Depending on a variety of factors—where you live, the number of local cases and deaths, the availability of testing, and more—your deathcare firm could be anywhere along the path of the COVID-19 crisis right now.
Your area still might be dealing with an almost-total lockdown. Or your state and local authorities might be letting most businesses go about their services as normal, albeit with certain restrictions and limitations. What you're allowed to do now might be very different from what it was a month ago, and it might be very different again a month from now.
In other words, at the risk of stating the obvious, the coronavirus pandemic (and its resultant restrictions) have created a perfect storm of challenges for cremation service providers and related deathcare businesses.
As tragic as a natural disaster can be, whether a hurricane or earthquake or something else, at least there's (most often) a straightforward process of recovery. It's not something that just lingers on for the foreseeable future.
But that's what it's like dealing with COVID-19. There's no closure on the horizon anytime soon. Experts say it could be 18 months before a vaccine is created and widely available, and most say that's the most optimistic projection.
And no matter how you feel about the severity of restrictions at the moment—whether you feel it's an overreaction or an underreaction, or anywhere in between—the fact remains that we'll all be dealing with a "new normal" for most likely the remainder of 2020 and probably well into 2021.
Nothing's simply going to "snap back" into place. Everything will have changed.
The New Normal
So the question is this: What does all of this change have to do with your deathcare firm? Does it mean you have to start making some extensive changes, if you haven't done so already? Or do you still think you can wait for all of this to just blow over?
As we've dealt with all of this over the past several months, I've come to a few conclusions:
- A shocking number of funeral industry business owners still think this is a temporary inconvenience, and everything will revert back to normal soon. They're wrong, and their loss can be your gain.
- Many of the evolutions demanded by this crisis, especially videoconferencing and remote project management, are critical initiatives deathcare firms should have long before now.
- Those same initiatives will be incredibly important for cremation providers long after COVID-19 is under control and virtually all restrictions are lifted.
- Many people in this industry think making their processes more digital will require lots of time and money. It won't. These tools are incredibly cheap and easy to learn—even for technophobes.
Tools You Can Use
Now, I've spent much of the last six weeks telling anyone who will listen about some of the specific tools they can use. Some depend on what you need to achieve in your particular business.
If your setup is such that you regularly consult with families or individuals, it's obviously a good idea to leverage videoconferencing. You can use it to meet with clientele, staff, or vendors.
If you typically handle life celebrations and are still restricted from doing them (or remain limited in the number of attendees), you can look into livestreaming services or recording them for family and friends to later watch online.
There are lots of options for videoconferencing. You're likely aware that Zoom is the most popular right now. You're also likely aware that Zoom also got hammered with heavily critical news reports due to security lapses and a scary (but actually very rare) type of treacherous trolling known as "Zoombombing."
Here's the bottom line: I use Zoom all the time at my company. It works wonderfully for us. It's also incredibly inexpensive for the basic professional version, and the free version's pretty useful for most companies too.
Zoom is also so easy to learn that I could teach the most technophobic person in your family how to install and use it in less than 10 minutes, guaranteed. So that's why I use it (for about six meetings every workday, on average) and encourage others to do the same.
(This is where I like to note that I have no promotional agreements whatsoever with any tech product or tool I mention here or anywhere else. If I recommend something, it's because it works well—not because anyone's being paid for it. I'm certainly not!)
With that said, the real learning curve in videoconferencing isn't understanding the basics of the tool, whether it's Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, GoToMeeting, ClickMeeting, or one of several other major providers.
The learning curve is getting used to communicating empathetically with people through the internet instead of face to face. It's mostly the same, but there are some subtle differences, and you'll want to practice at least a little before jumping into a consultation with a grieving family.
My other strong recommendation is that you look for ways to do more project management and coordination online. Even when there's no pandemic, it's much more convenient and efficient to handle the disposition of cases through cloud-based software than on a physical whiteboard in the office.
Yes, of course I know that all change can be challenging and stressful. And yes, I've spoken to many a funeral professional who explained to me that the whiteboard he's using is the same one his father did, which is the same one his father's father did, and it's worked just fine all this time and yadda yadda yadda.
I certainly respect these traditions, but when the traditional way has been long eclipsed by much more efficient processes, it's usually best to bite the bullet and evolve.
I can run my entire business, with more than 50 full-time employees from home. Our home office in Las Vegas has been empty for going on two months now, due to the pandemic, and we haven't missed a beat. I haven't laid off or furloughed a single worker. And we actually have more clients now than when the lockdowns started!
There are lots of reasons for that, but one of the biggest ones is that we had all the necessary remote tools and techniques already in place long before the COVID lockdowns began. They were just our standard way of doing business! I could run projects and coordinate with my teams anywhere in the country or in the world—from a laptop or even just from my smartphone.
Now, I don't expect cremation service providers to become as technologically advanced as a marketing firms that specializes in digital tools, but there's no reason you can't use some.
Try out Trello for project management: We've found it indispensable. We also use the Microsoft suite of tools for various creative projects, along with MS Teams for basic messaging and chat. (Slack is also an excellent choice for those who prefer that interface or simply don't use Microsoft computers or devices.)
How many forms do you use that could be both filled out and legally signed digitally, but you're still using paper for everything? If you're like most deathcare businesses, the answer is somewhere between "most" and "all." While I realize that some paperwork remains restricted to literal paper in some places and for certain purposes, those situations are ever fewer and further between.
Find a Degree of Certainty
And honestly, that's just the tip of the iceberg. But you don't even need to concern yourself with the iceberg yet. Just start looking at how these cloud-based remote work tools benefit your business during the lockdown time—and picture how beneficial they'll remain long after.
The more you've evolved your business technologically, the more prepared you'll be for anything that comes along. The work you do right now to better handle COVID-related restrictions will pay dividends in the future.
At the very least, you need to keep up with competitors making these changes. And if they're not, you can be the one to take advantage. It's the best way to take control and find some degree of certainty in these uncertain times.
Welton Hong, is the founder of Ring Ring Marketing® and a leading expert in creating case generation from online to the phone line. He is the author of Making Your Phone Ring for Funeral Homes, 2019 Edition.
Welton recently launched Elevating Funeral Service, a podcast developed with Ellery Bowker. They have an entire episode about Zoom with practical how-to guides that you can see here.