Communicating clearly

Date Published: 
January, 2005
Original Author: 
Tom Smith & Tom Pfeifer
Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum, Cincinnati, Ohio
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, January 2005

When you're in the office and you need to get a message to an employee somewhere on the grounds, what do you use? Smoke signals? The old tin cans and string method? A 20-year-old radio? There's a better way ...

WHAT: No matter how prepared you are and how much information you send people out with in the morning, there are times you need to relay a message to or ask a question of an employee who's in the field.

At Spring Grove, we've come a long way. From 1845, when the Grove started, up till 40 years ago, we were pretty much in the "tin cans and string" era, and now we're state of the art. We just purchased a new communications system in 2004.

WHY: The better your communications, the more efficient your operation can be and the better you can serve your customers. For example:

• A committal service is scheduled for 2 p.m. You learn at the last minute that the service is going to be delayed to 2:45 p.m. If you can communicate easily with employees in the field, they can be doing other things until you notify them it's time to head to the service location.  Otherwise, you're going to have people sitting in their trucks at the scheduled time, waiting and waiting-and waiting. The more efficiently you can deploy your grounds staff, the fewer people you need.

• A driver has run into a pole and knocked out electricity in your area. Are you at a loss about how to get a hold of people, or does your communications system enable you to keep operating when your land lines are down?

• One of your counselors is helping bereaved parents select a burial site at need. Can she get answers to their questions quickly via a portable device? At Spring Grove, our counselors wouldn't think of going out into the field without communications ability. Being able to provide almost instant answers projects professionalism.

• One of your grounds staff members has been corralled by a distraught customer. Bringing flowers to his wife's grave, he found a problem with the monument. Of course your employee assures him the problem will be taken care of. At the Grove, he doesn't have to take our word for it. The employee can reach someone to come to the grave site within minutes.

Just think how much it means to that distraught customer to see a problem getting taken care of right away. He'll be telling everyone he knows how well the cemetery takes care of its families, and you just can't buy that kind of advertising.

HOW: Unless your communications system is state-of-the-art, you should consider upgrading it. As we review the systems Spring Grove has used, setting out the pros and cons, think about how your cemetery's system compares and how you could improve it.

The "tin cans and string" era
This was how the Grove operated until about 1960. It was really the "go find the person you need to talk to" era. If you had an urgent message for someone who was out on the grounds, you'd head in the direction you thought he might be. You'd see someone—not the person you were looking for, of course—and ask, "Have you seen Joe?" And he'd say, "I saw him about 20 minutes ago; he was headed up that road."

With 40 miles of road at the Grove, what were your chances of finding him? More than likely, you'd be led on a wild goose chase for a while—and that was a slow-speed chase, since you can't drive too fast in a cemetery, especially when you're looking for someone. A lot of times you'd end up deciding you should just head back to the office and talk to the guy when he came in for lunch, or at the end of the day.

Even if you were able to locate someone out on the grounds, it was a painful experience. You were always weighing the importance of getting a hold of someone vs. the time lost in trying to track him down.

The radio era
About 1960, we got tuned into a radio communications system. This was before the planned budgeting process we have now, so we explained to the trustees why we thought we needed it and they got it for us.

It was just a shortwave radio type of system. At the time, we thought it was the best of the best, but it wasn't great. We were tuned into a specific frequency, and we'd hear all kinds of chatter from other places.

The chatter caused a couple of problems. First of all, it was annoying, and sometimes people just got tired of it and cut off their radios.

Second, we had no control over what those other people said. The worst was when the University of Cincinnati was adding a large new building and the crane operators were on our frequency. Crane operators tend to spend a lot of time waiting for that bucket of concrete or whatever to show up, and like anyone else, when they don't have work to do they talk, and their language was not acceptable.

When you had a customer with you, you'd have to try to turn down the volume as soon as you heard one of those guys start to blurt out an obscenity. It was hard to be quick enough, and sometimes you were out of the car and had the radio up so you could hear it, which meant that people going by your vehicle could hear it, too. There was a lot of explaining and apologizing necessary, and this went on for two years!
In addition to hearing things we didn't want to hear, sometimes we couldn't hear at all. The Grove's topography is pretty hilly. It seemed like nine times out of 10 the person you wanted to talk to was in a low point where the signal didn't reach the little antennas those radios had.

One thing you heard all the time with that system was, "You'll have to say it again; I didn't hear the first part" On the other hand, at least it was a way to signal people out in the field that you had a message for them, even if what that message was wasn't clear.

Another problem with this system was that all the radios were attached to vehicles. That meant every time you heard a squawk from the radio, or wanted to call into the office with a question, you had to run back to your car.

Last but not least was the fact that there was only one guy in town who could work on the radio system we had. There was no competition, and if we had a problem and he was tied up or on vacation, we were just dead in our tracks.

The "new and improved" radio era
Toward the end of the 1980s, we finally decided there had to be a better system, so we did some research and opted for a Motorola system. We studied the cemetery and found a great place to put up an antenna so that we wouldn't have those blind spots where you couldn't receive or transmit.

The new system also allowed us to use hand-held units. We did still have some radios in the vehicles, but now we had portability. It was a great feeling, having that radio hanging on your belt. Of course, sometimes you walked funny, because those radios weighed about 6 pounds.
And you had to replace your belt every few months.

But having a portable unit was a huge deal. You could keep the volume low and still hear what you needed to hear, and the volume control was easy to reach.

Even so, there still was no way to have a private conversation. Everybody with a radio heard everything that was said. If you wanted to alert someone about a tough situation, a family on their way where the circumstances were tragic, everyone heard it, and a lot of times what you heard would make you squirm.

To help with this situation, we came up with a sort of "code" to use when talking about certain common situations. For example, a lot of times when a burial is going to take place in a wet site, the excavated area will get filled up with water when it rains. You never know when the sexton might have a family with him, so you don't want someone saying on the radio, "Bring the water pump up here I've got a doozy on 132!"

Our people were taught to say, "I'm going to need the instrument on Section 132." Nobody except our employees knew that "the instrument" was the water pump, so that sounded OK to other people who might hear it.
Another problem we still had to deal with was having only one channel. If somebody was already on the line, you had to wait until that person was finished talking. Sometimes you'd be with a family and you'd have to wait five minutes before you could get through and ask your question or relay some information.

We finally asked Motorola if there was anything we could do about this, and they started putting a second channel on any new radios we bought. That seemed like a good idea until we realized that you can only keep your radio tuned to one channel at a time, and if you don't know someone's trying to reach you on the second channel, it's useless.

We were paying a few extra dollars for that second channel, so we had brainstorming sessions about how to use Channel 2. It was kind of hilarious. The only thing we could figure was to use Channel 2 for tours.

Sometimes you have a caravan of several vehicles going through on a tour. They drive from one stop to the next, get out and then listen to somebody talk.

We figured we could give each vehicle a radio tuned to Channel 2 and then the tour leader could offer some profundities while everyone was driving. ''On your left is a very nice vibernum. To your right is a Gothic memorial."

Of course, there were still problems. "We can't figure out how to turn the volume up." "Are you sure this thing is on the right channel? We keep hearing when the next service is coming in—and somebody in Section 132's got a problem with a backhoe pump."

Even so, we felt we were moving forward, and we were, but we were definitely taking baby steps.

The two-way radio plus phone era
About six years ago, Andy Conroy, our president at the time, came back from a conference talking about a new two-way system someone was raving about.

We contacted a company representative to learn more. It was a pretty new system, and pricey. The cost of getting all new equipment, plus the operating costs for daily usage, added up to kind of a staggering number. We weren't sure it would be cost effective.

Last year Spring Grove got a new president, Gary Freytag. We were used to the "all call," everyone-can-hear-everything system we'd been using for decades, but sometimes a new person coming in can give you a different perspective.

The receptionist had become almost a clearinghouse of "somebody needs to get to a radio to discuss this" messages. She was answering 175 telephone calls a day as well as talking to people in person, plus she had to stay tuned into our radio system.

When she was with a funeral director or a family, she wouldn't answer the radio page right away, so of course we'd repeat the message over and over, thinking "Why isn't she answering?" By the time she finally got to you, she'd be kind of fired up and then there'd be some bantering back and forth.

Our new president must have heard some of this, and seen customers who happened to be around raising their eyebrows, so he had his administrative assistant take a look at the costs and benefits of a new communications system.

We talked to a couple of suppliers and they let us try out their systems for a couple of weeks at no charge. This involved giving units to some key personnel so we could see how receptive people would be to using something different. There's always some hesitancy when you make a big change.

At first, some of us wanted to hang onto our old radios "just in case" while we tried out the new radio/phone units. Within three or four days, we'd forgotten all about our old radios, and in less than two weeks, we were saying, "This is unbelievable. We can't imagine ever going back."

With our new communications system:
 • You can contact just one person, or use "all call" when you need to let everyone know about something. Professionalism and "Disney magic" are the order of the day. There's no need for our customers to be exposed to hearing about the grunt work that goes on behind the scenes.

At first, we worried that because we couldn't hear every conversation all day we'd lose touch with what was going on around the cemetery, but we do have the "all call" capability. We're still working on mastering what should be an "all call" and what should be a private conversation.

• There is no usage charge for the two-way radio system. One supervisor even called us from South Carolina, where he was on vacation, when he remembered something that needed to get done. The sound quality was great.

• About 10 of our people have units with cell phone capability. We give people usage limits (in minutes) and we get a report on usage from the company, since we get charged for outgoing cell phone calls. We've had no problems with people abusing them.

When a manager in the field finds out that a backhoe part didn't show up as scheduled, he can make a call right then and there.

Giving cell phone capability to our supervisors has been a win-win situation. Their productivity has increased and they feel more a part of the team. They take the units home with them. Of course, this has a downside. As long as a manager's got a radio with him and it's turned on, he can be reached.

Once Fife was at a restaurant eating chicken wings and watching the Bengals game with some buddies when his "Grove Hot line" started ringing. It was a security guard calling to ask how to turn on the sound system for a wedding that was being held at the cemetery, and Fife was able to give him instructions without leaving the restaurant.

• The units weigh only 3 ounces, so they clip onto your belt without weighing it down, and they're rubberized. If you drop a unit, it bounces like a rubber ball.

• There are other options available, including tying the radios into Spring Grove's computer system. Right now, that is being done only with the PDAs the customer service/security team uses.

Of course, now that we've made the changeover we have a lot of Motorola radios, around three dozen, to get rid of. There's nothing wrong with them—they'll probably work well for someone, so if you're still in the "tin cans and string" or "early radio" era, give us a call. Have we got a deal for you.