The secrets to lasting success

Date Published: 
July, 2006
Original Author: 
Ed Horn
St. Michael's Cemetery, East Elmhurst, New York
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, July 2006

Great salespeople exceed their quotas, but the irony is they don't do it by pushing the highest-priced services and merchandise. It's when you forget about what's best for your bottom line and concentrate on what's best for the customer that your sales career blossoms and becomes a profession.

When I first began at St. Michael's Cemetery, I was hired as a "memorial counselor." I found the term confusing, since my job was selling; I was expected to meet a monthly sales quota. It was impressed upon me from the very first that if I thought I could depend on at-need sales ... well, there wouldn't be any need for me at St. Michael's.

In addition to learning to sell preneed, I was expected to figure out how to educate clients accustomed to traditional burial options about the benefits of community mausoleums.

Frankly, I saw the job—and the profession—as nothing more than a temporary stopover until something better came along.

The challenge of learning to sell
The manager who interviewed me assured me that under the best of circumstances, I should have no expectation of competing with the cemetery's top salesman, who had been number one in sales for years.

But one good thing about competing with someone who has been successful for a long time is that success often makes people reluctant to change—the "if it's not broken, don't fix it" attitude. But the reality is that absolutely nothing in life (or in what's available after death) stays the same. Refuse to change and the world will run right over you.

It took a few months of learning about the cemetery profession, its “Jargon" and what options St. Michael's offered families before all the pieces fell into place for me. But when the New Year arrived, the race was on.

My first full year as a memorial counselor was exciting. Sales increased from one month to the next as more and more clients sought me out. I was learning what a blessing referrals are. As my temporary job slowly blossomed into a career, I learned more about the keys to success.

1. Concentrate on meeting your clients' needs rather than your sales quotas. I discovered that sales were a byproduct of my true role of understanding what clients were saying. That understanding allowed me to help people make choices based on what they want, not on what would add the most to my commission.

When you develop this type of relationship with clients, you become that no longer mysterious person, the "memorial counselor." Your first obligation is to be a resource to people who have definite and discernable (to those who are listening) desires, but no idea of the options available.

The interesting thing is that once I made this change from being a sales representative to being a counselor, I ended up with record sales. By the end of my first full year, I was number one in sales for that year, with record sales for a St. Michael's counselor. So the rewards for being able to hear what clients wanted were both personally and financially satisfying.

I began to fully embrace and take pride in what was now my chosen profession.

2. Recognize that you're meeting an important human need; be proud of what you do. When I first started working at St. Michael's, I never told people what I did for a living. I found it embarrassing, maybe even morbid.

Once I realized that as a memorial counselor I was serving the needs of the individuals and families who come to St. Michael's, I began proudly announcing my profession.

I remember the first party my wife and I attended after I had this change in attitude.  There were a number of doctors among the guests, and as is typical, the doctors were surrounded by people asking them for answers to medical questions or for informal diagnoses.

Someone asked me what I did and I answered truthfully and with enthusiasm. Did people then shy away from me? To the contrary; as word spread of my occupation, people started coming over to talk to me.

Soon I, too, was attracting an interested crowd of people with questions to ask. Each answer I gave seemed to spark another question. The evening passed very pleasantly, and since that night, my wife and I have never lacked for party invitations.

3. Make community outreach a key part of your sales and marketing efforts. Not long after joining St. Michael's, I was offered the position of sales and marketing manager. I insisted that the position also include the title of director of community affairs.

It was clear to me from working with families that we had to look past our gates if we wanted a healthy future for the cemetery. St. Michael's had to be more than the place where people drop off family members after their lives have ended.

A cemetery is and must always be a place to celebrate life. A cemetery must welcome those who want to maintain a connection with their roots and their loved ones, as well as the greater community.

We offer security and peace to those who seek it, as well as a full slate of events to make the entire community feel welcome at St. Michael's.

4. Never get complacent. During my years at St. Michael's, sales have continued to increase. While this is a good thing, I'm always scared of becoming comfortable and reluctant to change. To my way of thinking, nothing is perfect and everything could be improved upon.

Though I no longer have direct contact with families, I've made sure the salespeople I supervise reflect my beliefs. I try to maintain their competitive edge, while emphasizing that they can expect their compensation to continually increase when they put their clients' needs ahead of their own.

One day I was out on the grounds when I ran into a client who happened to be visiting. He had bought crypt space preneed and preconstruction, based on a drawing. Seeing his mausoleum space for the first time, he was impressed by its beauty, which he said exceeded his expectations, as well by as the overall environment at St. Michael's, which continues to evolve.

After thanking me for helping him select the right memorial property for him, he looked around and said, "I can't wait till I'm here!"

I'm sure he didn't mean to put it quite like that, but it was nevertheless a nice compliment to St. Michael's. To me, it meant that we're doing a great job—but we shouldn't stop trying to do an even better one.