Sales for Small Cemeteries

Date Published: 
October, 1950
Original Author: 
Raymond L. Groves
Secretary-Treasurer, Davenport Memorial Park, Davenport, Iowa
Original Publication: 
1950-1951 Cemetery Yearbook

Please don't let the title of my talk confuse you. I have nothing new to offer, nor have I discovered a way to influence the people of my community to walk into our cemetery and plead with our sales organization to allow them to purchase a burial estate. Neither have I found a way to transform the average person with sales ability into a cemetery salesman simply by handing him a sales kit.

For several years I have been attending National Cemetery Association conventions and sales conferences, and like many other cemetery operators in com¬munities the size of mine, I have listened to the successful cemetery owners and sales managers tell how they managed their cemeteries, trained and hired their sales force, how their salesmen secured leads and closed sales. Like many other operators I would applaud the speakers and say to the fellow sitting next to me, "That kind of stuff is all right in his town, but you can't do that in Davenport." So I would go home and wait in my office for someone to come and ask me to sell them a burial estate.

The truth is not too many years ago I discovered the secret of successful cemetery men and the funny part of it was I had known it; all the time, but was too lazy to use it. Gentlemen, the cemetery operator in a large city is the same kind of a human being as a cemetery operator in a small city. The cemetery salesmen in a large city were the same kind of guys as the cemetery salesmen small city, the buyer of burial estate property in a large city is the same kind of a person as one who buys burial estate property in a small city. They all eat the same kind of food, wear the same kind of clothes, they all marry, raise families, work for a living, like to make money and spend money, so if the buyer of burial estate property is the same kind of person as in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, he must be the same kind of person in Davenport, Iowa.

Therefore, if a salesman in New York can sell $12,000 worth of burial property in one month, a salesman in Davenport, Iowa, should be able to sell $12,000 worth of burial property in one month because a salesman in Davenport can call on as many prospects and make the same number of interviews in one day as man in New York.

It is not the size of the town that makes the salesman, it is how well he is trained by management; it is the cooperation and assistance given him by management and the quality of the product management has to sell that makes him the successful salesman in any business. Before management can train a salesman in a small city he must follow the same steps used by his brethren in the large city, that is, know the "know how" himself. He must be capable of hiring and training salesmen, inspiring salesmen to sell his products, he must assist and work with his salesmen and remember that they are the life blood of his business and should be respected and paid accordingly. If management capable of doing this job it should employ someone trained and capable the job for him.

Now, how does Mr. Little Guy like myself go about hiring and training a sales force? First of all go out and ring a few door bells and make a few interviews. You will soon find out that it takes more than a sales kit to sell burial estates. I secured my information for doing this job by attending these conventions and don't forget the sales conferences; they are the universities of our business. We are the professors and the students. We come here to give and receive our information.

With the information received from this organization I operate a six-man sales organization, build and manage my cemetery in a community of 80,000 people. Half of the sales force has been hired and trained by management the other half was hired by a cemetery service organization. Every man in my organization was carefully screened and properly trained before they were allowed to enter the field as one of our service representatives.

It would be foolish for me to stand here and tell you how to operate your sales department for two reasons: First, there are a great many cemetery operators attending this convention from communities no larger than mine and are doing a better job than I am, the only difference being they have been at it a longer time due to the fact that they have been more alert than your speaker and saw the importance of pre-need sales. Second, what I would tell you and have you believe were my ideas, you have heard many times by the leaders of our industry, so I am going to tell you how and why we operate our sales force.

The first year in the cemetery business I thought all that was necessary was to have a lawn mower to cut grass, a shovel to dig graves, a cemetery to sell and an office for the citizens to come to and buy a burial estate. After I had worn out the seat of my pants I began to get hungry, and by the way, you would be surprised how hunger can make you ambitious. You see, my city was no different than any other community in our great nation. We had competition from cemeteries who had built their reputations by servicing our city for nearly a century.

From hunger I became Davenport Memorial Park's first pre-need sales organization, both sales manager and salesman. Every morning I would hold a sales meeting with myself and review the cash balance and the accounts payable, then give me "Hell" and go out and try to sell another burial estate.

At first the results were discouraging, but I continued to read and study the "How and Why" of the successful salesman of this association, and gradually the efforts began to show results. With such results there was a possibility of a profit. From this encouragement, an effort was made to hire a salesman. Another sales kit was prepared; an ad was placed in the local newspaper from which a salesman was hired. His training consisted of telling him how much money he could make. Everyone wanted to buy a cemetery lot. He was then presented with a sales kit and told to go to work. In one week I had the sales kit, but no salesman.

The second attempt was made and Mr. Jones was hired. He was shown how to canvass, make interviews and overcome objections. Mr. Jones was fairly successful; made money for himself and the cemetery. After operating for eighteen months with one salesman, Mr. Brown was hired and trained to the best of my ability. During the first six months in the business, Mr. Brown sold more than Mr. Jones sold his entire first year. Was Mr. Brown a better salesman than Mr. Jones? No! Through competition, Mr. Jones doubled his sales in the next six months.

This firmly convinced me that you do need more than one salesman in your organization. Your salesmen, to be successful, must have competition. Even in a small town you cannot afford to put all your eggs in one basket. If you have but one salesman, and he should quit, your sales organization is lost. Fortunately, our two salesmen had what it takes. Personality, ambition and willingness to work, which made them very successful in our business! Unfortunately, because of their success I became satisfied and made the statement that a town the size of ours could not stand more than two salesmen. We were afraid of running out of prospects. I ate these words after I found that we had sold three different families in the same house in a period of two years and three months and when people were coming to the cemetery to buy burial estates for immediate use after they had told our salesmen they owned in other cemeteries.

We were now operating in the black. With this success we became more ambitious and proceeded to increase our sales force to six men. This was done with the help of one of the cemetery consultant organizations and over the objections of our two-men sales organization, who feared an increased sales organization, would decrease their income and endanger the permanency of their positions. The new men were hired by placing a blind ad in our local newspapers. These replies were carefully screened and only those of good character and background that we felt would make them a success in our business and a credit to the industry were considered. If interested, they were invited to sit in on a two-day session with our regular salesmen which we called a school of instruction. In our case the school was conducted by a cemetery consultant organization who did an excellent job.

With a six-man sales organization, sales meetings became a "must." We now hold sales meetings every morning, Monday through Saturday, at 8:00. At these meetings we go over our interviews, exchange ideas on handling objections, always allowing the salesmen to take an active part in these discussions. They come up with some darn good ideas. Be sure you give them credit. They like to see their names in the limelight as well as you do. Handling this size organization, how was I going to keep them producing? I realized if they did not produce, they would become dissatisfied and leave. We checked to see what the cemetery operators were doing in the large cities, because we were convinced that if they could do it in New York or Houston we could do it in Davenport.

Our investigation showed that they were holding contests in their own group and with salesmen in other cities. Our first endeavor in the contest field was cash prizes. We gave cash bonuses for such things as salesman having the largest volume for a week, two sales in one day, increasing his volume over the previous week and many others. This created a competitive spirit among our own organization and produced results. The only trouble was the prizes were paid in cash bonuses as earned, and the salesman put the money in his pocket. His wife never saw it. All she knew was that her husband was working more evenings and coming home later each evening, which she did not like.

This taught us that we needed the cooperation of the salesmen's wives, so we again went to the large cemeteries and found that they were using the services of companies like Belnap Thompson, who specialize in premium catalogs for sales contests. With the aid of this company we conducted a three-month sales contest. Our first step was to invite the wives to participate. We gave them the premium catalogs and told them how their husbands could win prizes. The salesmen were given points on the same basis as they received cash prizes in our previous contests.

The point system was set up so that the low producer had an opportunity of winning. We kept in mind that we wanted to encourage the low producer to increase his volume. Before this contest, our highest volume for one month was $23,400. We set our goal at $30,000 per month. The first month we did over $31,000, the second month over $37,000 and the third month over $42,000 a total volume for the three months over $112,000. It would be quite foolish to tell you that this is an outstanding record, for I feel sure that there are two cemeteries in my state that have equaled or bettered this record, but I was quite proud of it because we are now doing in one month what we used to do with ten in ten months.

Our next step was a contest with our neighboring city, Cedar Rapids, a town of about the same size and with a sales force of equal number. This contest proved to be very beneficial to both cities. An excellent gift was presented to the high man, plus the losers entertained the winners at a dinner. I might say we disliked acting as hosts to Cedar Rapids, but we are looking forward to enjoying their hospitality November 1.

These contests create real spirit. For this month's contest one of the Cedar Rapids boys has prepared two large barometers which show the daily standings of both cities. One of our men has teamed a Davenport man against a Cedar Rapids man and drew six barometers-one for each group, on which he shows the volume of our man against his Cedar Rapids opponent. Each day we exchange total volume and individual sales volume. These figures are posted on the barometer and create a real interest among our salesmen. Every morning they want to know how they stand against their Cedar Rapids opponents.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is the spirit and enthusiasm that makes salesmen topnotch producers. Remember, it is the salesman who sticks that makes you money. The ones you spend time and money to train, and then quit, cost you money. In our small organization we figure it costs us $300 for the first two weeks training given a new man. Therefore, we are very careful to select men we feel will succeed in our profession.

I used to feel it was impossible to hire good men in a small community. This is not true if management is capable and willing to train men. Since management in our cemetery has taken an interest in its sales organization, our men earn more than the average executive in our area. Three weeks before attending this meeting, a cashier of a bank in our community resigned his position and now wants to join our sales organization; remember, he is asking us for a chance. Why?-because the opportunity of earning money is far greater with us than it was in the bank. Investigate in your own community. See what men in responsible positions are earning and you will be surprised at the golden opportunity we have to offer prospective salesmen. Don't be a chiseler! When you trained and hired your salesman, you offered him a certain percentage. You have made this figure a part of the cost of merchandise you have to sell, and becomes part of your selling price. Just because his income increases rapidly, don't try to find a way to take it away from him. Encourage him to make more because every time he sells a burial estate, you make a profit. You have set the amount of this profit when you establish the price of your lots. If you find it is not enough, raise the prices of your merchandise.

Remember, no one can stay in business if they operate at a loss. Make your sales organization feel that you are supporting them 100%. Give them credit where credit is due. You know, in preparing this paper I recalled a statement I made several years ago and I imagine a good many other small-town operators have said the same thing and that is this: I am in no hurry to sell my property; what will I have to sell tomorrow?" Truthfully, I believe I made this statement in self-defense.

Gentlemen, when we design and build a section in our cemetery, it becomes an expense. We must maintain that section. Every time we cut the grass it increases the cost. The only way to eliminate the cost is to sell the section now and place in your "care fund" sufficient money to take care of this expense. If you wait ten years to sell this section, your cost will be far greater. Like all businesses we must sell our merchandise, turn over our money so that we can continue to grow and expand; therefore, we must have sales in volume. To do this we must have a sales organization no matter where our cemetery is located and regardless of size.

We must have a good product to sell if we are to continue to be successful in our business. Your grocer is successful because he gives you value received. You go back again and again to the same clothing store because you get the best suit for the money and they stand back of their merchandise. Are we standing in back of our merchandise? Are we making satisfied customers, and are we building for the future? Oh yes, it's easy to go into a territory and sell on promises. The people will buy but if these promises are not fulfilled you will have dissatisfied customers which mean less repeat business, or as we sometimes call it "radiation."

We like other businesses, need capital to build and expand. We sometimes get this capital by selling our prospects burial estates in a semi-developed section, promising the prospect that certain features will be built, trees will be planted, and roads constructed. The buyer is told that his money will be used to build and develop the section. Well, gentlemen, if we want repeat business, yes, and want to stay in business, let's build these features, construct the roads and plant the trees. Let's not promise something we cannot do. Let's build better than we promise; in that way you will build respect for your cemetery in your community.

I am very happy with the results of our sales efforts and accomplishments, but not satisfied. When we hear about the achievements of cemetery salesmen in other cities, it makes us feel like "pikers," but I can assure you that both management and salesmen at Davenport Memorial Park now have the spirit and flight to become bigger and better. The aim of the salesmen of our cemetery is to sell more burial estates in one month, as an individual, than has ever been sold by any salesman in the business.

Management is backing them all the way with better service, better construction, better sales contests and better public relations. Because I have confidence in my salesmen, I know that if I take care of them, they will take care of me. Like all of you, I am proud of my development. I have dreamed and made plans for the future. I only hope that I live long enough to accomplish them, but without salesmen, my dreams and plans would be lost. God help them and make them love me always!

From the publication:
“1950-1951 Cemetery Yearbook”
NCA 21st Annual Meeting
Hotel Schroeder, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
October 18, 19, 20 and 21, 1950