Posted By Administration,
Wednesday, February 27, 2019
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019
There are a number of proactive measures we as a profession can take in pursuit of remaining relevant to contemporary consumers. Developed from ideas presented by Kim Medici Shelquist, Senior VP of Planning & Development for Homesteaders Life Company, and Ernie Heffner, President of Heffner Funeral Chapel & Crematory, this post focuses on the relationship between end-of-life care and death care and the family’s experience.
The first US hospice was established in 1974 and viewed as an alternative to current heathcare options for those at the end of life. Kim explained that, in many cases, traditional healthcare establishments were not welcoming, so hospice professionals had to fight for respect. The largest growth of hospice care providers in America occurred after Congress passed legislation in 1982 to create a Medicare hospice benefit allowing Medicare/Medicaid to fund hospice care. As of 2014, there were 6,100 hospices nationwide and more entering the market every year.
Facts About Hospice Providers
Most hospice care is not a non-profit endeavor but rather care provided by for-profit organizations and keenly attuned to demographics, networking, market shares and the competition. Ernie described that hospice organizations have changed significantly from the volunteer-based approach some of us may remember from the early days of hospice care and now have first-class marketing graphics and a business plan to match. The close personal relationship of a hospice care provider with surviving family members does not end with the patient’s death but can extend for more than a year after.
Ernie researched and reported many of the following statistics from the website of the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization.
- Free standing hospice organizations not affiliated with a hospital are on the rise, 58.3% in 2013 increased to 72.2% in 2015.
- Not-for-profit hospices are decreasing, 34% non-profit in 2011 down to 31.9% in 2016.
- Of all US deaths, 44.6% in 2011 occurred under hospice care, 46.2% in 2015. 59% received in-home care.
- The average length of care decreased from 72.6 days in 2013 to 69.5 days in 2015. The median length of care decreased from 18.5 days in 2013 and to 17.4 days in 2014 and increased to 23 days in 2015.
- Aftercare: Few if any funeral homes have an aftercare program like hospice. 92% offer community bereavement support. Through ongoing bereavement activities by a “bereavement coordinator,” the hospice organization maintains a relationship with the family long past the time of the patient’s death, in fact monthly for 13 months after the death.
- Volunteers in Hospice Care: Statute requires that 5% of people hours are provided by volunteers. Many hospice organizations have a person dedicated to recruiting volunteers. In 2014, 430,000 volunteers provided 19 million hours of service.
- Spiritual Advisor: Hospice organizations are required to have a spiritual advisor on staff. Hospice chaplains are often very well-trained in non-denominational, non-religious approaches to the spiritual side of life and death.
The Role of the Hospice Worker
Hospice care providers are a very special, caring group of people. They are held in high regard by the families they serve. Their opinions and advice are trusted. They are passionate, dedicated, and tenacious. There is little turnover, and even those who do leave often move to another hospice.
No other healthcare professional actively talks to family about the end of a life and planning the way a hospice care provider does. Kim explained that they do whatever is in their power to reunite families and meet patients’ needs, they are flexible and open-minded, and they figure out how to provide the best end-of-life experience possible. Ernie recommends the chapter “The Power of Presence” in Doug Manning’s book, The Funeral, to appreciate the connection and relationship hospice care providers have with families.
Almost half of all deceased people in the US last year were under hospice care before they ever got to a funeral home, crematory, cemetery, or anatomical gift registry. That’s significant, because unless you have a great community engagement program, a family’s first contact about funeral plans is hospice staff. Social workers ask patients and families about their wishes and intentions long before you see them. Statistically, these caregivers have built a very personal relationship with almost half of these families immediately prior to the death of their loved ones. If that doesn’t motivate you to think about what you’re doing in your community and your hospice outreach, I don’t know what will.
The average length of hospice stay is about 70 days. That’s a long time to create a relationship with the family. 59% of hospice patients receive in-home care. Hospice staff go in, day after day, and build that relationship and gather the details of their lives and their family dynamics. It’s a very different situation – we get three days, they get almost three months to hold those really hard conversations about really hard parts of a patient’s life. In that role, they become trusted advisors and the go-to people for all things related to death and dying.
Serving Hospice Families
The average hospice caregiver, no matter how well-intentioned, only knows as much about funeral service as someone who goes to a lot of funerals. Most are invited, and attend, many patient’s services and thus see many local funeral homes. But, there’s no aspect of hospice training that goes into the ins and outs of funeral service.
We use a lot of trade-specific information and technical jargon that is confusing to families and just as confusing to those caregivers. And if these people go to a lot of funerals, it means they go to a lot of bad ones, too. What does that caregiver think after they leave? If the next family asks, “What should we do?” they might not recommend your funeral home because they remember that bad service.
Some funeral directors ask, “Why do they tell them to do the cheapest thing?” Kim reminds us that the social worker has seen their hospital bills, heard about maxed-out credit cards, and sat with the widow afraid of losing the house after losing her husband. That social worker is not concerned about whether the funeral home is interested in offering an upgraded casket. If the social worker sees you trying to sell the family anything, they might remind them that they don’t need it. It’s not right or wrong—it’s just the way it is. We can talk about “that’s not her role” or “the family might have wanted to do something nice and she took their choice away,” but you’re talking about a dynamic where she was protecting them. Hospice social workers and caregivers take their role as advocates very seriously. They value collaboration. That means if you can create a relationship and build trust, you can position yourself as an advocate of the family, and you can collaborate on the process. If they see you acting in the best interest of their families, they will support you.
By the time the hospice family comes to the funeral home, you need to understand what they’ve been through. You are professional and passionate members of funeral service, but terminal illness is different. In a hospice situation, the family often has the opportunity to come together and say goodbye. Sometimes, they’ve done it three or four times. They’ve done the first part of the grieving process. They've had a lot of time to talk about death, to think about death, and often have additional support via hospice resources to prepare and guide them. The family is often present at the time of death, and it’s not unusual for them to have a brief ceremony right then. Kim explains that, the presence of the family, the words of the chaplain, the goodbye to their loved one – after that, they may not need a traditional funeral to process their grief. And it’s important for funeral professionals to understand that.
That’s not to say that there isn’t need or opportunity for service and ceremony, but we must remember that those in hospice have declined for a long time. Their survivors often say “I don’t want people to see my loved one like that.” It’s hard for families to think about a visitation because of the change that illness has brought. They don’t want their friends and families to remember the deceased that way, or worse, not recognize their loved one anymore. But they don’t necessarily understand what you can do about that. They don't always understand how body preparation can make a big difference—whether they agree to full embalming (which can reduce swelling or return moisture) or merely a shave and a haircut (which can make them look like themselves again).
Lastly, you know that these families are spread out, so they’ve spent time and money on travel in addition to the financial costs of long-term care, lost time at work and time with their immediate families. They are exhausted physically, emotionally, and financially. And this stress has likely heightened any kind of disagreements about medical care and funeral planning.
How to get started in developing a hospice outreach program
Developing a meaningful relationship with hospice care providers in the community is not about dropping off cookies at Christmas. It is a commitment to education that can benefit all concerned, providing the families we mutually serve with seamless and meaningful end-of-life transition. Ernie provides three key strategies for starting your hospice relationship:
Read all you can to learn about the hospice profession. Then research your state’s licensing requirements for Registered Nurses (RNs) specifically the continuing education (CE) requirements and what qualifies for program content.
- Build formal PowerPoint presentations
These need to be compliant with RN CE requirements. Include reporting, record-keeping system and handout material to be used. Then apply to get your program(s) certified by your state’s nurse licensing division.
- Recruit a hospice care provider as your outreach person
This could be a part-time position about 18 to 24 hours per week. Consider recruiting a retiring hospice social worker interested in a part-time position. Have this person be your representative to offer continuing education. This person should also attend monthly networking events relevant to serving seniors.
Dr. Alan Wolfelt, internationally acclaimed grief counselor, author and educator, has said “Education starts with understanding the people we serve.” To that point, it is helpful to review the demographic and societal statistics of your community, understand how these facts dramatically impact end-of-life service providers, and embrace the adaptations needed by the profession—including further education and training—in order to remain prospectively relevant to contemporary consumers.
Like Ernie says, life is about relationships and experiences. We are in the business of celebrating the life of the individual by recognizing how they touched the lives of others. Our mission is to orchestrate and direct a meaningful ceremony with compassion, flexibility and options and in way that is as unique as the person who died.
Kim Medici Shelquist's remarks excerpted from her presentation at CANA's 2017 Cremation Symposium titled "Seek First to Understand: How will changing demographics and end-of-life care options impact the funeral profession?"
Ernie Heffner's full article is featured in The Cremationist, Vol 55, Issue 1, titled “Staying Relevant in a Changing World” featuring important discussion on the role of Celebrant services, the importance of minimum standards, hospice, and more. The Cremationist is an exclusive benefit of CANA Membership.
is President and Owner of Heffner Funeral Chapels & Crematory
, York, PA. After graduation from Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science, he joined his father in a two-location firm serving about 100 families annually, with a cremation rate of about 4%. The firm grew to 22 locations in 2 states with 100 employees. That growth was during the acquisition mania of the 1990’s. Subsequent to strategic contraction, the firm today serves from six Pennsylvania locations, continuing as a “Mom & Pop” firm owned by Ernie & Laura Heffner and operated by Heffner and John Katora, V.P. and Heffner associate of 38 years. Ernie appreciates the truth of proverbs 22:10, which he paraphrases as, “Minimize the challenges in your life and your life will be better.” Focusing on organic growth and the pursuit of relevance to contemporary consumers has led to gratifying results.
Kim Medici Shelquist
in 2009 as Director of Marketing Communications after many years as Business Development and Communications Director of Hospice of Central Iowa. At Homesteaders, she added breadth and depth to the marketing department that resulted in the creation of several key B2C public relations and sales programs. Her efforts were also instrumental in helping Homesteaders become a recognized leader in preneed funding. Today, Kim oversees Homesteaders’ strategic planning and project management process as the Senior Vice President of Planning and Development. Her team is charged with identifying, evaluating and developing new opportunities that will help Homesteaders grow long into the future. Kim holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s of business administration, and is a Fellow, Life Management Institute.
tips and tools
Posted By Administration,
Wednesday, February 13, 2019
Trade shows make for a great opportunity to check out innovations in memorialization—scattering urns, the latest keepsake jewelry, contemporary stationery designs, and cemetery monuments. These products offer new ways for you to match the unique personalities of families and their loved ones.
But true personalization is so much more than products. From the moment you answer the phone, you have the chance to differentiate yourself from your competition and enhance that family’s experience. Then, once they walk in the door, you have the opportunity to infuse ceremony in each interaction and make a difficult process meaningful to the family.
Extracted from examples provided when Lindsey Ballard facilitated an interactive discussion on Best Practices in Personalization and Ceremony at CANA’s 2019 Cremation Symposium, we offer the following ideas as inspiration.
Transfers and removals offer a unique opportunity to gather helpful information about the family through observation of the home and the items of comfort that surround the deceased. Encourage your staff and removal technicians to take notice of décor, family photos, items on display that might reveal a passion or treasured activity, and even the colors that fill the space. Empower your staff to engage with the family—it’s here they can learn some of the stories behind these beloved objects and see what motivated people in life. These initial impressions can help start the conversation about ways to make a service personal and demonstrate that you care.
Symposium attendee Franklin Rainier, of Franklin J. Rainier, Jr. Funeral Home, shared a story about entering the home of a 95-year-old woman and finding it decorated with Pink Floyd memorabilia and album covers. When asked, the woman’s son confirmed that she had been a true fan. Back at the mortuary, Franklin and his staff played Pink Floyd and lit candles to honor her as they prepared her body.
For some families, such as those who make a direct cremation choice, the arrangement conference may be the only time they will be acknowledging their grief before moving on. Sometimes, a special window opens up during these conversations and it’s important to pay close attention. Attendee Rita Alexander, of the Cremation Society of Illinois, recommended being especially sensitive to the pauses in the conversation and allowing people as much time as they need to grieve in the safe space you’ve provided for them.
Attendees agreed that a primary strategy is to make the arrangement conference into a conversation, to put the pen down and get to know the family before filling out the forms. You can introduce yourself and your company and describe how the process will work, then invite them to converse and share. Ask them about themselves, the deceased, and family and friends—that’s the time to take notes. At Simon Dubé’s funeral home, a Dignity Memorial location, these notes are discussed in staff meetings to brainstorm how arrangers can make sure the family’s experience is special. Not everyone on staff is equally creative, but together they can design the meaningful service that each person deserves.
Attendee Keith Charles suggested keeping the acronym FORM (part of the word information) in mind to guide your questions: “F” is for family and their relationship to the deceased. Make sure to acknowledge every single person in the room. “O” is for the occupation of the deceased. What type of work did they do and what was its impact? “R” is for recreation. Where did they go on vacation as a family and are there photos to use during the ceremony? And lastly, “M” for motivation—what put meaning in their life? With this acronym to guide you, you’ll be sure to touch on the major aspects of someone’s life and gather valuable stories to create a meaningful service.
Viewings, Visitations, and Services
Attendees agreed that getting the family’s permission to personalize the service is the first step to providing a unique and memorable experience. Many attendees shared stories of services they’d performed that conveyed real meaning to the family they served. A signature purple door for a Friends fan, a dress carefully chosen and displayed with a tuxedo to re-create a meaningful dance memory, or the seemingly modest touch of preparing the body’s fingernails with a signature teal polish and passing it out to the family to wear, too. Never underestimate the power of the small gesture of service: accents of a favorite color, the gift of a small pin (such as an American flag pin in the case of a service for a U.S. veteran) distributed to each guest, and other touches go a long way to demonstrating you listen and care.
Simon Dubé explained that taking time to requires a lot of work, but staff that are motivated by family service are willing to make the extra effort. Word of mouth is your most powerful advertisement. When you create an unforgettable experience, the conversation keeps going and spreads the word about how your firm goes above and beyond for the families you serve. Simon had many useful tips, including the recommendation that you invite the family to view the set up of the room an hour ahead of the service to make sure that they are comfortable with what you’ve done. This leaves plenty of time to remove a display if the family disagrees, and also provides them an opportunity to grieve and remember with the memorabilia in private.
Facilitator Lindsey Ballard pointed out that every moment can be an opportunity to turn service into ceremony. Handing a flag to a veteran’s family can be more than a simple keepsake if you use it to bring the family together to reflect on the symbol the flag holds. Lindsey does this by inviting close relatives to lay a hand on the flag while she recites a few words about commitment: a veteran to his country and theirs to his memory. In this way, a service for the family is transformed into a ceremonial experience they will remember.
Committal and Scattering
Be sure to inject ceremony at every pivotal moment, even during scattering. With a water scattering, you can pinpoint the GPS coordinates and give them to the guests. Balloon or butterfly releases can accompany an event. Processions will provide a really special memory for those in attendance. Don’t be afraid to ask local groups related to the deceased’s passions or occupation to participate as an honor guard. That could be firefighters, motorcycle groups, or high school athletic teams. At the end of a committal or scattering, as people are standing awkwardly, unsure about what to do next, give them an invitation to do something to finish with ceremony. For instance, they can leave a “handprint” by stepping up to touch the casket or urn before they leave.
Transfer of Urn Into Family’s Care
The urn transfer can provide an opportunity for ceremony, too. If the family is open to it, you can schedule a military honors ceremony for veterans with the military present and a flag-folding presentation. Another idea is to hand-deliver the urn along with the death certificate. You can wear a jersey when the family of a deceased fan comes in to pick up cremated remains.
It’s important to stay in regular contact with families before, during, and after the services. Suggestions for accomplishing this goal include memorial service for donors, annual remembrance events, and mailing special cards to the family on the date of the deceased’s birthday or the anniversary of the death.
This presentation included many images and stories that had several professionals tearing up in the audience. Interested in hearing the recording? The 2019 Symposium Recording is available for purchase. Visit the event page to learn more.
tips and tools
Posted By Administration,
Wednesday, September 26, 2018
Updated: Thursday, September 20, 2018
The Cremation Logs presents the first in an occasional series featuring guest posts from industry experts. Cody Lopasky is the Associate Dean of Academics and Distance Education Coordinator at Commonwealth Institute of Funeral Service and teaches both face-to-face and online courses. Lopasky enjoys writing and academic research; especially in regard to funeral service. He has published numerous articles, written a continuing education course for funeral service practitioners, and was a contributor for a funeral service education textbook. He is also a licensed funeral director/embalmer and a certified crematory operator.
We may see a time when burial becomes the new cremation – something chosen by only a handful of families. This was the norm for cremation only a few short years ago, and the same could be coming for burial. The trend toward cremation is nothing new, but what are cremation families doing? And what are we offering cremation families to achieve their goals?
Cremation families who keep their loved one’s cremated remains on display at home are willing participants in selecting merchandise, but scattering families (or the undecided) present a situation that can be vexing for both you and the family. Without a firm plan in place, how can you effectively guide them to a decision that makes sense? Should they even buy an urn, and if so, what type and when?
Plastic is a Choice, Not a Default
When an urn is not purchased at time of arrangements, most families receive their loved one’s cremated remains in the plastic “temporary container.” This gray or black plastic box can be presented to a family in a velvet bag, but it is still nothing more than a plastic box. Many cremation families are offered a package that includes a “temporary urn.” They may not be shown an example of a temporary urn and may not realize it is a plastic box, but they know they don’t want an urn from the selection room. Offering a temporary urn in a package is a business decision made by the crematory or funeral home; normally due to cost or necessity. On the other hand, some forward-thinking businesses have chosen to provide a spun bronze or cultured marble base option that can be upgraded or personalized. However, the decision to stick with the bare bones (pun semi-intended) should not be made in haste.
Of course, the funeral home wants the scattering family to get an urn because it can help pay the bills for the month and it’s also a more dignified choice, but choosing an urn is often the best choice for the family, too.
- Before scattering, many families have a service of some kind to memorialize the deceased. If the cremated remains will be present for the service (e.g. a ceremonial scattering or memorial service), then a dull plastic box may not be the best option.
- A family can report that their loved one preferred scattering, but we all know that services and merchandise are for the living. The deceased is no longer here to care. So, when you hear the word “scattering,” do not automatically assume that the family understands what that entails or is choosing a plastic box over an urn. The voice of practicality will say that a simple and disposable plastic box is all that is needed without the knowledge that these can be difficult to open and are not always resealable.
- Remember that there should be some thought that goes into choosing the container that will hold what is left of a family’s loved one. This is especially true for scattering since the exact date and time of that event is normally set much later. In fact, internal industry research has shown that roughly 80% of families that say they will scatter have not done so by 5 years after the death occurred. This means that if the plastic box was chosen, then it will be sitting on a shelf for some time.
Urn Options as Solutions
If we assume that a family has not scattered before (yet is planning to scatter their loved one), then they may not fully grasp what is entailed. So you, the funeral director, are just the expert they need. For the scattering families that desire something a little more, there are actually quite a few options that can be presented, for example:
- Asking a family where the scattering will take place is a great question with which to start. If they plan to do it on the water, then many suppliers and vendors now offer biodegradable urns that will actually float, sink, and/or disintegrate. Using one of these will keep the shore winds from blowing grandpa back onto the deck or into the crowd of family members.
- If the urn is to be opened for scattering, then ease of entry will be of great importance to the family. That $1,200 piano wood urn may look pretty, but the family may not want to remove 6 screws and scratch up the bottom before they are able to scatter. A good rule of thumb is to show scattering families urns that can be opened easily. Screw-top and chest urns are great examples.
- Most funeral homes do offer scattering urns, but they can have an inherent flaw that is unnoticed until the scattering occurs: What does the family do with it after they have scattered the cremated remains? This is an opportunity to present the features and benefits of different styles of urns for scattering.
- A family may not realize it at the time, but the oblong, sliding-top box that they purchased has no purpose to serve after scattering.
- The benefits of chest urns include attractiveness, utility, and (often) reasonable prices. Many chest urns either come with a plastic container already inside or they will fit the one from your crematory. Using these urns will allow the family to have a presentable container until scattering can take place, and then once it is empty, the chest can be used for a variety of other things, such as mementos of the deceased – old childhood photos, mom’s seashells, vacation matchbooks, dad’s army medals, etc.
- Psychologically, the empty container can serve as a quasi-replacement for a grave or niche.
- Obviously the two are quite different, but the positive benefits can be generalized to both. An urn (although empty) that held cremated remains is a tangible and physical reminder of a loved one. It’s an object around which survivors can reminisce and provides that missing link to the cremated remains which are now irretrievable.
An Opportunity for Education
In a world where cremation is taking over, we funeral directors need to change our thought process. The revered casket is now being replaced by the once-inglorious urn. Traditionally, picking out a casket was an integral and prominent part of the arrangement conference. This is now transitioning into the selection of an urn, temporary or permanent, for cremated remains. It is essentially the same concept (a vessel that will hold earthly remains) but on a much smaller scale and with nearly endless options. This is where a funeral director’s experienced advice can really be helpful. Scattering families (and those that are undecided but may scatter) often think that they do not need an urn. The passive funeral director will take this as a cue and move on without any more conversation on the topic. The active funeral director will discuss the options available to a scattering family and educate them so that they can make an informed decision.
Some client families may choose cremation because of the price, but that does not mean they want or need a plastic box – even scattering families. A funeral home’s operational success and sustainability will become reliant on the ability to properly offer and promote cremation merchandise and services. One area within the broad umbrella of cremation in which many funeral homes may fall short is with families who intend to scatter. It is easy to dismiss them as simply another family not getting an urn, and then, they in turn are led to that conclusion by the funeral director’s subtle cues and passive approach, but that is a missed opportunity. This is not simply about the bottom line but rather an opportunity to do what you do best – educate your client families and present appropriate options that meet their needs. If done correctly, this can make both sides of the arrangement conference happy.
Yes, some families will still go with the temporary container, but with proper guidance, the curse of the plastic box can be broken.
Cody Lopasky has an M.A. in Psychology and History from the University of Houston-Victoria, a B.A. in Psychology from Texas State University-San Marcos, and he is an A.A.S. graduate with honors and distinction from Commonwealth Institute of Funeral Service. As a student at Commonwealth, Lopasky was a member of the National Funeral Service Honor Society. He is a Texas-licensed funeral director and embalmer as well as a certified crematory operator. Starting in high school, and continuing after licensure, Lopasky worked at Schmidt Funeral Home in Katy, TX. He was employed there as a funeral director and embalmer for several years before joining the education side of funeral service in 2016 when he accepted a full-time faculty position at Commonwealth Institute of Funeral Service. Currently, Lopasky is the Associate Dean of Academics and teaches both face-to-face and online courses. Lopasky enjoys writing and academic research; especially in regard to funeral service. He has published numerous articles, written a continuing education course for funeral service practitioners, and was a contributor for a funeral service education textbook.
tips and tools
Posted By Administration,
Wednesday, August 22, 2018
Updated: Wednesday, August 22, 2018
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.
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Posted By Lori Salberg,
Monday, June 25, 2018
Recently I went to a local store to purchase school uniforms for my youngest child, who after years of agonizing anticipation, gets to finally join her two siblings at the “big school.” I wanted to embrace her enthusiasm for the transition. So, one week after her pre-school graduation, and at least two months before the first day of school, we headed to the uniform shop. I had received a “rookie days” coupon worth 20% off my bill if I came in before the back to school rush. Why wouldn’t I jump on this? My daughter was so excited! We loaded up on polo shirts, pants, skirts, jackets, sweaters, and a new backpack. Unfortunately, I made one critical mistake. I didn’t realize it until I reached the register, but I forgot the coupon.
I hoped it wouldn’t be a big deal, since it really was more of a flyer than a coupon, without a bar code or discount number. To my dismay, my discount request was rejected. I was told that I needed to have the coupon in hand in order to receive the discount. I assured the store employee that I had the coupon and even described the hot pink, black inked design and where I received it. It was suggested that the store was still open for another hour and that I could probably drive home to get it and bring it back before the store closed.
I tried to plead that since they only offered the coupon to specific private schools, and mine was one, and I only knew about it because my child is clearly a “rookie,” purchasing the Kindergarten uniform for one of the specific schools, perhaps they could make an exception. No, unfortunately, I was denied. I asked if I brought the receipt and coupon before the expiration date at the end of the week, if I could receive a price adjustment. This was, thankfully, approved.
Two days later I notched out some time after work and between my son’s all-star baseball practice drop off and my daughter’s dance recital rehearsal drop off, to return to the store with the receipt and coupon in hand. After interrogating me about which particular employee gave me permission to get a price adjustment, the Assistant Manager reluctantly authorized the adjustment. This authorization came only after she had me identify the employee in an almost court-room drama style: “Can you please point to the employee.”
The employee in question first denied that he gave such permission. I’m certain he was afraid of the boss, but I was not walking away from this after all of my trouble. I had to remind him of our interaction, plead with him to look at my kids and remember how he helped us find a specific jacket in the stock room two days earlier. He eventually admitted to the interaction. Finally, after much anticipation, anxiety, and frustration, I’d get my discount.
Another employee at the register was visibly annoyed that she had to process the adjustment. She had to enter the return and then charge back all of the items on my extra-long receipt in order to issue a credit. This of course, was not her fault. After making her frustration known to me, and a few grumblings later, she did attempt to be polite. The Assistant Manager noticed but made no attempt to address this behavior or the situation.
She did give my kids a free grab bag with pencils and plastic toys; and entered them into a guess how many gumballs are in the jar game to win a gift card. A nice gesture, yet despite the freebies and fun promo, my customer experience was less than what I’d call positive. In fact, if they had one of those one-question surveys that every other retailer loves to ask these days, I know what my answer would be. Question: Based on your experience today, would you recommend this business to anyone? Answer: “No!”
Sadly, I have a feeling that the Assistant Manager thinks that I had a positive experience. Yet, I will make every effort to avoid this store in the future, and I’ve already told this story a few times to other school moms. They had an opportunity to WOW me, by making a small exception in order to make my experience more convenient. Instead, their strict policy wasted my time and frustrated their employee, which made me feel unwelcome and guilty for calling out someone who tried to help, despite the strict policy. The coupon was meant to make me feel special, but instead, the experience left me feeling burdened and untrustworthy.
Customer Experience Starts Before We Meet Them
Customer Experience is your customers’ perception of how your company treats them. CEO’s from companies like Amazon, Zappos, Chik-fil-A, Apple, and Southwest Airlines obsess over Customer Experience. When Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos explains why Amazon has become one of the most successful companies on the planet, he does not offer his genius or innovative technology. It comes down to one basic principle: outstanding customer service. Amazon’s brand promise is to become “Earth’s most customer-centric company.”
In fact, they have a return policy that is so liberal, they often tell customers to just keep items that were shipped incorrectly. This actually happened to me twice. The first time was when they accidentally sent me two DVD’s of the toddler video, Wiggles: Pop Go the Wiggles. I tried to return it, but they simply said, “we are sorry for the inconvenience, please keep it.” I’m sure the $8.99 was not worth the hassle of processing a return, but with that experience, they received a customer for life. The generous return policy is one of the reasons I, like millions of customers, love to buy from Amazon. They, unlike my local uniform shop, instill trust and confidence with the customer.
Amazon has permanently redefined what Customer Experience should be, making Customer Experience a primary source of competitive advantage in business today. With over 63% of all cremations going home, competition is fierce. We have to compete for customers more than ever before. In today’s business environment, we must assume that a customer is anyone who steps foot on our property and anyone who looks us up online. Customer Experience starts when they first learn about us to when they no longer need our services. Particularly for funeral homes and cemeteries, that journey may never end.
Customer perceptions affect behaviors and build memories. If customers like you and continue to like you, they are going to do business with you and recommend you to others. It is critical to develop a Customer Experience strategy, which leads to the level of satisfaction that breeds loyalty, referral, and greater sales volume. Keep in mind that 86% of customers are willing to pay more for a better Customer Experience!
Begin with a plan
Customer Experience must be part of your brand identity, it must be something that everyone on your team owns, and that you, as owner or manager, obsess over. Customer Experience is more important than any traditional advertising you do. How do you develop Customer Experience that makes everyone feel welcome, builds trust, and fosters loyalty? It starts with a plan – an actual strategy. Just like a marketing and sales plan, operations plan, budget and financial plan, master plan for development of cemeteries, you have to have a Customer Experience strategy. Start with this:
Have a vision - it starts at the top
- Find an owner
- Get everyone on board
- Understand customer needs – ask and really listen to understand
- Develop a roadmap to meet those needs
- Know how to measure success (and accept failure)
- Be ready for change, and make sure the whole team is too
- Sustain the momentum
Getting everyone on board and truly understanding customer needs is the key to a successful and sustainable program. As you learn about what it means to communicate with customers on their terms, you'll find it's easier to make informed decisions about your overall Customer Experience strategy. If you want to learn more about how to develop a Customer Experience strategy, please join me at the CANA Cremation Innovations Conference next month in Fort Lauderdale.
Lori will present on Customer Experience 101: How to Develop a Customer Experience (CX) Strategy at CANA’s 100th Annual Cremation Innovation Convention this July. We know you have high expectations from the presenters' content so learn from the experts on where cremation is going and how your business can continue its success. Learn more and register: gocana.org/CANA18
Update! One hundred years of conventions proves that CANA successfully tackles the topic of cremation by continually providing relevant, progressive content. The 2018 convention was no exception. Weren't able to join us? You can access Lori's presentation recording and all other speakers' wisdom on our Learning Management System. View session descriptions and pricing here: gocana.org/CANA18.
Our presenters are carefully chosen to ensure practical takeaways that you can apply to your business. Cremation consumers reject ritual and tradition and expect a unique and personalized experience. The industry has seen an influx of products and services that aim to create that experience. But Customer Experience is defined as how customers perceive their interactions with your company. Leading companies understand that how an organization delivers for customers is as important as what it delivers. That’s why Customer Experience is the next frontier for companies hoping to maintain a competitive edge.
Lori Salberg is Senior Business Development Consultant at Johnson Consulting Group. She has over 17 years of experience in cemetery, funeral home, and pre-need sales management. Lori began her career as a Family Service Counselor and quickly moved into management, rising to Associate Director of three cemetery locations. She furthered her career as General Manager of a large combo location and cremation center. She continued her career as Director of Administration for a national consulting management firm. As a member of the leadership team, Lori brought management expertise and software solutions to cemetery and funeral home clients. More recently, Lori contributed to the development of a cemetery software product; and as Vice President of Sales was principally responsible for introducing it to the US market. She is a frequent speaker at many state and regional industry events and an article contributor to many industry magazines.
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