Top 10 Cemetery Best Practices

Date Published: 
May, 2006
Original Author: 
Patrick Monroe
Rose Hills Memorial Park, Whittier, California
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, May 2006

You need good employees, of course, but to make everything work right, you also need formal business processes, policies, procedures and automation.


I’m not going to tell you how to run your cemetery; I'm simply going to describe 10 "best practices" based on what we're doing at Rose Hills. It's up to you to decide whether they would work for your organization.

How do you determine something is a "best practice"? We use five criteria:

1. Does it do something for the customer? Does it improve the delivery of products or services for your families?

2. Does it benefit your company? Does this practice help you become more profitable, reduce costs or increase safety?

3. Does it benefit the employee? Does it increase employee morale, or foster teamwork and buy-in?

4. Does it also improve the community?

5. Does it raise the bar for the entire profession and make funeral and cemetery services that much more relevant to consumers?

The Rose Hills Top 10

10. Have in place a good performance management system. You can't hit the target if you don't know what you're aiming at. A good system becomes an effective tool for communicating with your employees.

The system we've been using is built around the job position profile, which is different from a job description.

A job description basically lays out what a job is; the education requirements for it and so forth.

A job profile has three key items: the parts of the job, the standards for doing it and SMART goals. Have you ever heard anyone say, "In my job I wear many hats?" When you're creating a job profile, you're listing those "job hats."

At Rose Hills, the members of my operation team all have very similar job parts, such as operating within budget, or delivering customer service at levels we set for ourselves. Also, all managers and supervisors are expected to always have their safety hat on, so there is a risk management job part.

Leadership is also a major component of their jobs, so we need to identify what good leadership looks like. For instance, are we communicating effectively with our team and our staff?

All our managers at Rose Hills have a human resources development component to their jobs, meaning they're expected to train and grow and nurture their employees.

And lastly, our managers and supervisors have a personal development aspect to their jobs. We expect people to participate in events such as ICFA training, evening classes, the Chamber of Commerce—something outside of work to develop their skills.

Each of these job parts has what we call a job standard. For business management, it might be something like: "Performance is satisfactory when all planned projects are completed on time and on budget. Performance is satisfactory when targeted customer service goals are achieved or exceeded."

Each job part has one or more related job standards, and these typically don't change from year to year. If you're in the same job, what's expected of you doesn't change from year to year.

However, certain job standards will have what we call SMART goals—specific, measurable, attainable, results-oriented and time-specific.

For example, let's say you have a person whose job standard is, "Performance is satisfactory when all assigned projects are completed on time and on budget." That job standard will be the same, whether it's 2006, 2007 or 2008. But the SMART goal for 2006 might be, ''Project X will be completed within budget by June 30, 2006." You want to be able to know whether the goal has been achieved or not.

9. Institute written policies and procedures. Most of our employees really want accountability and standards, and I think written procedures are the way to get there.

There are many advantages to written procedures. They provide some consistency in how the job gets done. They are objective and results-oriented. And they provide a mechanism for constructive feedback and corrective action, and for performance reviews.

There are five key elements we embed in all our procedures:

• Define the job in terms of what success in this job looks like.

• Describe the process step by step.

• List the skills and talents required to do the job.

• Name the specific safety standards associated with that job.

• Include productivity standards.

Having written policies and procedures can also help you in other ways, such as being able to share them with other departments. A couple of weeks ago, we did a presentation for 200 of our preneed counselors about our interment process, and we shared our procedures. The more our employees know about what other departments are doing, the better, and having written policies and procedures makes it very easy to share this information.

Also, we have the policies and procedures for our subcontractors and vendors. We want to make sure they know what our safety rules are, and we expect them to follow our park etiquette standards. Our contractors sign off on that, and we expect them to follow through, or they're not coming back.

8. Keep a focus on career development. You want to hire and recruit, train and retain the best quality people you can, so it's not just a human resources department function, it's an operational management and leadership function to focus on career development.

Examine the diagram at the top of this page. Someone with a low skill level and a very high challenge is going to feel anxiety because he or she can't do the job right. Someone with a very high skill level and a low-level challenge could be bored.

We don't want our employees to be in a state of either anxiety or boredom; we want them "in the zone," where their skill level and job challenge are well matched. Managers need to work with employees and understand where their zone is, and create a career path and career opportunities to keep them in it.

It's difficult to orchestrate opportunities, but it's important. In the past, a new person would come to work at Rose Hills, go through training and rotate through jobs, but not really have a career path.

That wasn't working, so we came up with something new. We developed a career path for all employees based on skill acquisitions. As people acquire skills and experience, they are automatically promoted to another level and have an opportunity to increase their compensation. Our employees are so much more valuable to our organization as they grow those skills. We meet with each person on a quarterly basis and analyze their career development plan to make sure they're progressing.

7. Develop a vehicle, equipment and facilities maintenance program. We have formal written maintenance programs in place. With 100+ vehicles in our fleet, we maintain written records of everything done to each vehicle.

We have five working chapels on our property, and 500,000 people visit them each and every year. It's critical that those facilities look as good as they can. People are forming impressions about Rose Hills, and funeral and burial ceremonies, when they enter our property.

We do a weekly inspection of all our public facilities, everything from the speakers to the AV equipment. We check the restrooms to make sure the toilet dispensers and the faucets are working.

Don't forget your employee work areas. You can tell the quality of an organization by looking behind the scenes. It's important that your employees' work areas are safe and neat and well maintained.

6. Conduct internal inspections and quality control and compliance audits. At Rose Hills, our parent company does annual inspections. Someone comes in unannounced and looks at all our procedures and safety compliance and writes a report. We also have somebody on staff who does this. Not every organization is going to have a staff person who can do this, but if you don't, maybe you can subcontract it out.

5. Fully disclose the nature of services before you render them. We all know about the waivers, disclosure forms, at-need and preneed contracts, general price lists. What I've found is that you have to have these things, but most people don't read them. We try to focus on informal methods of communicating the important things.

Avoid industry speak. Nothing drives me crazy more than hearing somebody say, "I'm looking at Mrs. Smith on her ROC”—using terms that clients don't understand.

Brochures, handouts and web sites are obviously great tools to inform people about the business, but nothing replaces good, strong product knowledge and training for your people.

Also, we're beginning to leverage other influencers in the process-clergy, senior associations, leaders and so forth. Get these people involved, and sometimes they can be your best advocate and explain things to families.

4. Have a good system for resolving customer dissatisfaction. Do you have systems in place that resolve customer dissatisfaction? Statistics tell us that every person who has a problem with a company tells 10 other people—the worst type of advertising.

The most important thing is to address the issue immediately. Customer service issues are not like fine wine; they do not age well. We want our staff to address problems with the family immediately, since that's the best bet for restoring the customer's confidence.

Make sure you listen and get the whole picture before acting. Don't start trying to solve a problem before you've got all the facts. And don't blame others. I had a situation not too long ago where one of our supervisors was solving a customer service problem and said, "Well, the preneed person should never have told you that." That didn't give the customer a lot of confidence in our organization.

Separate the objective problems from the subjective. An objective problem, for example, is a cracked marker, a scratched casket or dead flowers. In those cases, you know what you have to do: give a refund or replace the product.

The bottom line is, do the right thing. I can't tell you how many times we've won the battle but lost the war with customer service. A family has 10 spaces, and we're fighting them over $100 worth of flowers. To try to avoid this, we tell staff, "If you make a decision favoring the customer, you're not going to get into trouble if you err too much on their side."

Of course not everyone who has a problem is going to tell us about it, so we use customer surveys. We ask the family, "Would you recommend us?" We want the answer to be "yes" at least 98 percent of the time.

3. Leverage technology. Walk around the convention this week. It blows you away how much more technology is in our industry than there was five years ago. Make your web site as useful as possible. We do $10,000 a month in flower sales for grave placement, and the family finds the online shop a great tool—they don't have to drive all the way out in L.A. traffic to put flowers on the grave.

We're beginning to use document imaging technology to replace a lot of the old manual recordkeeping. And we're using a park data resource system involving little handheld laptops so our staff can provide information to families in the field.

2. Know thy customer. This needs to be the mindset of all your operational managers. Cemetery master planning, facilities design—everything needs to be built around what you know about your customers.

We know where all our property owners live. We can graph our property owner distribution by zip code. More important than demographic information is psychographic information, which deals with people's attitudes, beliefs, religious preferences and lifestyle. You can do focus groups, survey your families and talk to your employees to get this type of information.

We also need to consider all the people involved in the funeral and cemetery decision process. This includes not only the buyers but also the initiators, who gather information; the deciders; and the influencers, such as clergy and hospice.

All customers have both articulated and unarticulated needs. If customers are telling you what they want and you're meeting their needs, you're not getting any bonus points, because that's what they expect. That's the basic level of service. Pleasant surprises you offer a family—"Wow, I didn't know you did that"—get you bonus points.

1. Put safety first. We've got to have a razor-sharp focus on safety through three different lenses:

• Safeguard the deceased, from the removal to the time the casket is lowered or the deceased is transferred to the crematory. If you have subcontractors, are you inspecting them?

• Safeguard your employees. OSHA requires safety procedures, and we don't view that as a burden. You want your employees to be safe, and they want to see that you care about their safety. We do a lot of safety training.

• Safeguard your visitors. You need to go around you, pack and look for anything that could endanger visitors. Is there a slipping hazard somewhere? Is that construction project properly marked with signs and cordoned off'?
Most of the things on this list are not quick and easy. They take hard work, but I can tell you from personal experience that they pay huge dividends. It's a lot easier to grow weeds than it is to grow grass. These things are going to help you grow grass


This article compiled from an address presented by the author at the 2006 ICFA Annual Convention