How to target What Your Families Care About Most

Date Published: 
May, 2004
Original Author: 
Tom Smith & Tom Pfeifer
Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum, Cincinnati, Ohio
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, May 2004

WHAT: Ten years of data collection at Spring Grove tells us that, hands down, the top complaints are:

•    flower vase issues;
•    the condition of markers or memorials; and
•    the condition of graves.

Depending on the time of the year and weather conditions, the ranking of those three may change, but they are always the top three customer concerns.

Vases: Maybe some part of the vase is missing, or the vase has been damaged or it's stuck—"I can't get it out of the ground." You may get someone 78 years old coming into the office and saying, "I remember my great-grandmother bringing me here when I was a 3 year old, and we'd leave beautiful little poseys on my great-grandfather's grave, and now I can't find the vase. Can you help me figure out where it is?" The last time he saw the vase was 75 years ago, but it's like yesterday to him.

Markers: Maybe the marker has sunk on one comer so it's not lawn level. There could be a little bit of soil on the marker. The marker could have a little bit of grass growing around the edge or beginning to encompass it, or if it's fall, there could be dead leaves covering it.

Markers get damaged. A flat marker can get chipped if it's not perfectly horizontal or if the ground around it wasn't level. The front pan of a mower where the blades are can cause a little chip. A mower might bump the corner of all upright marker when the operator is trying to maneuver around it.

In some cases, rubberized equipment leaves a mark on a memorial. This may not sound bad on the face of it, but psychologically, there's not much worse than seeing a tire mark—which is easily identifiable—on a loved one's memorial. What that conjures up in the mind is just awful. So even though this may not seem like a big deal—you see those rubber marks all the time on roads, in parking lots—in a cemetery, the situation is totally different, and we need to be sensitive to that.

Graves: One of the bigger issues is a grave that has sunk, even a little bit. Whether it's an inch or three inches, a sunken grave conjures up the same anxiety, concern and frustration. From the cemeterian's viewpoint, it might seem having graves sink "only" an inch is progress compared to the days when graves would sink several inches. But from the customers' point of view, it's just as bad. Seeing a sunken grave rekindles the whole grieving process.
WHY: While you do need to attend to things like tree maintenance, you'll never get a complaint from a family about a tree with a dead branch. You need to make it a priority to know which issues are most important to your families and to constantly stay on top of those issues.

When people find out you're in the cemetery business, sometimes they say, "You've got the best customers in the world—they don't talk back." We chuckle, of course, but they don't think about all the family members who are left behind and are upset because someone they love died.

"Gosh, I didn't get to say goodbye. I didn't know it was going to happen so soon. Why did that happen to someone I love?" They're frustrated, so any little thing wrong in the cemetery is going to set them off.

A lot of people just want to find something that someone did—or didn't do—and get mad at someone as an outlet for their emotions. "The grass on the grave is getting too dry. That's unacceptable—that's my mother's grave! Don't they understand—that's where my mother is buried! I'm going down there to give someone in that office a piece of my mind!"

The person taking the request/complaint must not take it personally. These family members may still be grieving, and that's why they're set off by something as simple as not being able to find a vase. The death may have taken place five years ago, and then something happened to stir up their memories and that grief.

HOW: Step one is to acknowledge the frustration felt by the person complaining. Train the people taking these complaints to say, "I understand exactly what you're saying,
Mrs. Jones. My gosh, I'd feel the same way, if not more upset. You’re being very patient."

The longer you're in the business, the more sensitive you become to these issues and the easier it is to not take these things personally and to respond the correct way. It can be hard to train new people to understand how our families feel. When you bring in a student to do some part-time grounds work, or hire a full-time worker who's 21, it would be almost bizarre for them to have the same sensitivity as people who have been in the industry a long time.

It's not their fault—it's just that someone that young usually hasn't been exposed to death enough to understand what's going through a person's mind. We do some role playing to try to show our newer employees what our customers are thinking and feeling.

We make all our managers rotate through the customer service position—a lot of them for more than a year rotating people helps prevent burnout. Even when you know how to handle the families, it can be fatiguing. If you get three or four traumatic cases in a day, when you go home you are absolutely beaten down.

Spending some time dealing with these issues is also good training, because it lets everyone understand the significance of the business we're in. And by having a lot of people go through the experience, we can bounce ideas off each other: "Here's what I've used in situation X that really calmed the situation."
Step two: Brainstorm some preventive steps that make sense at your cemetery to try to cut down on your most common complaints. At Spring Grove, we've examined our "big three" and taken the steps outlined below.

Vases For Everyone
Historically at Spring Grove, which is a very large cemetery, anyone who wanted to could have a permanent vase installed at lawn level. Our experience is that over time, it's going to become a problem for the cemetery. The vase will become silted in; grass is going to grow over it. The chain is finally going to deteriorate. It may take a while, but we've been around since 1845, and eventually the weather is going to take a toll and create a situation that is going to frustrate a customer someday.

Through talking to our families when they visit and in focus groups, we learned that all people want is to be able to bring in some fresh flowers on Mom's birthday, or their wife's anniversary, or for Christmas or some other holiday.

Everyone may not agree with this approach, but we decided that the only people who will be allowed to install permanent vases will be those who bought their property when it was allowed. In new sections, we don't allow permanent vases.

Instead, we provide complimentary inexpensive (they cost us about $1 a piece) temporary vases. They are available in 25 racks we've placed throughout the park. We call them "temporary" not because they are throw-aways but because they're left out for about a week or 10 days, while the flowers last. Then we collect them and put them back in the rack.

People find this to be incredibly acceptable—they love the concept. All they really want is a container—they don't really care what kind of container it is. In this day and age, they're on their way home from work, they stop at Kroger's to pick up bread and milk, see some flowers and think, "Oh, gee, it's Mom's birthday tomorrow, I think I'll get this little bouquet and run by the cemetery." They know they'll be able to grab a vase from the rack—they won't have to search for the vase or dig it up.

There is a metal sign at the bottom of every rack that says, "If by any chance this vase rack doesn't have any vases in it, please stop by our office, which is open seven days a week, to pick up a free vase."

The families are happy and it cuts down on our maintenance problems. During a cold winter, when freezing water might make even a bronze vase crack down the side, we've got customers in the office saying, "Hey, my vase is cracked; what happened?" We can explain what happened,
but do you think that's what the customer wants to hear? No way! All they're really saying is, "Fix it." If there is a problem with an existing permanent vase, we quickly repair it at no charge.

Newer cemeteries may not have this problem, but for an older cemetery, you do have those 78-year-olds coming in to put flowers in great-grandmother's vase and expecting it to be in the same pristine condition it was in 75 years ago. They think it should be a "forever vase," just like the cemetery's going to be there forever.
Any vase outside for 100 years isn't going to be in perfect condition, and if we are doing our job as cemeterians, we're thinking in that kind of time frame. We shouldn't think, "Well, I'm not going to worry about it—I'll be dead and somebody else can worry about the customer then." We've got to be proactive and think long-term.

TLC for Markers
We've done a number of things to try to cut down on complaints about markers:
•    We try to inspect each marker after it has been installed.
•    We've tried to improve our setting process, doing more compaction before the marker is placed.
•    When it's particularly wet, we try to use boards to displace the weight of the equipment over a larger area and protect the ground.
•    We have increased the number of times per season that we do vertical string trimming in each section. One of the concerns customers have today is that grass starts growing in from the edges over horizontal markers. To prevent this, don't just scalp out the grass around the marker, turn the string trimmer 90 degrees to the marker and edge it just like you would a sidewalk.
•    We reward employees for reporting sunken areas where a mower pan might chip a marker.
•    We immediately take care of chips, stains or any other problems the family reports. If a chip is significant enough or the customer is adamant, by golly, we'll replace the marker.

Settling Grave Problems
Graves are a challenge for cemeterians all over the country, especially for those who are in freeze/thaw areas or who have the type of clay, very compacted soils we have. We've tried doing a better job initially of tamping down the soil to prevent settling. We know when we do it under perfect conditions in August or September, we're not ever going to get a complaint from the family.

In the winter, when we're dealing with gooey, wet, super-saturated soils, we know it's going to be very difficult to compact the soil without any settling. We use a special aggregate or a gravel to minimize the compaction or settling. The pourable aggregate goes around the vault and no settling takes place there. We've improved the process, but we're not 100 percent satisfied.