Cemeteries Need To Focus On Aftercare As Much As Funeral Homes

I wrote this article for the June 2018 American Cemetery & Cremation magazine and am sharing it with permission. Visit www.americancemetery.com to subscribe

In the funeral business, it’s called aftercare. In any other business it’s called service-after-the sale. In most service related businesses, following up to check on a customer after a purchase is made is expected. Consider a real estate agent who might be working with a young couple to buy their first house. The agent answers questions, calms fear and manages the many moving parts that are necessary to get a deal closed. It’s a big purchase for the couple and the agent was, in effect, their partner in this journey. If the last time they spoke to the agent was at the closing table, they would be right in the natural assumption (and general stereotype) that the salesperson only wanted their money and really didn’t have their best interest at heart.

What assumption or stereotype might be present for a family who last saw their funeral director at the cemetery, or their preneed counselor after the papers were signed?

In a real estate or funeral example, the agent, director, or counselor all have an opportunity to build a valuable relationship over time and position themselves as the first choice the next time a family needs their services. This value of good will is often extended to family and friends through word of mouth.

In poker there’s a term called table stakes, which means the minimum amount of money a player must have to sit at the table. In business, continuing to be visible and provide value to your customer after they purchase your product or service is table stakes.

Customer Experience is the new marketing channel

Every business knows their best source of new business is from their existing customers. Smart companies have discovered the value and are forgoing the bare-knuckle fight on price and instead are providing a higher level of service. The prize isn’t just a satisfied customer, it’s a brand evangelist and they are only created when you not just meet but exceed their expectations.

With a simple transaction, where a customer chooses a product and goes through check-out, they don’t expect anyone to call and make sure they’re satisfied. They know the price and nature of the product would never warrant that extra attention. However, when a purchase is more consultative, higher priced and, let’s throw in stressful and emotional, they do expect someone to be there after the check clears.

Choosing a cemetery, deciding on memorialization, and understanding costs can be stressful to some and overwhelming to others. Creating a good experience before (marketing), during (delivery of service) and after (aftercare) is what is needed for a great customer experience.

In a world where you no longer compete with a local competitor but everyone across the globe, and in a world where what you offer might not be the standard practice any more (think traditional funerals), delivering an exceptional service and post-sale follow up will be required to remain competitive.

Why aftercare is becoming more important for cemeteries

In the funeral business, the fight for each customer will intensify in the coming years. There are simply too many options for a family in terms of provider, disposition, ceremony and memorialization.

The entire death care industry has been turned on its head by cremation and has created a relevancy question for many providers, both on the funeral side and the cemetery side of the business. We are witnessing families that choose direct cremation questioning if a funeral director is even necessary and those choosing to scatter the ashes asking the same question about a cemetery.

The question now becomes not just who will provide the services to the family, but if there will be services at all.

Years ago, a funeral home or a cemetery only had one sale to make to the public and it was simple. Choose us! A funeral home now has two sales to make: 1.) A funeral service to honor your loved one is important. 2.) Choose OUR funeral home to handle it. A cemetery also now has two sales to make: 1.) Permanent memorialization is important. 2.) Use OUR cemetery as the place to do it.

Knowing the landscape, it’s easy to see how important it is for a cemetery to keep their name in front of their families and remind them they exist.

Why the first year follow up is so critical

When you understand why you should do something, figuring out how gets easier. If you can’t see the benefit of doing something, you won’t succeed. This is particularly true when leadership wants to implement a new plan in a company but fails to explain the reasons why it is needed or how this improves the company’s objectives.

In the funeral business, there are tangible benefits when you stay in touch with families after the services are over. The following are only a few of the many reasons to start taking that extra step now.

  • Build trust – Maintaining a relationship and adding value after the service builds trust and reinforces the feeling that they made the right choice with your cemetery.
  • Opportunity for preneed – Studies show that people who have been to a funeral recently will prearrange their own services at a higher rate than those who have not. When death is top of mind, the natural trigger is to get your house in order. There is simply no better opportunity for preneed than from the families you’ve served in the past.
  • Get referrals – The lifeblood of any sale organization is referrals, whether direct or indirect. People who prearrange did so because they see the value and feel good and are proud they removed that burden from those they leave behind. They want others they care about to have that same peace of mind so it’s natural, and not pushy, for a counselor to ask if they have family and friends they would like to see have the same peace of mind.
  • Extended memorialization – For decades, the urn on the mantle was the default resting place. There is a huge opportunity now for cemeteries to encourage families who have the remains of loved ones at their homes to consider permanent memorialization.

Examples of ways to follow up

  •  Thank you cards or letters
  • Helpful checklists
  • Holiday services
  • Phone calls
  • Home visits
  • Material about memorial maintenance

Factors to consider before starting any aftercare program

  •  Are you fully committed to making follow up protocol?
  • Do you have a system to keep up, so families don’t fall through the cracks?
  • Are you telling families that you will follow up with them, creating accountability for you and your staff?
  • What is your plan if you have a busy period and are unable to keep up?

Conclusion

Having a follow up plan and being committed to it should be a core objective of a company.  Putting the brakes on the commoditization of funeral service and slowing the march toward minimal services can only happen by focusing on the service to the family and not the products being sold.  A relentless focus on earning trust and creating loyalty with the families you serve today will ensure you have families to serve tomorrow.

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Ellery Bowker is the founder of Aftercare.com, which helps funeral homes and cemeteries stay in touch with families after the service is over. He can be reached at ellery@aftercare.com.

This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of American Cemetery & Cremation, published by Kates-Boylston Publications, and is being shared with permission. Visit www.americancemetery.com to subscribe.