Client Relations

In a recent post on his blog, Seth Godin shares the two-word new marketing concept:  First, Ten.

Here’s what he says:

Find ten people.  Ten people who trust you/respect you/need you/listen to you…

Those ten people need what you have to sell, or want it.  And if they love it, you win.  If they love it, they’ll each find you ten more people (or a hundred or a thousand or, perhaps, just three).  Repeat.

If they don’t love it, you need a new product.  Start over.

Your idea spreads.  Your business grows.  Not as fast as you want, but faster than you could ever imagine.

This approach changes the posture and timing of everything you do.

You can no longer market to the anonymous masses.  They’re not anonymous and they’re not masses.  You can only market to people who are willing participants.  Like this group of ten.

Seth is describing marketing in the new world of social media.  Don’t worry, I’ll explain that phrase too.

In short, social media is any “advertising medium” that includes a social component.  When you build a MySpace page for your skateboard company, you’re taking advantage of social media.  When I write posts for my Twitter followers, I’m using social media.  When a company asks their customers for feedback via their FaceBook page, they’re reaching out through social media.

Social media turns the traditional version of media – I create and broadcast a message while you passively receive it – into a “conversation.”  In social media, the message receivers are active and help spread the word, either good or bad.

Mr. Godin thinks this is the wave of the future, and I agree.  To a point.

I think what he’s describing can also be applied to “word of mouth” advertising, which certainly can’t be lumped into the “new marketing” category.

In fact, haven’t all of us entrepreneurs felt the sting of negative opinion (“I don’t like it”, “this product stinks”, “it’s ugly”), whether it’s doled out by the news media, unhappy customers or, unfortunately, our closest friends?

Yes, Seth, people are always excited about products they love, but the “new” social media are just helping people fulfill a much older human compulsion to talk about what they like and talk really loudly about what they don’t.


Larger view

I just finished reading an interesting article about a funeral home in Minnesota and the effect that cremation is having on their business.  You can read the full article on the Minnesota Public Radio website here.

While the article touches on how many people are choosing cremation because of new economic realities and the way the funeral director they’ve interviewed is weathering the downturn, the article fails to discuss the long-term ramifications for the industry.

I believe that cremation is a game-changer for the traditional funeral industry and that many firms will have to re-think their entire pricing models to make their businesses operate on cremation income.

Traditional burial is called by its name because that’s what drives it:  tradition.  Other than those who fear fire, most people aren’t afraid of cremation as an option; they simply choose burial because “that’s what the family’s always done.”

So what happens when grandma can’t afford a big funeral and there’s a choice to be made?  What happens to the “tradition” when the patriarch or matriarch of a large family decides, for economic reasons, to choose cremation?

In my experience, “grandma’s getting cremated” means everyone else in the family is now free to be cremated.  Cousins start asking the cemetery how many sets of cremated remains can be buried in a space in the family plot.  At the memorial service, family begins discussing how much easier it was to plan a cremation (and cheaper) and, if you’re invited, you’ll hear five people say how much they’d rather have a party than a funeral.

While I don’t advocate battling cremation, I do think we, as an industry, have to realize that consumers are seeing the benefits of cremation, benefits to their wallets and their families, and they’re making the easy, less-expensive choice.

The current economy just gives them another excuse to make the decision sooner.

What are we doing to show our relevance to grieving families?  Does our community know that cremation isn’t just direct?  Do your neighbors and friends know that cremation is just a cheaper disposition than burial, not a completely new thing?  Do they know that you can still provide them with viewing, services and closure?

 My baby queeen by senli.

Photo by Flickr user Senli

Remember the phrase, “keeping up with the Joneses”?

Seems our current economic condition has many people rethinking the “spend-with-abandon” philosophy that had seemed to be engulfing our culture.

And while I can hardly believe that Americans will never, ever again try to outspend each other for social standing, I know that we’re entering an era where people will, at least, think twice before they make big purchases.

I can’t help wondering how this will affect “traditional” funeral homes.  That’s the unfortunate part.  The better part is all the opportunities this presents for funeral homes that are already listening to what consumers want and offering them services tailored to their needs and ability to pay.

I’m sure there are funeral homes out there who are still serving a traditional clientele and will feel the pinch as those folks who want “the same service we had for dad 20 years ago” become more introspective about their funeral plans and look for options that fit their new reality.  And what happens to prestige funeral homes that are used to selling a well-known name and their standing in the community?

Recent reports show that luxury brands (and prestige or reputation funeral homes are just that) are feeling the heat from the economic meltdown.  That doesn’t take into account the number of mid-level and entry products makers finding few buyers for their offerings.

Which brings us back to the amazing opportunities I see for the industry.

For years people have been telling us they want to “have a party” or “spend the money on my kids, not a casket” and we’ve responded with interchangeable cap panels and colorful register books.  Some of us added butterfly releases or personalized memorial videos, in an effort to meet the new “personalization” trend.

So many of these answers were really just shots in the dark, hoping to hit the crazy, moving target that is the American funeral consciousness.

We have the chance, now that consumers are more likely to buy only what they need or truly want, to find out what the modern American funeral really means to today’s client family.

After reading the headline 1 Killed in Funeral Procession Crash, I wondered how many funeral directors are still gladly leading funeral processions and what it will take for us to encourage our clients to eschew this time-honored (and, nowadays, dangerous) practice.

In my days as a funeral home administrator, I seldom led funeral processions, since I was often charged with cleaning up after a funeral had left the chapel.  But before I headed back inside to scrub green oasis stains from beige carpeting, I usually had the harrowing task of stopping three lanes of 55-mpg+ traffic for the procession.

The cussing, honking and rude gestures got so bad that I finally printed this Florida statute on a piece of poster board:

316.1974  Funeral procession right-of-way and liability.  3(a):  Regardless of any traffic control device or right-of-way provisions prescribed by state or local ordinance, pedestrians and operators of all vehicles, except as stated in paragraph (c), shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle which is part of a funeral procession being led by a funeral escort vehicle or a funeral lead vehicle.

Holding up the sign for oncoming traffic at least gave them something to read as they waited.  Still, there were numerous times that I was either verbally accosted or narrowly missed by a vehicle that didn’t care about the law.  One driver, a visitor from Georgia, actually hit my arm with his black BMW X3 as he drove around me and skirted the procession.

Other times I’d get the procession safely on the road, only to get a phone call from someone complaining that they had to wait in traffic for our procession.  One man complained that he had the right-of-way (a green light) and we should have told our procession members to stop at red lights.  Even after I read him the law and told him that our procession, in fact, had the right of way, he tried to complain that we shouldn’t do processions because he, and others like him, didn’t know the law.

We could argue that ignorance is no excuse, but truth is, ignorance gets people hurt.  On better days, ignorance only ends up in a fender bender or hurt feelings.  On the worst days, a little ignorance can end in death, like the news story I cited earlier.

What responsibility do we, as funeral professionals, have to the people in our care during a procession?  Lawyers can tell me all day long that any injury or death that occurs in a procession is not the liability of the funeral professional, but I wonder how I’d feel if someone died in one I was leading.  Would I find comfort in the law?  Would the negative effects of such bad publicity be mitigated because the law says I’m not responsible?

If I were still running a funeral home, I think I’d counsel families against processions.  I’d encourage use of printed directions.  Maybe we’d station staff cars at landmarks along the way, with a note on the map:  “If you get lost, meet up with a funeral home staffmember at the following locations.” 

What would you do?

When word spread that John Travolta and Kelly Preston’s son, Jett Travolta, had died in the Bahamas, I immediately wondered how they’d handle his funeral arrangements.  Would they bring his body back to Ocala, Florida (their current home) for a burial or would they opt for cremation with viewing?

I was mildly surprised to learn that they had him cremated in the Bahamas and brought his cremains home for a private memorial service.

I was saddened to learn that my friends and family didn’t see any problem with this.

My immediate reaction was “how will his friends and family members get closure without his body present?”

Truth is, most Americans are becoming quite comfortable with “no-body” funerals and even more comfortable with the idea that funeral homes just handle the disposition.

And once again, they see a high-profile case where the family (regardless of their wealth) choose to handle services at home or away from a traditional funeral establishment.

This seems to be an important topic, as I’ve covered it on the blog many, many times in the last 2.5 years, so why don’t we spend whole conferences dealing with this issue?

If you own or run a funeral home, how are you planning to deal with the increasing number of people who don’t choose you, but instead opt for direct cremation and private services?

Are you stubbornly sticking with “what you’ve always done” and resenting the choices today’s consumers make?


If we are ready to confront this shift in society, how do we tell consumers that there’s another way (traditional cremation, perhaps?) or that funeral homes are about more than just body disposal?

And if we can’t change the direction, where do we fit into this new reality?

Teach Them: Cremation is a Disposition Option, not a Service Option
Turn News Stories About Cremation into Positive PR
Surprised, She Asked “You can have a viewing with a cremation?”
A Future Without Funeral Homes?
Could You Survive Without Disposition?

*its beginning to look a lot like christmas* tree by Chris_J.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Chris Jones

Lots of funeral homes offer holiday remembrance services and most of them know one important point:  it’s already too late to plan your service this year!

But the great thing about being so close to the holidays this year is that you can start planning the 2009 service now and then put the preparations aside until next October.

Here’s the things you should do now, before Christmas 2008:

CHOOSE A DATE.  Set it now.  One successful service I attend every year is held on the first Friday of December, regardless of what other events might be happening in town.  Why does this help?  Because those who attend the first years always know when it will be held again and those you tell during the year can remember “1st Friday in December” better than “December 5th.”

BOOK A MUSICAL ACT.  A friend of mine just had costumed carolers at his event.  They sang songs before, during and after the service.  Dressed in Victorian costumes, they charged less that $300 for the quartet.  But book now, while they’re doing gigs this year, because their schedule will fill up quickly and you want your special date.

BOOK A MINISTER.  Same as that musical act, your minister’s schedule is often planned months in advance.  Don’t get stuck because your minister is doing a wedding on your special day; book him/her now!

DESIGN YOUR INVITATION.  Got some extra time this year?  Draw up your invitation now.  You’ll be sending this to families who have experienced a death the previous year, so keep that in mind for your wording.

START AN ADDRESS SPREADSHEET.  If you don’t have other software, create a spreadsheet where you can enter a family’s name and address for your invitee list.  When you serve families throughout the year, take a second to enter their name and address here, along with the date of death of the deceased.  That way, when it’s time to print your invitations and envelopes, you’ll have a list already compiled.  Just make sure you start adding to the list on December 25th of this year.

BUY DECORATIONS AFTER CHRISTMAS 2008.  Get yourself a nice tree and some good decorations.  If you plan to give away ornaments to each family (one year, I gave away origami doves that our staff had folded), buy those now while they’re on sale 75% off.

Later, we’ll discuss what you’ll need to do throughout 2009 and next October, to prepare for your holiday remembrance service.

Photo by Flickr user EscapedtoWisconsin

Yesterday was Pearl Harbor Day.  Don’t feel bad if you didn’t remember.  I didn’t turn on the TV all day and didn’t think about it until my head hit the pillow last night.

Reflecting on what Pearl Harbor means to me, I was struck by how far away (in time) the event feels, and yet, how relevant it all still seems.

The attack on Pearl Harbor helped push our country into the thick of WWII.  Those first bullets and torpedoes fired from a Japanese plane occupy such an important place in our history, as their effects reverberated through the lives (and deaths) of so many young men and women of the era.

Without the Pearl Harbor attack, my grandfather, who I wrote about in the post, A Death in the Family: Part 2, might not have enlisted in the Army and would not have been shipped off to England.  He wouldn’t have married an English woman and had two children before divorcing and returning to Michigan. 

How many others found their lives irreversibly altered on December 7th?

I thought about this because we don’t “commemorate” the victims of Pearl Harbor on December 7th the way we commemorate all military forces on Veteran’s Day.  Placing flowers or flags on the graves of those who experienced the attack firsthand might honor their memory, but identifying and locating the graves might be harder to do.

But so many others were affected by that day!  Why should we reserve the “commemoration” for only those who were in Hawaii that day?

So I thought I’d tell you blog readers to put some flowers or U.S. flags on the graves of all WWII veterans this week. 

But then I realized that I’ve already talk about this and many funeral homes already do that at other times of the year.  So I researched the blog (over 1,000 posts on lotsa topics, so it took some time) and realized that I’ve shared a lot about placing flowers on graves, like these posts:

Memorial Day: A Fistful of Flowers and Flags
A Trunk Full of Flowers

But then my thoughts took a wide turn toward a bigger idea (falling asleep really jumbles up my brain!).  Why should we restrict flowers or flags to military personnel?  And why do we have to put our name on the bouquet?

What if there were a “secret flower giver” who started putting beautiful arrangements on graves?  Would people start talking?

Better yet, what if your community were struck by a “secret memorializer” who placed a wreath, with a photo and life story, in public places every few weeks?  Would people talk, tell their friends, report it to the police?  Would the local news station run a story on the sitings?

What am I saying?  Heck, I’m saying that someone ought to be that “masked memorializer” and start sharing these life stories in places other than just the funeral chapel.

Want to do it?  First, you have to forget about publicity.  This isn’t about getting your name in front of every person who sees your work; your aim is to create a strong impression with those interested enough to find out more.  You’re also looking to create buzz.

Secondly, you can’t just memorialize people whose services you handled.  It would become pretty obvious that you were only looking to publicize yourself if you do that.

How would this work?  You’d select some people to remember.  They can be city founders or influential neighbors.  Why not choose some local teachers and church members who always worked behind the scenes?

Next, you get some beautiful wreaths made by your local florist.  But make sure you swear the florist to secrecy!  Heck, you might negotiate a good discount from the florist for the publicity he/she will get when the story breaks.

Alternately, you can use an artificial wreath and change it every time you change the person being remembered.  If you plan to continue this even after you’re discovered, it would be nice to lower your recurring costs.

You should print a photo of the person (if available) and their story.  You might include relevant sources for more information about their life or the work they did while alive (“To donate to Johnny’s favorite charity, contact Hospice at…”).

Now, choose a popular local place to situate the memorial.  It should be on public property, unless you can swear another local business owner to secrecy.  Just make sure that wherever you put it, it won’t be easily removed by a code enforcement officer.  Hopefully, the sacred nature of a memorial will make any public officials think twice before removing it.

And don’t tell anyone that you’re the person doing this!  It should be a quiet gift to your neighbors.  In fact, humans are so curious, if this is a truly interesting project, they’ll work to find out who did it.  You will probably have more trouble trying to keep  your identity hidden!

Make sure you change out the wreath at an appropriate time when no one is expecting it.  You want to create buzz over a few weeks before it’s revealed that you’ve been the one working to remember so many fine people from your community.

Hopefully, this type of random, unmotivated sharing will encourage others to see you as someone who truly appreciates your neighbors and their important life stories.

Of course, if you try this, let me know how it turns out!

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