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.
tips and tools
Posted By Administration,
Wednesday, July 25, 2018
Updated: Wednesday, July 11, 2018
The funeral industry has a challenge on its hands: consumers are choosing cremation, but they know little about it. They don’t know the process, the possibilities for memorialization, and they don’t understand cremation’s history. Worse, because America’s cremation story has largely been untold, misconceptions about the industry fill the gaps.
Cremation in the United States is the new tradition. In 2016, cremation reached a major milestone when it eclipsed casketed burial as the most popular form of disposition—and it shows no signs of slowing. In 1960, only 3.6% of Americans chose cremation. In 2016, 50.1% did. But even as cremation has soared in popularity, a significant lack of understanding about the process and possibilities of cremation exists. That’s why the History of Cremation Exhibit is so important.
On September 16, the National Museum of Funeral History (NMFH) celebrates the opening of The History of Cremation Exhibit, a joint project developed with CANA to tell the full-circle story of cremation in America: from chronicling its birth in Pennsylvania to demonstrating a step-by-step modern cremation process and illuminating the seemingly endless possibilities for memorialization. Visitors will walk away with a new respect and appreciation for this widely misunderstood industry.
What does Cremation have to do with Funeral History?
The National Museum of Funeral History was founded in 1992 to realize Robert L. Waltrip’s 25-year dream of establishing an institution to educate the public and preserve the heritage of death care. The Museum provides a place to collect and preserve the history of the industry, including how it began and how it has evolved over time. Permanent exhibits feature vintage hearses, international funerary practices, and tributes to notable figures, but no exhibit had touched on the fastest growing method of disposition in the Western world – cremation.
Like its history in America, the global story of cremation is marked by wide-swinging societal shifts. From its ancient use in Roman and Greek culture to purify and honor souls through fire, to its Christian condemnation as a pagan ritual, cremation’s road has been long and conflicted. And people were curious about this story – museum visitors left comments about cremation’s glaring absence from the museum when it’s so present in society.
How did cremation make such a giant leap forward in American society?: The First US Cremation (an exhibit sneak-peek!)
In 1876, the LeMoyne Crematory in Pennsylvania became the first crematory in the United States. That same year, a man named Baron De Palm was the first person cremated there. The inaugural cremation was an event. Local Board of Health members and physicians were invited. Crowds gathered outside the crematory hoping to get a glimpse of the mystical method of disposition by fire.
A handful of honored guests received a small, clear apothecary jar filled with a portion of De Palm’s cremated remains. Those jars signify the birth of cremation in America, and one of them will be on display at the unveiling. Visitors will experience the transition from 1876 to today, from a replica of the LeMoyne Crematory to a modern cremation chamber.
The exhibit is a first-of-its kind undertaking, not merely displaying interesting artifacts, but telling a visual story of cremation in America through historical urns, pamphlets, replicas of original equipment and other artifacts, while educating on the technology and memorialization possibilities of modern cremation. Like the witnesses to Baron de Palm’s cremation, the exhibition will allow people to go behind the scenes—seeing cremation containers, the process, how we recycle, and how we memorialize.
More than getting America’s cremation story in one place, The History of Cremation Exhibit delivers well-deserved clarity to an industry shrouded in mystery. The exhibit will demystify cremation for the public, particularly that cremation memorialization means more than an urn on a mantle. The exhibit will showcase cremation history, but also help the public understand memorialization options and open their eyes to things they never knew about cremation.
While cremation continues to rise in the United States—more than half of Americans are choosing it—too often, people stop at “just cremate me.” Moving beyond direct disposal, the exhibit will showcase meaningful ways to memoralize whether adhering to tradition or creating a personalized experience. This exhibit provides an understanding of the complete cremation process, including the role of the funeral director and cemeterian when exploring options for cremation and permanent placement of their cremated remains.
By the Industry, For the Industry
The idea for an exhibit began long ago when Jason Engler, a funeral director who has been involved in funeral service for most of his life, began collecting facts and artifacts at 12 years old. When he joined CANA as its official historian, he began exploring ways to communicate the fascinating beginning of the American Cremation Movement to a wider audience. This exhibit features much of Engler’s own extensive collection as well as other CANA members’ donated time, resources, and artifacts. Together, they tell the story of cremation and the possibilities for memorialization.
But it’s not simply about educating the public. The exhibit will demystify cremation for funeral service professionals as well. Even seasoned funeral directors and cemeterians struggle with presenting all the options and effectively educating consumers on cremation. Some in the industry may even personally dislike cremation, but they are not alone. Twenty-first century funeral service professionals are the latest in a long line of professionals who struggled with and succeeded in meeting the needs of cremation families.
For a long time, cremation was taboo and certain religions and people within the funeral industry didn’t accept it. But the cremation rate shows that opinions have changed and this exhibit takes a large step toward acknowledging cremation’s history in our profession—and we should take a great deal of pride in it. Understanding the historical context of cremation allows you to learn from the past and embrace the future.
What to Expect at the History of Cremation Exhibit
A driving force behind The History of Cremation Exhibit is Jason Engler, CANA’s official historian. Engler donated approximately 90 percent of his personal collection of historical cremation items to the exhibit, including:
- 140 books, pamphlets, and brochures about historic cremation facilities
- 120 urns, some dating back to the late-1890s
60 postcards depicting various crematories
20 urn catalogues printed from the 1890s to the 1990s
20 original articles, documents, certificates, and images about different aspects of cremation
Outside of Engler’s collection, the exhibit will feature some extraordinary items from the LeMoyne Crematory, which opened in 1876 as America’s first crematory:
A notebook listing all who were cremated at LeMoyne Crematory, which was kept by the designer, builder, and operator of the crematory
A book written by Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne, LeMoyne Crematory’s founder
A copy of the exclusive invitation for the cremation of Baron De Palm, the first modern cremation in the United States
The casket plate from De Palm’s casket
An apothecary jar containing a portion of De Palm’s remains
The exhibit will also showcase the casket lid of the first woman cremated in America—Jane Pitman, who died in 1878. Visitors will also see a letter written by her husband, Benjamin Pitman, requesting her cremation.
Throughout the exhibit, visitors will see how cremation has evolved over time—the changes in societal views, equipment, and memorialization options.
How to Donate to the History of Cremation Exhibit
Financial or artifact contributions are what make the History of Cremation Exhibit possible. Please consider donating to the History of Cremation Exhibit today.
Read on to learn more about the history of cremation starting with the role of women in the Cremation Movement and how the Memorial Idea has changed since the first cremation. This post was excerpted from The Cremationist, Vol 54, Issue 2: “Preview of the History of Cremation Exhibit” by Kelly Rehan.
Jason will present on the history of cremation and our association at CANA’s 100th Annual Cremation Innovation Convention tomorrow! Do you know what cremation innovation will look like in 100 years? Share it with us for our time capsule to be opened in 2118!
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.
tips and tools
Posted By Barbara Kemmis,
Wednesday, April 11, 2018
Scan some recent headlines and you may see a recurring problem:
BCSO Looking for Owner of Abandoned Urn
Searching for Ashes Within Ashes
Salvation Army Receives Donated Urn Filled With Ashes
If cremation is final disposition, we cannot fully serve our communities when they need us most.
Legally, cremation is regarded as final disposition almost everywhere. However, even in places where there are laws on the books requiring placement in cemeteries, such laws are typically not enforced.
Historically, these laws were promoted by funeral directors and cemeterians who held certain assumptions about cremation families. Conventional wisdom dictated that cremation families didn't want ceremony and were focused on price—and therefore not worth the attention of an experienced funeral director. Thus, the laws were designed to protect traditional funeral service elements: casket, wake, clergy service, burial, graveside. Even the FTC Funeral Rule was created along those lines, requiring price disclosure of funeral elements but only addressing cremation as one item—direct cremation.
Our assumptions that cremation and funeral were diametrically opposed created the concept of “direct cremation.” On top of that, the laws that were enacted did more to teach the public that cremation doesn’t need service or burial than they did to prevent cremation’s rise in popularity. And the public continues to choose cremation.
So, after decades of telling the public that they don’t need our service and treating cremated remains as final disposition, how do we expect to change public perceptions now?
I’m not the first to say it, but this is a polarized profession. On one side, there are those who embrace the whole spectrum of cremation, from direct disposition to full service. The other side doesn’t believe in cremation and doesn’t understand the experience of the family beyond the transaction. Unfortunately, you can’t sell what you don’t believe. Tacking “Cremation Services” on to your company name by contracting with the local third party doesn’t mean cremation families will flock to your business—especially if you don’t understand why they’re choosing cremation in the first place.
For too many in the industry, cremation is fine on their terms: “Cremated remains can be buried—in fact you can even place two sets in one space!” Or “A wooden casket can be cremated and you can have the body present at a visitation and service prior to cremation.” Both of these statements are true and many families may find comfort in these rituals—but they aren’t the only truths. They’re not the only path toward healthy grieving and gathering.
Other providers segregate our communities by the labels of “traditional” or “cremation” because they “figured out what cremation families want” and it’s a transaction, not an experience. The resistance to creativity and personalization under the guise of ritual and dignity has done even more damage to consumer attitudes than regulation has.
Consumer watchdogs reinforce the assumption that cremation is merely disposition. Their arguments make cremation about price, where “dealing with the body” should be as cheap as possible to avoid being taken advantage of by funeral directors. Worse, funeral directors reinforce this by starting the conversation with pricing and not service. Low-cost, direct disposers succeed by speaking directly to cremation families in the same language as the media and watchdogs, reinforcing that funeral directors and cemeterians are mercenary and superfluous.
All this propaganda leaves consumers fearful and confused. Cremation is supposed to be simple! Complete some paperwork, make a few basic decisions, and take home a box—with little guidance and support, let alone memorialization ideas (and forget about any mention of permanent placement altogether).
In pop culture, memorialization is reserved for the military or the wealthy and scattering is the option for everyone else—other than maybe a fancy urn on the mantel. The funeral director’s expertise is absent.
Then there is the stereotypical funeral director. All stereotypes have a kernel of truth, otherwise they would be absurd and implausible instead of funny. The creepy, morbid, silent man in a black suit standing in the back of the room is funnier than a man or woman directing and educating the family in options to create a meaningful experience and finding a meaningful place for the remains to rest.
But we created this problem. There is no point in blaming hospice, Hollywood, or the watchdogs. Funeral directors, cemeterians, death care trade associations— we created this problem, and we need to find the solutions.
Strategies and Solutions
- Public trust is at an all-time low for institutions across the board. This is hard for funeral directors as first responders relied upon to serve people at need and anyone in the industry trusted with the memory and the finances of a loved one. Building trust is about transparency, communication, and apologizing when you’re in the wrong. In our industry, we have to go one step farther and educate the consumer about what we do. We can’t let watchdogs and the media tell our story and we have to demonstrate how we contribute to the public service.
- Building hospice and health care partnerships centered around grief services is brilliant. Maintaining a level of continuity builds the trust in the expertise of professional care. Too often, when somebody dies, health care’s job is done except for the paperwork. The grief services dictated by Medicare, delivered in conjunction with funeral homes, provide an opportunity to develop a relationship with a family and educate them about options. They’ve become used to the level of support and care of the medical profession, so abruptly turning the conversation to the transaction of a direct cremation is too jarring. We can do better.
- Funeral home and crematory staff are more than happy to help a family to their car with a box of cremated remains. Would you do the same with the casketed body of their loved one? Why are cremated remains so different? Where is the reverence and the ceremony? Expert Celebrant Glenda Stansbury’s concept of infusing ceremony into every interaction with families includes the moment the cremated remains are retrieved from your care. We need to remind ourselves to maintain the respect for the cremated remains. Knowing you’ve helped to lay remains at a gravesite offers a sense of closure and security, so why not ask where the cremated remains are going? Chances are good that you’ll be able to provide the same closure and security if you offer useful ideas.
- Cemetery placement is only possible if the cemetery embraces cremation, too. Cemeterians—have you truly updated your cemetery rules and regulations to accommodate a cremation age? Do you offer multiple memorialization options—burial, above ground niches, benches, ossuaries, scattering, and memorial walls for those who scattered elsewhere? If 60-80% of cremated remains go home, there are millions of boxes sitting on shelves and guilty family members cringing every time they see that box. They have a problem and you have a solution. You can help remove their guilt, offer closure, and lay their loved one at peace—even years after the death. I recognize that this is the toughest market in which to communicate value, but the recent consumer media frenzy about maintaining clean cemeteries demonstrates that people worry about perpetual care and they abandon their loved ones at funeral homes because they know they’ll be safe there. A recent speaker at a CANA event called cemeteries the “biggest museums in the world” with “more history in them than a lot of other places” and genealogical information for generations. Your role has never been more important, and framing it that way is key.
You’ll notice none of my proposed solutions attempt to convince the consumer they’re wrong. That tradition is the best, that cremation is bad. Partially that’s because I work for the Cremation Association of North America, but mostly it’s because cremation is a bell that cannot be unrung. The cremation rate passed 50% in 2016 and will not revert.
In our industry’s past, we tried to partition families by their burial and cremation preferences. Now, we have to unteach the public and ourselves. There’s no such thing as “just cremation.” Compassion, service, options, grief, problems, solutions, and placement are relevant to every death, no matter the disposition. But solutions only work if we believe we can solve the problem, and if we can meet the family’s needs.
Barbara Kemmis is Executive Director of the Cremation Association of North America.
All CANA members can benefit from community outreach and consumer education programs by using the PR Toolkit to develop a strategy. Not a member? Consider joining your business to access tools, techniques, statistics, and advice to help you understand how to grow the range of services and products you can offer, ensuring your business is a good fit for every member of your community – only $470!
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Posted By Danielle Burmeister, Homesteaders Marketing Communications Lead,
Wednesday, March 21, 2018
Today’s consumers foster inherent skepticism toward traditional advertising. Instead, they prefer and rely on recommendations from people they know and trust. To effectively reach these consumers, you need brand advocates – individuals who have first-hand knowledge of your funeral home and can share their positive experiences through word-of-mouth referrals.
Your brand advocates are well placed to offer credible recommendations to their peers. They sing your praises to others in the community without incentives like coupons, discounts or special offers. They do it because you have earned it, and they are often your most effective recruiters, a compelling blend of advocacy and authenticity.
The most successful funeral businesses rely on word-of-mouth recommendations and testimonials to increase brand awareness in their community. But to truly capitalize on this valuable pool of promoters, you need to know how to identify and mobilize your brand advocates.
How do you identify brand advocates?
The most obvious place to look for brand advocates is among your client families. These individuals are well acquainted with your goods and services because they’ve experienced them firsthand. This makes them valuable sources of information about your business. However, not every customer makes an effective brand advocate. To ensure you’re focusing your attention on those individuals who are going to have the most impact on your business, you should identify customers who have had memorable and rich experiences with your funeral home.
Storytelling is an essential part of word-of-mouth recommendations for funeral businesses. No one truly wants to shop for a funeral – caskets, vaults, urns and monuments are not fun to buy. Very few people are going to be compelled to use your services because they hear you have an impressive collection of 18-gauge steel caskets. Instead, they respond to story-based recommendations that describe experiences and emotions. And the most effective stories are the memorable ones – the ones that get told and retold from person to person.
My family recently experienced two losses that illustrate the importance of memorable services. When my grandmother passed away, we planned what many of us think of as a “traditional” service: an immediate cremation followed by a visitation for friends and community members, a memorial service at the local church, a lunch reception at the community center and a short graveside service at the Veterans cemetery. While the day was certainly meaningful for my family, it was not necessarily memorable to those who attended.
When my cousin died a year later, we planned a very different service. We held the funeral in the high school gymnasium, with his name lit up on the scoreboard above a red bowtie – his favorite accessory. Every member of his graduating class wore bowties, even some of his coaches. During the service, dozens of teachers and friends shared stories, some sweet, others funny – all memorable. The luncheon afterward was even catered by his favorite barbecue restaurant. His service was memorable – so much so that many in the community are still talking about it three years later.
Consider the last 10 services you performed at your funeral home. How many of them were truly memorable? Can you picture attendees sharing stories from the service with their friends and relatives? Will people still be talking about that experience a year from now? Two years? Ten? If you’re not sure, you likely need to spend some time working with your staff on creative memorialization and personalization so that each and every family leaves your funeral home with a memorable experience that they are excited to share with everyone they know.
When looking for brand advocates, you should also consider the breadth of experience a family has had with your business. Someone who selected direct cremation is unlikely to have much to say about your funeral home – good or bad. They simply haven’t had much exposure to you or your business. On the other hand, consider the credibility and influence of an individual who met with you in a prearrangement setting for their spouse; interacted with your staff at the first viewing, visitation and memorial service; took advantage of your aftercare efforts; and then returned to plan and fund their own funeral. A customer who has this kind of rich experience with you and your staff is much more likely to be a loyal, informed advocate for your business.
How can you mobilize brand advocates?
Unfortunately, identifying your most effective brand advocates is the easy part. Learning to motivate and deploy them effectively is much more difficult.
To mobilize your brand advocates, you first need to build and nurture meaningful relationships with them. This first part is likely something that already comes naturally to you – after all, you work in a relational profession. You likely know many of your client families before they come in for an arrangement conference, and if not, you are skilled at establishing a connection with them within a few minutes of meeting. However, it’s just as important to continue to foster those relationships long after the immediate need has passed.
There are few tangible ways to do this. First, take advantage of as many fact-to-face interactions as you can. That means dropping off paperwork at a widow’s home instead of mailing it, offering to transport flowers to the family’s home so they don’t have to pack them into their station wagon, and taking time to greet your customers whenever you see them out in the community. You may even consider calling the surviving spouse three or four weeks after the service just to check in, or taking them out for coffee so they have something to look forward to once all their friends have stopped calling and visiting.
You should also leverage opportunities to continue to provide service to families through your existing aftercare. Make sure every family knows what’s available – newsletters, emails, grief support groups, etc. Let them know why they’re important and offer to connect them with others who have found value in participating in those programs. Whenever you have events at your funeral home, like open houses, memorial services or holiday events, make sure you invite your brand advocates. Attending provides them with more exposure to your business and gives them one more thing to talk about with their friends and relatives.
The last – and most important – step in mobilizing brand advocates is asking your client families for referrals. This is often an uncomfortable thing for funeral professionals to do, but it’s a key part of leveraging brand advocates to promote your business. Often, customers who have had great experiences with your business are already inclined to promote you in their communities, but it’s still a good idea to remind them that it’s a valuable thing for them to do.
When you ask for referrals, make sure you incorporate three things:
- Explain why their recommendation is valuable. Talking about death can be uncomfortable for your client families, but you can help normalize it by encouraging them to share their experiences. I’ve found that the most effective way to do this is to focus on what they can do for other families: “Losing a loved one is difficult for every family – especially those who have never experienced loss before. You can help the people in your life prepare for the loss of their own loved ones by sharing your experience with them.”
- Ask them to provide a testimonial or referral. Timing is important. If you already have a follow-up system in place (like a survey), that is the ideal opportunity to ask for testimonials. If not, follow up with families a week or two after the conclusion of services to check in and ask about their experience. If they have great things to say about you and your staff, encourage them to share their thoughts with others: “We’ve found that hearing from other families we’ve served helps others who experience a loss understand what they can expect when they use our funeral home. Would you be comfortable providing a testimonial about your experience?”
- Let them know how/where to provide feedback. Decide how you want your client families to share their feedback. Ideally, they will be talking about your business everywhere they go. But it’s also a good idea to give them a concrete starting point – like your funeral home’s Facebook page. Once you’ve asked for a testimonial, make sure they know where to go to provide it: “We are honored you chose our firm to care for your loved one. Our service standard is to provide exceptional service to each and every family. If you feel we went above and beyond in our service to you, please share that on our funeral home’s Facebook page.”
One final note: The best way you can ensure you are identifying and mobilizing your brand advocates is to build the process into your standard operations. Make sure everyone on your staff understands the importance of providing memorable service to your client families. Train them to be on the lookout for individuals who have rich experiences with your firm and stories to share about your services. Then set expectations for how you will ask families for testimonials and ensure that every member of your team knows how valuable those testimonials can be for your funeral business.
Danielle Burmeister grew up in an apartment above her parents’ funeral home, where she cleaned cars, arranged flowers, and played “Taps” for graveside services. Some of her earliest memories include family dinners squeezed between visitations and road trips to local and national funeral association conventions.
Now, Burmeister works as Marketing Communications Lead at Homesteaders Life Company, a national leader in providing products and services to support the funding of advance funeral plans. In her current role, she offers a unique perspective on blending the day-to-day demands of a funeral business with creative and comprehensive marketing strategy.
Follow her on Twitter @burmeisterd1.
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