedly that the days of having a visitation from 6-8pm, a service at 8pm, and a graveside the next morning are done. We’ve got to find a way to meet the needs of the consumer instead of always saying “Here’s how I’ve always done it, I’m going to continue to do it this way.” I heard a joke recently,
How many cemeterians does it take change a lightbulb?
My granddaddy put that lightbulb in 40 years ago, why would I need to change it?
Provide a full catering package, and think past the funeral luncheon. A lot of people are following the family home with food after the arrangement conference because food is the last thing they’re thinking about after they just signed the authorization to cremate Dad. But they need to eat – they physically need to eat. So, people are following them home.
Give people what they want. I’m not saying you need to go out and build a huge facility, most people are retrofitting what they have.
None of this really matters unless you’re able to get the word out effectively. If only 16% of families know they can memorialize somewhere, we’re not doing a good job educating people about what their options are and about what we have to offer. We do a great job saying “direct cremation: $495,” but we don’t do a good job everywhere else. We have to be able to show we’re the experts, but more than that we have to be able to humanize ourselves to them. We’re not just creepy funeral directors, crematory operators, or gravediggers.
Did you know that YouTube is the second biggest search engine after Google? People are going to YouTube for information, 3 billion searches a month, but how many of us have an active YouTube channel? And how many people have an active email campaign? What about tying to a social cause? Giving a percentage to a charity or foundation – how hard would that be to do? You say “it’s not really relevant, John. These Boomers don’t care about that.” But guess what happens when a death occurs? They sit down with their kids or their grandkids and say “what are we going to do with Dad now?” And one of the kids, one of the 25- or 30-year-olds, googles “cremation” and sees a direct cremation for $495. So it’s not just the 80 year old person that we are serving anymore, it’s a whole lot of layers underneath that 80 year old person. And the younger generations do care about those kinds of things.
One idea is to get a cremation “genius” on your funeral home or cemetery staff – someone who specializes in cremation. Roll with me here – it’s not just how the crematory works, it’s “Oh, you want to wait and do this 6 months later? Okay. We’ll cremate Mom now, hold her here. Here’s a list of hotels, caterers, cemeteries and we’ll put this together and in 6 months we’ll have a service.” It’s similar to how you walk into an Apple Store and you talk to a “genius” and they know everything there is to know about their product. But in our funeral homes or cemeteries, we have one person who does a lot and they have to know everything. Yet with cremation we're generalists – we’re not focused on knowing everything there is to know about the process, what drives the cremation consumer, what they look like, or what pushes their buttons. But it’s what people expect.
Everyone knows the old adage that value has to equal price, but I’ll take it a little further: the perceived value has to equal the price. Sales 101 in two paragraphs:
People buy for two reasons: to get rid of a problem they don’t want or to create a result that they want but don’t have. It’s that simple. Think of your position in your marketplace with your pricing just based on that. Now let’s break that down a little bit more. You’re selling utility, the value of your product. You don’t buy a can opener to sit and be pretty, you buy it to open cans. Consumers don’t pay for products, they pay for what the product does. We have got to define our added value. We have to create something significant for people we serve. A lot of cremation is low-cost, cheap and easy. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be that way, but you can still create value for “cheap and easy.”
People buy from you for two reasons: they like you and they trust you. If they like you and trust you, they’re going to buy from you. If they don’t, they won’t (or they might, but not much). Once they see the utility behind what you’re doing, they want to see the credibility. Once they think you can deliver what they want you to deliver, they want to make sure it’s relevant to them. This is often the most crucial stage in closing the deal. To successfully get through this phase of the sale, two key skills are required: the ability to question skillfully, the ability to listen carefully. Part of our biggest problem in dealing with the consumer is not listening. We already know. We’re programmed with what we’re supposed to say. When they skew, we try to bring them back.
So, dig a little deeper. Ask questions and listen to their answers: “Tell me about yourself and your family.” Push the papers, the contract away and ask them to tell you about them. Even with a direct cremation, do this and build value.
“If you could design the perfect way to remember your loved one after they are cremated, what would it look like?” Don’t just show them the 14 urns in the catalog or on the shelf, ask them to describe what the urn, the service, the keepsake would look like. Then make relevant suggestions and create value.
What do you do?
Make a plan.
Understand where you are, create a baseline. Take the key points from this post and create a strategic plan to get where you want to be. Decide what changes you would like to make and how you are going to make them. Focus on something you could implement immediately, then focus on the short term. “When I’m at the CANA convention next year, where do I want to be?” Set a target or improvement goal. Make the beginning something easy to create value. But then set the long-term goals and figure out what you need to do in a year to make it happen. Then, make it happen.
This post was transcribed and edited for length and clarity from John Bolton's presentation at CANA's 100th Annual Cremation Innovation Convention on July 27, 2018 at the Fort Lauderdale Marriott Harbor Beach Resort & Spa in Session 7 • Beyond the Niche: Creating an Effective Cremation Development Strategy, to lead us past the “If we build it, they will come” philosophy and break down the ins and outs of developing a true cremation strategy to effectively meet the needs of today’s non-traditional cremation consumer.
With a wide range of valuable networking and educational opportunities, the CANA Convention featured sessions that examined the last 100 years of CANA conventions and growth in cremation, evaluated where businesses are today, and focused on the next 100 years by providing strategic and practical information for long-term success. Missed it? You can access John's full presentation recording and all other speakers' wisdom on our Learning Management System. View session descriptions and pricing here: gocana.org/CANA18.
Save the Date for CANA's 101st Annual Cremation Innovation Convention in Louisville, Kentucky July 31-August 2, 2019.
John Bolton is President of Blackstone Cemetery Development, which specializes in the planning, development, construction and marketing of cremation garden areas and digital mapping. With over 15 years of cemetery development experience and 30 years in the death care business, John has designed and/or implemented over 500 cremation development projects across the United States. During his 30-year career, he has served in almost every facet of the industry. He has actively managed and owned medium to large cemeteries, and funeral home/cemetery combo’s in East Tennessee, and Southwest Virginia.