Successfully Starting a Sales Program in an Old Cemetery
Why I am here I do not know. I am only a neophyte in the cemetery sales field, and am in no position to tell many of you anything about the cemetery business. I will, however, tell you our experiences in starting a sales organization in Woodlawn Park Cemetery in Miami.
First of all, I would like to clarify the title of my talk. The word "successfully" can be questioned, but I accepted the title assigned and asked no questions, as speaking at this meeting assured me of attendance at the convention, and I knew the trip would do me good, and I would get much out of the balance of the program. However, the word "successfully" to me means, "Did the cemetery company prosper as a result of the sales organization?" and in answer to this, I can assure you that it did; primarily because the sales were increased and the interments were increased over the previous year.
Later in the assigned title are the words "old cemetery." Woodlawn in Miami would not be considered an old cemetery by many of you, but in the magic city of Miami, we are considered old, although Woodlawn Park Cemetery has only been in operation since 1913 and the City of Miami was only founded seventeen years earlier. Now to tell you something about why we started such a program; in reviewing our records, we found that for the years 1946, 1947, and 1948 a yearly volume of sales of better than two hundred fifty thousand dollars had been obtained. However, in spite of this, the company's officials, Gaines R. and Peyton L. Wilson, whom many of you know, and whose father founded Wood¬lawn, discovered that in spite of this yearly volume of sales, that starting about the middle of 1948 there was a gradual though steady decrease in interments.
It became apparent that even with Miami's ever increasing population we were not getting our fair share of the interments. Then the question was, why?
Woodlawn was still providing the best of cemetery facilities to the people of Miami, but it became evident that was not enough. Other cemeteries in our area were increasing their interments while ours were going down. The Wilsons interpreted this decrease in interments to sales made by other ceme¬teries. They were actively soliciting sales pre-need, while we in too many cases were waiting for families to come to us at time of need, and many times that was too late, because the other cemeteries had stepped into these families' homes months before and sold them cemetery burials rights in advance of need.
As a result of all this, in the summer of 1949 our management called in Mr. Wm. S. Mershon, and asked him to start an advanced sales program for us. As office manager, the first I knew of any new plan was when I was called in the office one day during July, 1949, to meet Mr. Mershon. The cards were laid on the table. Something had to be done. My only question to Bill at this time was, "How will we increase both sales and interments?" Bill answered me, "By walking and talking." This answer didn't thoroughly convince me at that time, but I can appreciate it as a fact today.
You can sell more of anything if you are asking more and more people to buy, and know how to sell them and how to ask them. During the next two months the preliminary steps in the formation of a sales organization were taken. These steps consisted first of reviewing our existing sales materials, and we found that our salesmen had swell facilities to sell at the property, but when we went into a prospect's home, we went in with only section plats, a price list and without an organized sales presentation except as the individual salesman had developed it for himself.
First of all a sales kit was developed on a planned technique, and at this time we leaned heavily on the National Cemetery Association for material we had seen but never used. A photographer took many attractive pictures of our prop¬erty, and after assembling them, we had Catherine Mershon, Bill's daughter, color them so the prospects could see the beauty of our property right in their own homes.
Then in September of last year I attended the National Cemetery Association convention in Washington. During this interim too we rented an inexpensive office for our pre-need sales organization, because we still had some reservations as to how long this sales plan might last, and we didn't want to just throw money down the drain. However, we did not do anything half-hearted. Much thought was given as to how the salesmen were to be paid. I felt we would not get good men on strictly a commission basis, particularly when the commission rate was to be lower than competition was paying, but I was wrong. In addition to the commission we set aside two percent of our sales volume into a bonus account, and have had picnics, fishing trips, dinners and other events for the sales group, as well as cash and merchandise prizes accruing from our contests.
In our preliminary organizing activities we spent money for a short time like a couple of drunken sailors, but we did this to get our sales tools sharp. At this point I want to give Bill Mershon credit for our sales tools. He got us well organized in this regard, and we have cashed in on his years of cemetery sales management experience.
On October 1, 1949, we advertised for our first salesmen. Our office at this time was a pretty barren place. There were blackboards, but they were blank on three sides of the room. Bill initiated us into the sales program and conducted the sales training of the four men, chosen from about twenty applicants. In a few days these men were in the field and a second group of four men were in the process of being trained. The same procedure of personalized training was followed in this second group, and by October 15 we began to chalk up some sales.
We didn't set the world on fire, but at the end of October we had eight salesmen in the field, trained, and selling, and we were beginning to roll. Together, they turned in during this training period about fourteen thousand dollars in sales. At the outset we did not use aptitude tests as we hired our salesmen, but today we are, and we think they are very helpful in estimating our prospective salesman's capabilities, and we believe it helps us in choosing our men wisely.
We consistently use slogans and signs in our sales office to stimulate our men. They watch our sales boards closely and when sales are made, they are posted promptly, as a salesman wants due credit for his efforts, and we try to give him this credit. Our commissions are paid on a percentage of the payments as they are made on each contract. We pay no drawing account, and only in a few cases have we given any advances. At no time have we advanced a total to all our men of over two hundred dollars.
We have had some salesmen turnover. I won't deny that, but we have cooperated closely with the salesmen, and today most of our men would not like to lose their positions with us. Their families are happy that their husbands work for Woodlawn because they have had a good income and know that their futures are secure. We use many of the sales incentive plans you fellows use. We have a big three and a little three. For the top men of each period we pay an additional one percent commissions in the big three and a half percent additional in the little three. We use weekly and bi-monthly periods and give both cash and merchandise prizes. On the walls of our office we place the pictures of the top salesmen of the month. We have had several repeaters, and when they repeat, the wives receive a picture. We have given turkeys, watches and many other prizes from time to time. We hold sales meetings twice a week, usually on Monday and Friday mornings. We try to make these meetings interesting and informative and not too long. We require attendance at these meetings. The only excuse that we will tolerate is that they are out actually with a prospect at the time, or sickness.
We discuss many things at these meetings and try to help these men improve themselves. We have used a suggestion box to obtain new ideas. We want our men to know we are there to help them and to feel a strong bond with our company. Our sales organization is now one year old. During this period of time we have chalked up much better than two hundred thousand dollars in sales from our office alone, and have maintained approximately, our cemetery office sales volume, so we have had a sixty percent overall sales increase. Against the two hundred thousand dollar plus sales in our office, we have had cancella¬tions of less than four thousand five hundred dollars, or less than two percent, which we believe to be a very good record. This has only been accomplished by close cooperation between the general office, the sales office and the salesmen themselves. I, personally, am a collector at heart. I even like to see the money come in better than I do the contracts come in, unless there is a check attached for the full amount.
Gentlemen, businesses do not thrive on sloppy collection methods any more than they do on poor sales methods. Getting a contract is not enough. You have not profited until the money comes in from the sale, so ask for the money when it is due. You don't get a sale without asking for it, and the same applies to the money end. I feel sure there are cemeteries that have large receivables, but when you look at their monthly collections, it would amaze you to see how small the amount of money collected is.
"Hope springs eternal in the human breast, but a wishbone never took the¬ place of a backbone, fellows." In sales work or in collection work this is true. Be a salesman, but also be a collector. We keep a record of each sale made so as to know where our sales originate. We want to know the sources of our sales so we can determine where to spend our advertising dollars and where to put our future effort.
We now have ten men in our sales organization, and expect to maintain about this size group in the future. I won't say we haven't had our headaches. We have had our share, also we have had our moments of great joy when sales looked pretty easy, and other periods when things were pretty rough, but we have tried to keep slugging it out with our prospects, and we have learned that hard work, knowledge of our product and use of proper methods with our prospect will bring results.
It has been a privilege and pleasure to be working at Woodlawn. The future of our sales organization is now known. Of that there is no doubt. We hope to improve our methods of operation as the months and years roll by. Woodlawn of Miami is beautiful. It harbors the beloved of our great families in our area, both rich and poor, and with reverence we thank the Almighty for the privilege of daily convincing many families of the advantages of ownership in Woodlawn before that day when the shadows of death cause so much pain.
From the publication:
“1950-1951 Cemetery Yearbook”
NCA 21st Annual Meeting
Hotel Schroeder, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
October 18, 19, 20 and 21, 1950