Allen Dave is an event planner. Since 1980, he's planned weddings.
Now he plans funerals. Yes, he graduated from mortuary school, but it's his wedding planning career that taught him how to creatively serve families.
Got a minute? He'll give you half a dozen large and small ways to change what you're offering families.
What are the big events in our lives? Graduations. Weddings. Funerals. A lot of work goes on behind the scenes to produce big events. As funeral directors, we sometimes operate as project managers. We discover what the client wants, let them know how much everything costs, create a budget and do a cost analysis to make sure what they want will fit in the budget and coordinate the suppliers and vendors.
Whether it's a wedding or a funeral, we have a lot of information the family doesn't have. They may have bits and pieces, but they don't know how to pull it all together. They come to us for that. There are people who plan their own funerals, just as there are people who plan their own weddings, but in general, we are the paid professionals who know how to provide the products and services they want. We have the experience; we have the knowledge.
Even if you still do traditional funerals, there are non-traditional things you can add to them. These aren't things I created; I learned from other people and other companies.
Start relationship-building immediately
Everyone spends a lot of time making sure their employees know how to handle a first call, but what's important to us is what we do after we get that initial notification.
Our funeral home is still new in the market, so after we get the first call, we want to begin serving the family right away; we don't want to take a chance on losing that family to another funeral home. Someone in the family may say, ''I know this funeral home over here, I don't know them."
We assign a family service representative to the family and get into the home as soon as we can, whether the death occurred at night or during the day. We don't wait for the family to come to us, we don't say, "Be at the funeral home at 3 p.m."
We send the funeral director to the home to introduce himself or herself. We take a cooler filled with beverages and ice, a 64-cup stainless steel coffeemaker, coffee, sugar, cream, cups, an assortment of teas and 10 folding chairs.
At the home, we try to make a family assessment. We have what we call home concierge services to help the family out. They've had a death and now they're going to have visitors. Family and friends are going to be coming to the home, so we want to make sure the home looks good. Do they need lawn service? Housekeeping? We make those services available to the family.
We have a relationship with many of the hotels in our area. We find out how many family members may be coming from out of town and instead of them getting just a standard room, we try to upgrade them to a suite at the same charge, since they're going to be doing some visiting at the hotel.
Our philosophy on guest services is that anything the family wants or needs is our responsibility to make sure the family gets.
Transportation is a key service for us. All of our funeral packages include four hours of sedan service. They can use it to go to the grocery store, the doctor, the pharmacy, the cemetery—anywhere they want.
Get to know the family
Doing weddings, we talk to the brides, ask them what type of wedding they would like. Big or small? In Houston, San Antonio or the Caribbean? The key is to ask a lot of questions and listen to what people say.
If you ask people what type of funeral they want, some people will tell you. But I don't start funeral arrangements by saying, ''What kind of funeral service would you like? Do you want a chapel service or a church service?" I begin by going into their home and saying, “Tell me about Dad. What was important to him? Where did he go to school? What organizations did he belong to? Who were his friends?"
We had one gentleman who had been an avid jogger. His widow told us he had always jogged in the morning, so we recreated a final morning jog. The hearse with the casket inside met the joggers at 5 AM and accompanied the joggers for a two-mile run. That meant so much to the family; it was very meaningful to them.
At the funeral home, we create a living room setting for the family. When we're at the home, we get their framed pictures, photo albums, awards, blankets—whatever is special to the family. We remove all of our pictures from the wall and put up theirs. When the family and friends arrive, they find something familiar.
We have a children's center. We found that very few funeral homes in the Houston market had one, so we created a room with murals on the wall, video games, paints and toys. We want families to know that children are welcome at the funeral home. People can drop off their children at the center and then go to the chapel for services. We get children involved in the funeral by having them write a love letter to grandpa or a painting that can be placed in the casket or a memorial book.
We do video presentations. Every funeral home is presenting families with a memorial video tribute. If you aren't, you're really missing something. At graduations, people take videos. At weddings—do you know how much brides are spending for videos? In my market, $2,500 to $3,500. You can have an outside firm do it for you.
We give the videos to as many people as we can. The minimum number of videos we produce for any family is 12, because it's a commercial—our name appears on the video at the beginning or the end. We give it to them because it's a commercial. Do you know how many people go home and watch these things? These should be automatically included in your packages, as far as I'm concerned. It doesn't take a lot of pictures to do an effective one.
I also do something I call Theater Under the Stars. In the back of our funeral home near the parking lot, I have a 7½ by 10 foot screen where we show the memorial video at the end of the service, if we haven't shown it in the funeral home. We ask everybody to join us outside; we have blankets for the kids to lie on, a few chairs. In Houston, the weather's about 70 year round, so we don't have the weather constraints some of you do.
Family time and the "universal meal"
We do a private family visitation. This is very powerful. We find out how many people are in the immediate family—it may be five, 10 or 20. They've been running around getting ready for the funeral, trying to find clothes, going to the airport. So we have them come in an hour before the visitation for family time and what we call the universal meal.
First we take them into the living room and show them the memorial video, then to the chapel to have private time with their loved one, then to our memorial fellowship center. They sit down for a meal at a table set like it would be for a wedding, a round table with fine linen, candles and seasonal flowers. They enjoy a meal and talk about the good times, about Dad, about Mom.
Serve them a wonderful meal. It's priceless, and it's not very expensive. An outside catering firm handles it for us. Some of our families have requested beer and wine. We don't have the permits, but the catering company does.
Of the 65 families we served the first year, 90 percent wanted this. We haven't served a single family in the last four months that didn't want this. You can get food from the $5 to $7 range up to $50 to $60 a head. (If you've paid for a wedding lately, what did you pay for the reception dinner?) Introduce the product to them and families will spend what they want to spend.
Some studies tell you food service is important for funeral homes, some say it's not, but I think it's one of the most important values you can offer. If you're not serving food as part of your services, begin to do so.
During public visitations, we have a choice of beverages, including coffee. I like coffee; and my pet peeve is old coffee, so replace it every 30 minutes. We bake fresh cookies, an idea I got from going to time-share presentations. Let the smell of fresh-baked cookies go through your funeral homes and have someone walking around with an elegant tray offering people cookies—oatmeal, chocolate chip (that's number one).
At the reception, try different foods, offer people a variety. We set things up beautifully, use fine china. If you don't do anything else, have a nice dessert tray. Ninety percent of our families want this food, and they're paying for it. Make it pretty so they'll talk about it afterward.
If you don't have banquet facilities, find one near you and work out a deal.
One of the most important organizations for you to get to know is the National Association of Catering Executives. These are the event planners; become a member of NACE in your community.
More ideas to consider
• Use candles. Have candlelight prayers. There's a company at the convention that sells candles without wax (Candle Perfection) you can burn in your funeral home.
• Use your vehicles more. You have all of these expensive vehicles, get your name on them and use them. The majority of my customers have come from my bridal market, so we give them a choice. They may spend a lot of money and get something similar to what they had at the wedding.
• Offer choices for recessionals from the funeral home to the cemetery. People are willing to upgrade and do some special things, just as they are with brides. Brides pay for a limousine driver for five hours just to be driven from the church to the reception hall and after that to the hotel. They pay for five hours; they use it for 30 minutes. You have wonderful things available in all of your markets, such as buggies, carriages. Create a beautiful scene.
• Offer more locations. I've been in the business less than two years and I have one funeral home located in northeast Houston. I'm already a million dollars in debt; I can't afford to keep building funeral homes, so I figured out a different way to expand. Wedding chapels are usually available Monday through Thursday, because when do the weddings take place? Friday through Sunday. So during the week, you can rent beautiful churches, nice settings, for very little money, because they're just sitting empty.
• Upgrade your boutonnieres: Please, there are options other than carnations and roses. Take a look at what else your florist has, upgrade and make them fit with the season. It doesn't cost more than $1 per boutonniere. You'll be amazed at how many women will love this, and who's our market? The women are making the decisions.
• Investigate online funeral programs. You're going to be hearing more about this. Before Coretta Scott King's funeral, more than 500,000 programs were e-mailed to people, and by the end of the funeral, they estimated that more than 10 million people had gotten it. Put your funeral programs online and send it to your families.
• Offer a variety of music. Instead of an organ or piano player, we use a harpist, a string quartet. Because of the Latino market in our area, we also make mariachi bands available, and a lot of customers like this for the cemetery. How many of you know the bagpipers in your area and can call them right now to schedule them for a service this afternoon?
• Offer butterfly and dove releases at the cemetery. For the doves, we decorate the cages. And you know they aren't doves, they're homing pigeons. We release them at the cemetery and they fly back to the funeral home for us to use again. For butterfly releases, we have the children at the committal service open up the pouches and release them. If you win the hearts of the children, you win the parents. (How much money do parents spend on children's birthday parties?)
• Have a photographer available. Either have a staff photographer or a company you can outsource to. When families come together for a wedding or a funeral it's the only time you can take all these wonderful photos that are lifelong keepsakes. Offer a photographer for the reception and the committal service.
Funerals are not about us; they're about the families. You have to give the families what they want. Do things to make your funerals different and unique.
This article compiled from an address presented by the author at the 2006 ICFA Annual Convention