Best practices from start to finish

Date Published: 
May, 2006
Original Author: 
Ernie Heffner, CFuE
Heffner Funeral Homes and Crematory, York, PA
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, May 2006

It's not what we say, it's what we do for our customers that counts. You'll find this session frustrating if you do not perceive yourself to be about gracious hospitality, or if you believe you can cut expenses without cutting service to the customer.

Let's consider some important opportunities for customer service from the moment you receive the initial death call to after the service.

How you look, how you act, what you say and what you do from transferring the person who died to the arrangements and planning process with the family to the execution of the planned tribute all matter to customer satisfaction, which is measurable.

At the beginning

Are you prepared to receive that initial death call? Some of this is basic, and maybe you're running a perfect operation, but we're not, and I seem to have to remind people of these things on occasion. We go over things like:

· Is prepacked information in all the transfer vehicles and provided on house calls?

· Is your staff professionally attired at all times?

· Is a signed sympathy card left at the site of the death--regardless of whether it's a nursing home, a residence or a hospital? (I got this idea from ICFA Vice President Mark Krause, CFuE, Krause Funeral Homes & Cremation Service, Milwaukee, Wisconsin)

· Are we asking whether the deceased is a veteran?

How does your firm demonstrate special recognition to veterans and their loved ones? We have locations that serve over 40 percent veterans, and I figure that over 80 percent of our customers are either veterans or the loved ones of veterans, spouses.

When we receive the initial death call, we ask if the deceased was a veteran. Our special recognition for veterans starts on the first call. Every one of our stretchers has a flag on it. When transporting the deceased, we drape a flag over the stretcher.

We ask permission on a home removal - which has never been refused and has gotten only positive feedback. We automatically drape the flag over the stretcher on a nursing home or hospital removal. And if you don't think everybody at the hospital and nursing home notices that. ... It makes an incredible impact.

As coordinators of a commemorative service, cemeteries and funeral homes have a very serious responsibility to honor the memory and pay due respect to those who have served our country. For example:

· Near the entrance of Prospect Hill Cemetery in York, Pennsylvania, Jack Summer placed a flag for every American soldier who's died in the Middle East. The site is truly a profound and sobering statement about commitment and sacrifice.

· The patriot's walk final tribute for veterans is an idea I got from ICFA Board Member Clift Dempsey (Dempsey Funeral Services, Cartersville, Georgia). We keep 48 flags on each of our coaches. When the coach delivers the flowers to the cemetery ahead of the graveside service, we take the flags out and mark a pathway to the grave that everyone will walk through.

Best practices for arrangements

· We don't think anybody should sit behind a desk.

· Refreshments should be served, not offered. Say, "Would you like sugar and cream in your coffee or would you prefer it black?"

· Be prepared and organized. I think we are doing our customers a great disservice if we have to look for anything.

· Take your time to present all options. Someone who's making funeral arrangements in an hour is doing a gross disservice to the customer. Somebody who's done in less than two hours is probably on the way out. Really, two to three hours is what it takes us to do any kind of arrangements if you're going to offer people all of the options.

· The Federal Trade Commission requires that we present a General Price List before discussing any service or merchandise, but we need to make sure it looks professional. There are firms handing out photocopies that aren't even straight.

Though not required, we provide the merchandise price list for the customer to keep. We use a statement of goods and services selected with prices preprinted. We're not writing prices on as if we're making them up as we go, eliminating any doubt that every customer is treated fairly. The GPL is printed on the back of the statement of goods and services selected, so we know everyone receives it.

· After presenting the GPL and having learned how the deceased touched the lives of other people, having listened for the customer's likes and dislikes, we present graphics of options to consider via our compendium, a 100-page color catalog. Everybody in the room making arrangements receives one; we tell them to keep them. The first 16 pages of this catalog do not deal with merchandise, they deal with creating a meaningful tribute service.

· Packages offer value and simplified purchases. We have three packages: the classic, contemporary and select. There are four categories: funeral, cremation; veteran and non-veteran. That sounds like it might be fairly complicated, but it's really pretty easy to simplify through asking questions to narrow down what people are interested in.

How well are packages received? It depends on whom you ask, but from a value meal at McDonald's to a $65,000 Lexus, consumers are oriented toward choosing packages at all price points.

True personalization

To talk about some of the components that go into creating that "wow" factor, we'll deal with the current industry buzzword, personalization. Today's consumers are informed, educated, inquisitive and not easily impressed. They're best satisfied when a tribute service is uniquely planned to honor their loved one. Picture boards and memory tables are only the most minimal, entry-level pieces of personalization. To really customize a meaningful tribute service, consider some of the following:

· Location of the service. How about a tribute service (with permission) at a park or on private property? At a golf course? Funerals used to be in the home. Why can't we have a funeral service at home, or a visitation at home?

· Both the means and route of the last ride. The last ride can be especially meaningful if you drive past the deceased's home or other favorite special place. Are we asking the family, "Would you like us to go past your house on the way to the cemetery? Would it be meaningful to drive by Dad's workplace? You mentioned that Dad stopped every day at Finney's for a beer on the way home. Do you want us to drive past there on the way to the cemetery?" These are little things that take a little more time and can really be meaningful to people.

We've used fire trucks, tow trucks, horsedrawn wagons and motorcycle hearses. We don't own a motorcycle hearse, but we can rent one. When those guys show up in black leather boots, it's really cool, and if you have a biker service it really makes an impression.

· Meaningful music. This could be anything from bagpipers to the person's favorite music, whether it's Sinatra, Motown, country western, classical or Led Zeppelin. Whatever it is, we'll play it. We pay through ICFA for the music licenses, which are an exceptionally good value.

· Professional tribute folders and portraits. What is the message sent when funeral homes provide ugly, third-rate, cheap memorial cards and thank-you notes? Unprofessional product equals unprofessional image. We offer more than 40 designs of quality, personal tributes, with matching thank-you cards, matching Mass cards, matching portraits and matching casket cap panels.

Have you ever seen people place family pictures in a casket? It happens all the time. If there's a family portrait, we can put it on the inside of the casket; that's what really personalizes it.

Are good tribute folders pricey? Yes. Will people flinch? No. Include them in a package. Nobody's going to tell you what a beautiful property you have, they're all going to talk about that folder. A friend of mine called me one day and said, "I ran into a lawyer at Rotary, and he said, 'You handled the service for my best friend two weeks ago. That was a really nice service. In fact, I took the tribute folder and I put it in a frame and it sits on my desk.'" When was the last time somebody took something from your cemetery or funeral home and put it on their desk in a frame?

A firm that's not embracing these types of options is not really offering personalization and doesn't understand the concept of event planning, of creating a meaningful tribute.

Measuring customer satisfaction

How do you measure customer satisfaction and the value of service enhancements? We do a survey. On the day of the service or preneed appointment, a letter from me is mailed with a survey and postage paid envelope for returning the survey to me.

Everyone gets a survey—at-need, preneed, regardless of whether there was a sale. I want to know what our prospective customer thought about the presentation and my representative.

It's a short letter; it's a simple survey—one page, just a few questions, lots of white space. Its purpose is to provide a way for our customer to comment. It enables us to address any mistake, misunderstanding or failure to meet expectations.

How many of you have ever filled in a survey and sent it off? How many of you received a response, especially if you wrote something nasty on it? You wonder if the survey went in a black hole or if anybody read it.

We send a thank-you note. When I get up at 4:30 in the morning I have my stack of surveys and I read through them and highlight things of interest. If somebody just checked things off, I write their name on the note and sign my name.

The note says, "I received the survey you completed. Thank you for taking the time to offer your comments. I'll share them with my associates. If there's anything further we can do to assist you, please don't hesitate to ask. With appreciation and kindest regards, my associates and I remain respectfully at your service."

If you write a note of any kind on the survey—a positive note (if you write a nasty note you're probably going to get a three-page letter explaining or groveling for forgiveness)—I'm going to write you a personal note on the back of the thank-you card, mentioning the arranger's name and thanking you for taking the time to provide your comments.

Our survey asks if we can share your comments with others. Almost everybody checks off "yes." So what do we do with all those nice comments? Everybody likes to hear something nice about his or her work. These families aren't happy because I took care of them; they're happy because our staff took care of them. So we include all the nice comments on a payroll insert every other week.

What else can we do with those comments? Advertisements about our satisfied clients.

At the end of the day, it's all about taking the time to understand the people we serve, their life experiences, how they feel, and what they value. And then doing more for them than they ever, ever expected us to do.

Heffner, a second-generation funeral director, is president of Heffner Funeral Homes & Crematory, which includes 12 locations in Pennsylvania and one in New York. He is active in the Pennsylvania Cemetery Funeral Association and the Cremation Association of North America and has served on the board and as a vice president of the International Cemetery and Funeral Association. He is dean of the ICFA University College of Cremation Services. He is frequently invited to speak at meetings of funeral and cemetery professionals.

This article compiled from an address presented by the author at the 2006 ICFA Annual Convention

Copyright ICFA 2006



judyfaaberg's picture

Looks like word-wrap is working. Was the change in font-size intentional?

Judy Faaberg, DP, CCP

If you are using the Rich Text editor (the default for most posts, turned off for comments) you can make some changes to text. But most of the time all the text is going to be, or should be, the same.

I have no idea what happened with that one of yours. Maybe there is some inadvertant keystroke combination that inserts that tag. If so, I think we will see the phenomenon again.