Service with a personal touch

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

When you deal with the basics of cemetery operations, with excavating and backfilling, with lowering caskets and setting stones, it's easy to forget the real basics of cemetery operations: the personal touch so crucial in dealing with families in a caring and compassionate way.

WHAT: We've tried to instill in all our employees the "Spring Grove Basics." This list of 15 basics of service for employees to live by started with Andy Conroy, our former president.

About 15 years ago, he came back from a trip where he stayed in a hotel that had something similar and he decided to adapt the idea for tile cemetery. We have the steps printed out on a trifold card we carry with us.

WHY: We're not really in the grass-cutting or grave-digging business, we're in the memory business. It's easy to forget that as we go about our everyday work.

We start the morning with a meeting where we go over the work we have to handle that day, and it's excavate this and backfill that and get the sod in quickly over there. We start thinking in cemetery jargon and if we don't watch it, by the time we walk out of that room to begin the work, we're acting like automatons.

When we catch ourselves feeling this way, we need something to remind us what business we're in.

HOW: Our 15-step list is printed on a card we can fit in a pocket. Most of the steps deal with how we interact with customers. The 15-step Spring Grove program for giving your families excellent service with a personal touch:

#1. Our duty & our mission will be known, owned & practiced by all employees. Anybody
who joins our team has got to be marching to the same beat. Our duty is to treat every customer with care and respect.

We have funerals every day; our customers do not. If you're doing your job on automatic pilot, like a robot, you forget that the family you're serving today may not have been to a cemetery in a decade—if ever.

#2. The three steps of service will be practiced by all employees. The three steps are listed on another part of the card:

• Give a sincere greeting. Use the visitor's name if and when possible. Give a friendly goodbye.
• Anticipate and comply with the needs of our families and visitors.
• When a customer is upset; let him or her talk—count to 10 before answering. Another way of saying the same thing is "listen, listen, listen," which we don't do enough. We think we do, but as humans we're more likely to respond than to let the person vent and acknowledge what they're saying.

Don't quickly respond to a complaint with something like, "Well, it's been wet. Don't you know it's been raining?" Those kinds of comebacks just infuriate and fire people up. You've got to listen and acknowledge what they're saying. We like to say, "Gosh, if I had the same circumstances you're dealing with, I'd feel the same way."

#3. Smile—we’re all on stage all the time.  Always maintain positive eye contact.

#4. Employees will treat each other with the same respect and helpfulness as they do the customers. We deal with internal customers—fellow team members, colleagues—as well as external customers. If you're not treating your colleagues with respect and care, you're not likely to treat your external customers any better.

#5. It's each employee's job to create a positive workplace and to practice teamwork.

#6. Each employee will be an ambassador of Spring Grove both at work and away from work. Everyone should strive to create a good image for the cemetery. We certainly want our people saying the same things outside the cemetery as they would on the job.

#7. The employee who receives a customer request owns it and is responsible for taking the necessary action.  We don't mean that the sales counselor who's talked to somebody about a sunken marker needs to put on a pair of jeans and go out and lift the marker back up and level it. We're just saying that counselor is responsible to see that the work gets done and to get back to the family. This way the customer is only dealing with one person.

There isn't that "It isn't my job, I'll send you out to talk to the grounds crew" pass-off.

If Betty Jones receives the request, she gets back to the person within 48 hours—which is what our mission says, that we'll get back to the customer and acknowledge the exact concern. We might not be able to fix it in 48 hours, but we're going to look into the problem and get back to the person, then, in two or three weeks, after the problem is taken care of, Betty Jones will call the family again to know that the work has been done. This is another a way of personalizing service.

#8. Respond to customer requests promptly. There's that 48-hour rule. We want to at least get back to the customer and say, "We got it; we understand. You're absolutely correct; that marker shouldn't have settled. We're going to take care of it. We can't do it right now because the ground is frozen, but it will be done within the next 10 days and we'll call you as soon as we get to that point."

Half the time people just want to know that you got their complaint and you're working on it. There's nothing worse than sending in a complaint and never hearing anything back.

#9. When possible, escort visitors to their destination rather than just giving out directions. Often someone will come in and say he can't remember where Mom's grave is; all he remembers is that it's on a hill. We look it up, of course, but then we don't just say, "Here's a map; I put an X on the map, take this windy road here, turn left, then right……”

We're going to try to either have someone meet him out on the grounds, or better yet, radio someone to escort his car out. An employee will drive out to the site, then get out and help the customer locate the grave and ask if there's anything further he can do to help.

#10. Know basic information such as the cemetery hours of operation without having to look it up. So if you're outside working on a flower bed and somebody stops and asks what time the cemetery closes or how long will the flowers she just placed be left on Mom's grave, you should be able to answer without radioing in for help.

#11. Use proper telephone etiquette.  Ask permission before putting people on hold.

#12. Wear proper uniforms and nametags so that people will know you're staff and can address you by name.

The last three items address the relationship between employees and Spring Grove. These simply recognize that we have responsibilities to our employer as well as to our customers.

#13. Notify your supervisor immediately of any hazards, injuries or equipment needs you may have.

#14. Assume ownership of equipment you use; be responsible for its maintenance and repair.

#15. Take responsibility for protecting the assets and grounds of Spring Grove.

Simple & effective: A mausoleum journal

In our mausoleum, we have a stand where we keep a remembrance book for visitors to write in. Anyone who comes in is welcome to write a note to his or her departed loved one.

This is a very simple idea—you can do it for almost no money, since all you need is a journal-type book and a stand or table—and it's just great.

We have a book similar to a diary, with 365 pages. There's a red ribbon like you might find in a Bible we use to mark the current date. A member of the security staff opens the book to the correct page first thing in the morning.
If you want to bring yourself back to what our business is all about, to understand the power of what we do and the need for sensitivity in dealing with our customers, all you have to do is open that book and start reading. You'll come out of that mausoleum with your eyes filled with tears.

A businessman may stop in on his way to work and write, "Betty, I was thinking about you this morning. I loved our years together and the memories you left me with."

It's amazing the details people will share with the world. They'll write about a special day they shared with the departed, where they went, what they did, how much they enjoyed their time together. It's so touching to see what people are willing to share, knowing that other people may read what they've written.

When we first put the book out there, we kind of had the feeling in the back of our minds, "Oh, this is never going to work. Nobody's going to write in it." But what a hit it's been!

People don't forget those who have gone before—you can see that in what they write. It's been a wonderful way to complement the grieving process.

We know what you're wondering: With something open to the public like that, are kids going to come in and write a bad word on the page? Absolutely not. We've had a journal out there for 10 years and we've never had a problem. Our experience with this has been fabulous.
     --Smitty & Fife