Calming clients in the cemetery and funeral service profession

Date Published: 
January, 2005
Original Author: 
Todd Van Beck
A S Turner and Sons, Decatur, GA
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, January 2005

Dealing with clients who are upset with your funeral home or cemetery is not pleasant, but it is necessary You want upset clients complaining to you, not to everyone else in the community you serve. There are practical ways to head off problems, to diffuse situations when problems do occur and even to learn things from upset clients that will help you improve your company's service to families.
Calming upset clients is rarely pleasant, but it must be done. The No.1 reason: Bad information travels faster than good information. If you please someone, that person will tell three people. If you displease someone or if that person is upset, he or she will tell 15 people! What's worse, the one person that upset client probably won't talk to is you.

A recent study showed that 96 percent of business clients don't complain to the business when they have a problem. This means that for every complaint you receive there are 24 unhappy clients.

As you can see from the information box, "Why you lose business," you should be less worried about price competition and more about making sure that families are pleased with the services and products you provide and that they feel they have been treated with courtesy and respect by you and your staff.

The second major reason you must deal with upset clients is that you can learn from them and improve the quality of service you provide to all families. They may clue you in on things that are annoying other clients, who don't speak up, as well, or may alert you to behavior by staff members that you are unaware of and that is irritating clients.

In any case, dealing with a client who is upset will teach you patience, at the least, and doing so successfully will build your confidence.

Why do clients get upset?
Clients can become upset for many potential reasons. Among the most common:
•    Their expectations have not been met.
•    They are already upset with the company and something has happened to set them off.
•    They are tired, stressed, frustrated and in grief.
•    They feel like victims and are suffering from loss of control over their lives.
•    No one will listen to them.
•    They want to feel "right."
•    They have a chip on their shoulder.
•    Someone at your company made them a promise and did not keep it.
•    Someone at your company was rude, indifferent or discourteous.
•    They have received inconsistent messages from your staff members.
•    They acted on information your staff gave them and it turned out to be wrong.
•    They feel that someone in your organization doesn't like them.
•    They were not listened to.
•    They have some sort of prejudice against the way you or your staff members are groomed or dressed.
•    They feel they can manipulate you by making noise.
•    They are suspicious of your organization.
•    They had made incorrect assumptions about your company.
•    They were told by your staff not to be angry.
•    A staff member gave them a smart or flip answer.
•    The person they were talking to at your funeral home or cemetery transferred their call to someone else without first asking their consent.
•    Their phone call was screened.
•    They were embarrassed at doing something wrong.
•    Their honesty or integrity was questioned.
•    Someone at the funeral home or cemetery argued with them.
•    Your staff was unable to handle a situation or question quickly and accurately.

Remember, annoyances that a client usually tolerates become intolerable when that individual is upset. You can't control another person's behavior, but you can change your behavior to avoid causing more annoyances.

Avoidable upsets
First, go back and look at the list of reasons clients get upset. Which ones do you have control over? List those you feel you can at least partially control and note what actions you could take to keep those things from happening.

The annoyances you have some responsibility for causing are:
•    You or someone in your funeral home or cemetery promised something that was not delivered.
•    You or someone in your funeral home or cemetery was indifferent, rude or discourteous.
•    You or someone in your funeral home or cemetery had an unpleasant attitude.
•    No one on your staff listened to the client.
•    Someone told the client they had no right or reason to be angry.
•    Someone gave the client a smart or flip remark.
•    Someone at the funeral home or cemetery embarrassed the client for doing something wrong.
•    Someone at the funeral home or cemetery questioned the client's honesty or integrity.
•    Someone at the funeral home or cemetery argued with the client.

There are many things you can do to avoid turning a dissatisfied client into an angry one through careful attention to your personal presentation and to both your verbal and non-verbal communication.
Personal Presentation. This may seem basic, but you should make sure that you and your employees present a pleasing appearance at all times by running down this simple checklist: good general hygiene, hair clean and well kept, make-up neatly applied, face shaved, breath fresh and clothing pressed.

Non-verbal Communication. The importance of body language has long been recognized. You must give the upset client your full attention in a respectful manner. You and your staff members should assess yourselves (or each other) in the following areas to see where you might improve:

•    Facial expression: Maintain a calm, concerned, sincere and interested expression.
•    Body posture: Remain attentive by standing or sitting up straight.
•    Movement: Clients who are upset want to see appropriate action taking place to solve their problems.
•    Gestures: Do not cross your arms. As awkward as it may feel, hold your arms at your side.
•    Smoking: Even if you are in an area where smoking is allowed, never smoke while you are dealing with an upset client.
•    Chewing gum or eating: Again, never do this when dealing with a person who is upset. The situation could easily escalate so that you are dealing with an extremely irate client.
•    Touching: Avoid touching-it could set off violence.

Verbal Communication. See the table "Words that make a difference" for a list of common mistakes to avoid and suggestions for getting the same point across in a non-confrontational way more likely to move the situation toward a resolution. In addition, remember:

•    Watch your tone of voice. People often respond as much to how something is said as to what is said.
•    Watch out for sighing. This may be your automatic reaction when you are confronted with a difficult situation, but do not do it in front of clients, since it suggests annoyance or impatience.
•    Never curse. Even if the client curses, there is never an excuse for a professional to curse.

Calming upset clients
What do clients who are upset really want? Of course it varies from person to person, from situation to situation. In general, one or several of the following applies. They want:

•    To be taken seriously.
•    To be treated with respect—no condescension or arrogance.
•    To get immediate action—no "next day, next week, next month" stuff.
•    To gain compensation or restitution—they want someone to pay.
•    To have the party who wronged them reprimanded and/or punished—they want corrective action.
•    To clear up whatever caused the problem so it will never happen again.
•    To be listened to. This is the most important thing to remember when you are trying to calm an upset client.

Improving your listening habits
There are a number of behaviors that make people feel their complaint is not being heard. Dr. Lyman K. Steil of St. Paul, Minnesota, compiled a list of trouble spots listed below. Go through this list of troublesome listening habits and the suggested corrections to help you improve your response to people who are complaining or upset:

•    Criticizing the speaker and delivery.  Focus on the client's thoughts and feelings rather than how well he or she is expressing them.
•    Listening only for facts and not feelings. Most people say they are "not" upset, even when they are.
•    Not taking notes or trying to write down everything. Taking brief notes shows interest and covers you later. However, make sure you are not constantly writing and looking at the paper instead of at the person talking.
•    Faking attention. Do not "tune out" the person and think of something else while he or she goes on at length. People don't just want to talk, they want to be heard. Pay close attention so that you will be able to respond properly.
•    Tolerating or creating distractions.  Don't be distracted and don't tolerate distractions. Hold your calls and tell your staff you are not to be disturbed.
•    Tuning out difficult or confusing information. Ask the client to slow down and ask for more details if necessary.
•    Letting emotional words block the message. Ignore name-calling by an irate client.
•    Interrupting or finishing the other person's sentences. This is always an irritant to a person who is upset. Let him tell his story his way.
•    Biases and prejudices. Work on eliminating this.
•    Not facing the person who is upset.  Look the person in the eye.
•    Not checking to make sure you have understood the problem correctly. Repeat back to the person what you have understood the problem to be.

Use verbal cushions
Showing that you empathize with the person who is upset can help the situation. Try saying something like:

•    "I can appreciate what you're saying."
•    "I can understand how you'd feel that way."
•    "I can understand how that would be annoying."
•    "I can see how you would be upset."
•    "I would be upset, too."
•    "It sounds as if we've caused you inconvenience. I'm sorry."

Use the three Fs: feel, felt and found
"I understand how you could feel that way. Others have felt that way too, and then they found that we were able to correct the situation without any difficulty."

Additional ideas to help you stay in control
Remember: Don't take things personally. Keep your focus on gathering information, assessing the situation and coming up with solutions.

•    If you are losing it, excuse yourself for a short time. You could say, "I need to verify some information on this file."
•    Don't cry! Cry later; never cry in front of an upset client.
•    Get the client's attention. If the client is ranting, use his or her name. Most people stop and listen when they hear their name.
•    If the client is obstinate and resisting your suggestions for a solution, ask the client for a solution. "What would you like me to do now?"
•    Using polite repetition, tell them what you can do for them. Repetition helps understanding.

One caveat: We are talking here about people who are upset or angry, perhaps even teary or shouting. But if a client actually threatens violence, seek assistance immediately. You do not have to put up with threats, nor should you.

Debriefing after the client has left
After dealing with an upset client, perform an incident review. This should not be a gossiping session with fellow employees—"You won't believe what I just went through." This isn't about you, it's about improving service to your families.

It's a good idea for staff meetings to include time for sharing staff experiences in dealing with upset clients and what worked and what didn't work. Talk about what else could be tried if a similar situation arises.  In some cases, you may want to discuss whether the cemetery or funeral home should change a policy or procedure to prevent similar problems or misunderstandings in the future.

To prepare for the staff meeting, review the incident and jot down some notes about what happened and how you handled it. Some of the questions you may want to consider:

•    What did I do well in calming this client down?
•    What could I have done sooner or better to calm him down?
•    What did I say that I don't want to say again?
•    How was my body language?
•    What did I learn?

Guidelines for managers
Your goal as manager of the funeral home or cemetery is to create an environment conducive to client satisfaction.

•    Be a role model. Don't expect your staff to use good listening skills and deal empathetically with people if you don't do so yourself.
•    Ask for your staff's suggestions. Talk about how to better serve families at staff meetings.
•    Solicit client feedback. You can send postage-paid return cards or surveys to families after serving them, or solicit the information through telephone calls.
•    Reward good client service behavior.
•    Encourage your staff to use their initiative to solve problems. You have to set limits, of course, but you don't want staff members further angering already upset clients by responding to every problem with an "I can't authorize that" or "I'll have to ask my boss."
•    Don't talk negatively about clients.  This fosters a negative atmosphere; you want to promote a positive approach to dealing with families.
•    Know when to fire a client! If a client continually upsets your staff for trivial reasons, you may need to invite that client to consider another firm. As extreme as this may sound, it is a potential solution. Some families do call a funeral home or cemetery that is not a good match for their needs and desires, and their disappointment ends up being expressed in continual nastiness.