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How to build your firm's preneed program one seminar at a time

      
Date Published: 
November, 2005
Original Author: 
Susan Dowdy
Assurant Preneed, Atlanta, GA
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, November 2005

Seminars provide families valuable information about the benefits of preplanning and prefunding in a non-threatening, non-intrusive manner. In the process, they also deliver pre-qualified leads while building your firm's brand.

From advertising and publicity to direct mail and e-marketing, funeral and cemetery firms have numerous strategic options for increasing preneed—as well as future at-need—leads. There is one strategy that stands head and shoulders above the rest in terms of its total value to your organization, yet it is often overlooked by even the most marketing-savvy firms.

Seminars—when implemented correctly—will help your firm build brand awareness, build personal relationships in the community, educate customers and prospects and deliver valuable, pre-qualified leads. In short, seminars can help your firm meet both short- and long-term marketing and sales objectives.

However, establishing a successful seminar program requires that you carefully plan every aspect, from setting the foundation through program implementation and post-implementation. Doing so will ensure that program objectives are met-and often exceeded.

Seminars offer a full spectrum of benefits
The main objective for most funeral and cemetery firms when hosting a seminar is to gain quality leads in the short-term and increase sales over the long-term. This is a very reasonable and achievable goal.

For example, a funeral home conducting two seminars per month, each attracting an average of 15 participants, and achieving a modest 20 percent conversion rate, creates the potential to attract more than 70 new policies per year. At an average policy value of $5,000, such a seminar program would generate more than $350,000 in new policies per year.

Note that while a 20 percent conversion rate might seem exceptionally high compared to the rate produced by other preneed lead-generation strategies such as direct mail and advertising, seminar audiences are pre-qualified, because they have taken the initiative to attend the program.

But beyond leads and sales, an effective seminar program will deliver benefits that support your firm's long-term at-need program.

"I have been hosting seminars for five years and have learned firsthand that seminars not only generate qualified leads, but also help generate awareness for funeral firms," said Cindy Miller, an independent preneed consultant who uses Assurant Preneed's Wiser Way/Full Circle seminar program. "It allows firms to demonstrate their interest in the communities' welfare, and provides educational resources for families."

When hosting a seminar, you provide valuable information to your community at no charge and with no strings attached. This enables you to build relationships in the community while also building your firm's brand.

Even though a majority of attendees won't immediately buy a preneed policy, seminars give you the opportunity to meet prospective families you otherwise might not have met. This opens the door for future communication, and possible preneed and at-need referrals and at-need calls. It also helps you build your prospect database.

Another benefit of hosting a seminar is that it gives you the opportunity to obtain the attendees' permission to call families. Ask attendees to fill out and sign a contact card that complies with FTC Do Not Call regulations and gives your company the OK to call them at a later date.

Finally, seminars help set your firm apart from your competition. Even if competitive firms are hosting seminars of their own, you can enhance your program to differentiate yourself and establish a unique brand.

A seven-step action plan
A seminar program is a lead-generation technique that should be approached strategically. In order to reap the full potential benefits of a seminar program, consider the following proven steps when developing your action plan.
 
1. Develop a six-month to one-year seminar plan. It is imperative to approach the program with a strategy that will become part of your firm's preneed marketing plan. Your plan should outline the target audience, goals, strategies and tactics, and should include a detailed timeline and budget.

Based on your firm's marketing plan, determine who your target audience is for the seminars. This could include men and women 55 and older, local media, churches, civic groups, senior centers, etc. Consider adding people such as lawyers and accountants who have direct contact with the families you are trying to reach.

When developing goals, make sure they are measurable. For example, do not just plan to "increase sales." Your goal might be to increase preneed leads by a specific percentage and policy sales by a specific dollar amount. This will help you focus strategies and measure success at various times during the implementation process.

2. Select a seminar location. "The most effective location to host a seminar depends on your target audience and community," said Miller. "For example, if a funeral home's director is actively involved in the community, families will not hesitate to attend a seminar at a funeral home. This is a great way to show the community the facilities. On the other hand, if the funeral director is not well known in the community, then an active senior center might generate more leads and better attendance."
You can also consider a community college, coffee shop, recreation center or library. On the other hand, certain locations, such as nursing homes and assisted living centers, are not highly recommended. Although these seniors are often independent, a family member or close friend typically is handling their financial decisions.

It is also beneficial to research existing speaking opportunities in your community. For example, many communities host an annual senior fair. Contact the organizations and inquire about hosting a seminar as part of their program. Make sure to communicate the educational value of your seminar and explain that you are not trying to sell anything.

3. Select the seminar topic. Consider allowing your location to influence your seminar topic. For example, if you are hosting the seminar at an active senior center and its members are primarily men, consider a seminar on veteran's benefits. If you are inviting the general public to attend, consider a caregiver's resource seminar. Additional topic ideas include preplanning or asset protection.

Be creative when selecting topics. For example, host a seminar that focuses on building legacy through photos and memorabilia. This is a very timely topic, especially with the increasing popularity of video tributes.

4. Determine the format. The seminar format can be educational or workshop oriented. The educational format is designed to provide an overview of preplanning and prefunding to the audience and requires little or no active audience participation. The workshop format introduces the audience to preplanning and preneed by having attendees begin the preplanning process during the course of the seminar.

You can design your seminar as a workshop format by developing a worksheet that provides participants with the most common funeral and cremation products/services (casket, vault, burial costs, cemetery property, cremation, etc.) they are likely to purchase and the costs associated with each product. Make sure to offer low, medium and high-end options for each product. For example, offer a steel, wood and bronze casket pricing.

You can incorporate the worksheet into the seminar by giving the attendees time to begin selecting the funeral goods and services they would like and then calculate the costs. This process serves two purposes. It educates attendees about the price of funerals and provides a cost estimate for their desired funeral service.

"Prior to using Assurant's seminar program, I was strictly presenting the information on preplanning and preneed to the audience," said Miller.

"The seminar I am currently using is designed as a workshop, and actually puts the participants to work planning their funeral and generating costs associated with the type of funeral they would like to have. Not only does this help generate discussions among the participants, but the workshop format makes me more comfortable because 100 percent of the attention is not focused on me."

5. Develop marketing materials. Marketing materials are essential for your seminar program. Remember, every brochure or handout you develop communicates something about your firm.

If your presentation is stellar, people will talk about it and it will help generate referrals. On the other hand, a poor quality presentation will reflect poorly on you.

6. Provide refreshments. Evaluate your target audiences and plan refreshments accordingly, from cookies and coffee for morning events to wine and cheese for early evening seminars.

Be creative by choosing fun finger foods and selecting refreshments that coordinate with the seminar topic, such as American flag cookies for a veteran's benefit seminar.

"Attendees mayor may not expect refreshments at a seminar," said Miller. "Those who do not are pleasantly surprised, and those who do are not disappointed."

7. Develop methods for maintaining the audience's interest. Place all the completed contact cards in a bowl or box and hold a prize drawing at the seminar's conclusion. This technique not only influences people to fill out the cards, it also encourages everyone to stay until the end of the seminar.

Gift certificates to local grocery stores, gas stations, or local retailers (Target, Blockbuster, Kohls, Home Depot, etc.) make good prizes.

Another way to maintain audience interest is to remain conversational throughout your presentation. Encourage participants to share personal stories and ask and answer questions.

Follow-up is imperative
A successful seminar requires a successful lead management program. After the seminar, place follow-up calls to each attendee who completed a lead card. This is the most important step, because the potential success of the seminar decreases with each day you do not call the attendees.

"I wait one day after the seminar and then I make all of my follow-up calls," said Miller. ''Timely and persistent follow-up is the key to converting leads to sales."

Evaluate and modify your seminar program
Take time to assess each seminar and your results. If attendance was low, re-evaluate your marketing strategies and tactics and possibly the location. If you distributed a survey, evaluate the responses. This allows your firm to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the seminar and revise it accordingly.

Every step of hosting a seminar is important and can help increase brand identity, leads and sales for your firm. Once you have developed a program that works for your market, the time it takes to implement a seminar will decrease, and it will become an ongoing lead-generation strategy in your firm's marketing plan.

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