ICFM Magazine, March-April 2006
Ever wish the competition would just disappear?
Well, it's not going to happen, and that's OK, says this municipal cemetery manager, because families like having choices. He suggests you learn to thrive on competition rather than trying to eliminate it.
Sometimes competition seems to bring out the worst in both people and companies, but what is our goal in the cemetery and funeral service profession? Is it to steer families to buy the products and services that will help us and our companies, or is it to help families and give them the options that will better serve them?
I like to believe I'm here to serve families. And believe it or not, families that have been treated in a way that serves their best interests rather than yours are more likely to return and reuse your service-whatever the cost-when the next time of need arises.
Badmouthing others is bad for everyone
Last weekend a family called me to ask about the availability of infant spaces at our cemetery. I told them Greenwood has plenty of spaces in our babyland section and said if they wanted me to, I could meet them later in the afternoon to show them the burial options. Naturally, in true dedicated cemeterian fashion, I didn't mention that when their call came I was on the lake fishing and answering it lost me one of the biggest catches of the morning.
I cleaned up and met the couple at the cemetery. Now, since Greenwood is a stand-alone cemetery and not a combo operation, I deal mainly with land purchases and opening and closing charges. The couple said they had been to a funeral home to make arrangements, and when they asked about getting space at Greenwood, the funeral director was adamant that we were sold out! He urged them to consider another cemetery. I was not surprised, when the couple told me which cemetery he had suggested, that it's one owned by the same company that owns the funeral home.
So here was a family distraught over the loss of an infant being told a "tall tale" by the funeral director. They were furious over the time they ended up wasting checking on cemetery availability because of what they viewed as games being played by a funeral director they had assumed was there to help them in their time of need by looking after their best interests. Do you think what this funeral director did will generate any future business for his firm?
When I contacted the funeral director to ask why he tried to keep the family from looking at Greenwood, his response was, "I lost a 3 percent commission on the cemetery sale." Let's see, using my admittedly very Southern math, his commission on what would have been about a $500 land sale would have been around $15.
If it were me, I would much rather have the family happy with my service and open to coming back to my funeral home in the future than to pocket the $15, make them mad and have them bad-mouthing me all over town.
In another case, a funeral director (one I had recommended) told a family a simple concrete burial container would not meet our requirements and that they had to buy a special vault, at an additional cost to them of several hundred dollars. When the family mentioned this at the burial, I was speechless.
I hate to compare our profession to car sales, but I think it's interesting that car dealerships have found that they are more successful when they all operate in a geographically concentrated area and let the merchandise speak for itself.
In most cities, the dealers locate next to and/or across the street from their competitors. This allows shoppers to easily compare vehicles and make an informed decision based on their needs, desires and budgets. Most of us leave our house with a certain make and model in mind but want to shop around and feel comfortable with our decision about this major purchase.
Bringing the concept back to our profession, funeral service guru Todd Van Beck talks about getting his first job at Heafey & Heafey on Omaha, Nebraska's "mortuary row," where there were 10 funeral homes in a 12-block area, so the idea isn't foreign to funeral service.
Instead of badmouthing the competition, concentrate on highlighting the best of what you offer families. Every funeral home and cemetery offers something unique and different to enhance its service. Some might offer night and weekend services, others a fancy hearse; some give back generously to the community; some showcase their facilities through tours and open houses.
Knocking the competition in an attempt to close a sale simply puts the entire profession in a bad light, and as families become more educated about our profession (something that is getting easier to do in this Internet age) and make their own comparisons, they are left with a bad taste in their mouths if they have been misled.
Our cemetery is one of the only ones left in the area that allows upright memorials. Some families come to us for this reason, while others couldn't care less about having this option.
Our cemetery encompasses over 100 acres and bellows Southern charm, with huge trees hung with Spanish moss and acres of old monuments. Some families prefer a small cemetery, or one with highly manicured lawns.
Our cemetery sits in the heart of downtown Orlando. Some families do not want to fight the traffic to get to the cemetery and would rather have their loved ones interred closer to their neighborhood.
Do any of these reasons for a family not choosing Greenwood bother me? Not one iota. In fact, if you visit our cemetery, I have brochures and business cards from my competitors, both corporate and independent, displayed in the front office.
I am confident that Greenwood offers a unique and special burial place that many families will willingly choose. I would much rather have a family make an informed decision to use Greenwood than "settle" because they felt they had no choice. A family that freely chooses your funeral home or cemetery tends to be a more understanding client in those cases when things don't go exactly as planned.
Get to know the competition
When we offer the public fun and educational programs, I extend an offer to my competition to attend. Why? Maybe they can learn something that will enhance the level of service they offer their families. And why not let them know firsthand what we are doing? If they don't know, they might make it up, so why not make sure they have the straight story?
Our municipal cemetery averages about 12 burials a week and has no preneed or telemarketing sales program. We do no print advertising. Everybody who walks through our gates wants to be here, has family here or has gotten a recommendation to use us from someone else.
In October, our local newspaper ran a story announcing the opening of 220 new spaces at Greenwood. They sold out in six hours. The demand for these spaces was humbling. There are cemeteries in the area that offer extended payment plans, insurance assignments, free coffee and a good looking office staff. We offered a very simple financial plan—one payment, no interest—and still families were lined up to buy.
What you offer to families year round is what entices them to your funeral home or cemetery, not what the glossy new ad states on Sunday. Sure, some families are drawn to your location due to slick advertising, but wouldn't your bottom line be better off if it were based on return business generated by how well you meet your families' needs?
Embrace the competition, show off your accomplishments and make decisions that enhance your level of service. Speak with your competitors; get to know them. Sell yourself and your business—don't knock the competition. Strive to create new and exciting programs; be a leader in your community. Offer programs designed to educate families so they can decide what they want, not to maneuver them into making the purchases you want.
These are the things families will remember.