Guest Blogger


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Being a Funeral ‘Hero’
If you can’t save the day, at least save memories

The season premiere of my favorite show, Heroes, is on tonight.  Hopefully you’ll watch it.  Aside from being one of the best escapist thrills on television, the show succeeds by truly humanizing the superhuman, the way those popcorn comic book movies flooding the multiplex so rarely do.The Heroes writers weave a wide variety of real-world drama into an otherwise otherworldly good time, touching on everything from marital strife, to teenage angst, drug addiction and even death.  OK, that last one gets touched on quite a bit (and not always in an “open casket” kind of way, either), but in one episode last season, the subject provided an especially poignant moment.

“Death is what connects us all,” the über-hero, Peter Petrelli, compassionately explained to the daughter of his hospice patient.  “It’s what reminds us that life is so important, and why we need to be good to each other.”

Death is what connects us all.  That’s a sentiment most of us in the funeral profession would be hard-pressed to argue with, now wouldn’t it?  Death does connect us all, and more importantly, it’s what reminds us that we’re all connected.

OK, maybe that’s splitting hairs, but I don’t think so.  When someone dies, people are more affected than connected.  It was the person’s life, not death, which truly connected them.  The memories of the person, the shared experiences, the degrees of separation between people, are what keep them connected, as long as those memories are saved.

What do you, as funeral professionals, do to help save those memories?  At Life Story Funeral Homes®, our entire focus is remembering the life that was lived, and preserving those memories for future generations.

For example, what do you know about your grandparents?  Maybe you know them quite well.  But what about your great-grandparents?  You probably don’t know very much. Don’t you wish you did?  Wouldn’t you like to read their Life Story®? Of course you would.

What do you, as funeral directors, do to help save those stories?  Do you offer video slideshows, or “personalized” funerals, complete with Grandpa’s golf clubs?  Those are nice features to offer your client-families, but honestly, they only scratch the surface of who the person was.

No matter how “personal” you make the service, it is in itself a very two-dimensional event, which the people in the pews and chapel chairs interact with only passively, and fleetingly.  Death connects us all, but it’s our shared experiences – our memories – that keep us connected in life.

It’s up to you, the funeral professionals, to help people save those things that are dear to them.  It’s up to you to be the heroes when people need you most.

 Don Shell is a staff writer for Life Story Network®, a Portage, Michigan-based multimedia company serving 15 independently-owned funeral homes in the Midwest. For more information, visit http://www.lifestorynet.com/, or email Don at donshell@lifestorynet.com.

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The recent death of our beloved little Boston Terrier, Gromit, gave us the opportunity to experience pet cremation.  At first we wanted to bring her home and bury her in our back yard.  But as soon as our vet, Dr. Michael Marks, told us about the cremation service they offer, we were sold.  This was before we got her back and found out just how special she was treated.

Everyone dreads “picking up the ashes”.  As I already knew from previous human cremations, they aren’t really ashes at all – they are “cremains”, bits of bone and whatnot.  They sent Gromit out the day after her death (we put her to sleep in the late evening) and she was back the following day.

I called the vets office early afternoon to see if Gromie was back.  They assured me they would call as soon as she arrived.  Forty-five minutes later they called to let me know she was there.  I told my husband and son that I was going to pick up our girl.

When I arrived, I was already crying pretty well.  When I saw the presentation, I totally lost it.  She was in a pretty little cedar box with lock and keys, her name was on top, a paw print ribbon was tied to the hasp, the box was in a “doggie bag”, a small plastic shopping bag with paw prints all over.  There was a certificate of cremation from the crematorium, Lasting Paws, and a bookmark with a little silver heart that read “love”.

 I cried the whole way home, comforted that she was sitting beside me in the seat.  Once home, I opened her little box and there was a gold bag, tied, that smelled wonderful, and the box was lined with paw print paper.

I placed our Boston Terrier statue, Gromie’s cremains box and the scrapcard I created with favorite photos to remind me of her on the counter between our kitchen and living room.  She will get a permanent place of honor soon on top of an antique cabinet.

Our experience of the death of our much loved pet was awful, but the people involved from our vet, the emergency vet and the crematory made an incredible difference.  You could tell they each loved animals as much as we did and they honored her life in death.

Would your funeral home cause folks to rave about how great you are?  I can’t bring Gromit back but I’ve already told a dozen people about our experience.  Even those that also had a pet cremated have been shocked at how different their pet was presented to them.

And on that certificate that shows when Gromit Richter was cremated is something very special – her actual paw print.

The crematory that handled these arrangements has a website at www.lastingpaws.com.

We were served by Dr. Michael Marks and Dr. Steven Lewis, May Animal Hospital, Plant City, Florida and the Animal Emergency Clinic of Brandon in Brandon, Florida.

image002.jpgRobin Richter is a Human Resources Expert and an avid motorcycle enthusiast. 
The owner of several Boston Terriers, Robin is also a “rabid” fan of the breed.  
As a Creative Memories Consultant, she helps preserve memories through scrapbooking.  Visit her
Creative Memories website to see how this “Queen of the Scrappers” can help you.

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Michael Manley, publisher extraordinaire and frequent Final Embrace contributor responds to the recent question Can You Negotiate SCI-Level Casket Discounts? by describing a buying collective he’s already begun brainstorming:

This was an interesting post. I found it especially interesting because it won’t be long until I will make this very concept a reality, by forming a BUYING GROUP. Having been a “sales director” in a previous career with a large manufacturer in a 150 billion dollar/yr industry, I do believe this concept will work. The industry I previous worked was comprised of about 20% corporate owned business, and 80% independent.

In that industry, the independents had very little purchasing power, but in 2001 a “cooperative” formed, a Buying Group created, and it created an “equal playing field.” Maybe not 100% equal, but it was a big step in the right direction to give the little guy something they lacked- a collective voice and strength in numbers.

You mentioned that it may not be beneficial to the manufacturer, because they have no assurance that a member of the group won’t defect and go to another supplier. Two things on that point; first, the appeal or allure for a manufacturer is not to ensure that every member uses their product, it is to ensure that they have the ability to mass market to a large group of buyers (funeral directors) at one time. Also, a true buying group actually facilitates the transaction on behalf of the manufacturer, thus providing them a savings by streamlining the entire transactions. Most buying groups solicit, market, advertise, take orders, and invoice for the vendor. This streamlining of the sales process is the allure to the manufacturer, not the assurance that like SCI that once a deal is signed, it guarantees a certain amount of business. Not all buying groups operate exactly like this, but the opportunity and the advantages are numerous.

Now, you are right, it can be a daunting task to think of beginning a buying group. After all, how do you solicit both Manufacturer’s as members, and funeral director’s alike? How do you promote the group, and ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to participate? In fact, you mentioned (IOGR). I have actually discussed this same concept with George Darte. The disadvantage they have, like any organization, is the marketing of the group to the entire industry, both supplier and funeral homes. They have members, but they ONLY have access to their members, unless they wanted to go outside of their members and promote the group.

Well guess what? I am actually deep into the process of beginning just such an opportunity. It won’t be long until you see, for lack of a better term, the FBA Buying Group. This whole idea was born out of something I realized a long time that FBA has given me; a distribution network of 17,500 funeral homes, crematories, and vendors. Unlike IOGR or NFDA, I don’t have an allegiance to just my members. Every independent funeral home and crematory gets my publication, so I can mass market the concept better than them.

I refer to this concept as the”Starbuck’s” principle. They didn’t invent this next concept, but they have done it as well as anyone. What is this principle? Not too long ago, Starbucks realized that they have 22 million individuals walking through their doors to purchase coffee or beverages each and every day. Twenty-Two Million consumers that they could sell anything to. It didn’t take them long with that market to realize that selling coffee may not provide them with the only opportunity to exploit this group. They soon began to moonlight as a CD retailer. They began selling pictures, cups, mugs, etc. CEO Howard Schultz has now gone and is doing what McDonalds and Burger King has done successfully for years. You soon will begin to see movies promoted on sleeves of Starbucks cups and on the Wi-Fi network.

Another example; I worked 10 years with UPS, my last 5 as a National Account Manager. So I have a fairly detailed working knowledge of UPS, and most probably don’t know that UPS business plan says that by 2012, over 50% of their revenue will come from their Logistics business (they set up distribtion channels for companies, handling everything from receipt of orders, order entry, warehousing, packaging, shipping, tracking, and reconciling statements for companies). They allow companies to outsource rather than do it themselves.

Point is, Funeral Business Advisor affords me very much the same opportunity. We have a captive audience of virtually every independent funeral home and crematory in the United States. We have relationships with over 100 vendors through the magazine. So with the distribution network in place, the next step is to organize my “cooperative.” It will be as simple as providing 2 very inexpensive products. One for the vendor, and one for the funeral director. Then for a very nominal fee ($99 per month for Vendor, and $19 per month for funeral director), we will do what we do best. Bring BUYERS and SELLERS together. The vendor package will include FBA advertising the Buying Group in each issue, forming the website with individual vendor pages that we will build and maintain for the vendor, being included in a twice annual “buying group” catalog, market them to over 17,500 readers, and numerous other benefits I can’t mention yet, all for less that $1200 per year. That is the cost of a 1/2 page color ad (1X) in most industry publications. The funeral home will receive a simple, but yet, important benefit. A minimum discount that each vendor will agree to offer the group. The will get a free annual subscription to Funeral Business Advisor, a free “buying group” catalog twice a year, private access to the website, full access to participating vendors, and a simple one-stop shopping mechanism for all of their purchasing needs. All for less that $120 per year, or amount they would save if they bought just one casket from our vendors.

Now, I agree this may not be on par to what SCI can bring to the table when they negotiate with Batesville, but interesting enough, I have a very good relationship with Joe Weigel, communications director with Batesville. And I have discussed this concept, and although he didn’t do back flips, he did say it was interesting concept and feels if done properly, would have a strong appeal.

Anyway, I am not an expert on buying groups, and i would be interested in your thoughts. Even though there may be challenges, I can’t help but believe our distribution network is our biggest asset. I value your advice, and we have always managed to have good conversation and exchanging of ideas. Waiting for feedback…

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Stop Selling Your Funeral Home and Start Selling You! 

You are your business.  Not your facility, not your furniture or the décor. 

Your business is you: your customer service skills, your ethics, and your ability to connect with those who come to you for assistance.  

So, let’s put everything else on the ‘back burner’ for a bit, and talk about you.  Let’s go back to the beginning, and ask:

“Why did you go into this field in the first place?” 

Many of you will answer that it was compassion, caring, and a desire to serve people in their time of deepest need.  Through the years you’ve honed your skills, and found an ethical business practice that helps you sleep well at night.  

So, stress those things.  Make yourself real, authentic, and you’ve made a powerful connection with your reader.

Kim Stacey, of marketingfuneralservices.com, has dedicated her career to supporting and empowering funeral service professionals by writing responsive advertising and informational copy. She can be reached most easily at kimstacey@sbcglobal.net, or 831-338-0220. Living in the small coastal town of Boulder Creek, California, she’s in the Pacific Time zone.

Turns out the guy who contacted me about buying ad space in later issues in exchange for giving Final Embrace a big splash in their NFDA Convention issue is actually from a real magazine.

The Funeral Business Advisor is a real publication with actual circulation numbers to back up their claims.

Of course, the articles I’ve read are solicited from industry folks who seem to have financial stake in the article they write, such as:

Noayr Machine and Supply President Jesse Wolf discusses proper embalming machine maintenance (they sell embalming machines)

Brent Durham writes about the profitability of those plastic memorial bracelets memorial “wristbands” (his company, Brass Reminders, makes them)

Gary Halonen of Roadside Memory encourages funeral directors to keep an eye out for innovative new products (like his Temporary Memorials)

Wally Snyder of S&S Cremation Urns writes an article titled “Learn About Urns and Profit.”

And that’s just articles from the most recent issue!

So maybe this magazine is written by the advertisers and paid for by the advertisers.  As long as you, the funeral professional, knows that, it should be fine.

I can’t wait to get my hands on a hard copy.  I’d like to experience the magazine the same way a funeral home owner in Peoria might.

And our friend Kim Stacey of Kim Stacey Publishing wrote a brilliant piece on funeralOne’s E-Aftercare program.  So the magazine can’t be all bad.

And who knows?  Maybe by comparison, my writing will be so compelling that folks will rush to my door to order my amazing quilted mortuary cot covers!

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Creating an Experience

Once upon a time I was the editor of a golf magazine, which was a pretty nice gig until 9/11, which, among far more serious repercussions, also sucked the air right out of the tourism industry, and my humble publication. But I learned some valuable lessons about experience marketing, which is what the best golf resorts do so well, and what most funeral homes could do better — create an experience.

I once wrote a story about a man named Joe Jemsek, who created a fantastic collection of golf in Chicago called Cog Hill, which is where the PGA Tour plays the Western Open every year. Joe was a pioneer in the industry, and a fascinating success story, having started as a caddy. Most people credited Joe with inventing the idea of the upscale public golf course, the “country club for a day” experience, during a time so dominated by private clubs. It was a brilliant idea, and today there are far more upscale public courses than there are private ones.

Joe’s business philosophy was simple: Give ’em what they want, and they’ll come back for more. And he did. He built four beautiful golf courses, and — gasp! — even put carpet in the pro shop. Everyone told him, “You can’t put carpet in the pro shop! The golfers’ spikes will wear it right out!” Joe just smiled knowingly and said, “Yes, and I hope they wear it out quick!”

Most of us don’t have to worry about people wearing golf spikes in our funeral homes (save for those “personalized” funerals), but we can take something from Joe’s lesson. It’s all about creating an experience, an experience people can’t get anywhere else. This is about more than good service, too, which is merely the price of admission (or at least, it should be). It’s about attentively — and intuitively — attending to your customers’ needs.

Quick, by a show of hands, how many of you allow food in your funeral homes?

Whether it’s shrimp cocktail at the funeral service, or delivered pizzas at the visitation, having some food served only adds to the experience. So if you don’t allow food, why not? Afraid they might spill on the carpet? Afraid that doesn’t fit the “traditional” funeral model?

That should be a good thing.

Like it or not, times are changing, and customers are demanding more from funeral service. They’re demanding the funeral experience be more about them, and less about the cars and caskets. And they’re demanding funeral providers put the “home” back in “funeral home.” That means comfortable seating, relaxed atmosphere, personal, meaningful funerals, and yes, even food.

It’s time to embrace this new model of funeral service, centered upon the life that was lived, and on preserving and sharing those memories with future generations. It’s time to offer your customers an experience, and an experience they can’t get anywhere else. Give them what they want, and what they need, and they’ll return the favor in the future.

In short, it’s time you let your customers have their cake — and eat it, too.

Don Shell is a staff writer for Life Story Network®, a Portage, Michigan-based multimedia company serving 15 independently-owned funeral homes in the Midwest. For more information, visit http://www.lifestorynet.com/, or email Don at donshell@lifestorynet.com.

I’ve lured so many great writers to the blog (Kim Stacey, Don Shell, etc.) that I’ve added separate links for each of their growing collections.

If you look at the categories to the right (choosing a category helps you find other articles that have been assigned or “tagged” with a theme) you’ll see links for the following writers:

Kim Stacey, funeral home copywriter and owner of Marketing Funeral Services
Don Shell, Lifestory Network writer
Robin Richter, HR Expert and “Queen of the Scrappers
Bryan Chandler, owner of Chandler Funeral Home and Cremation Service
Candace Craw-Goldman
, photographer and owner of In Repose
Deidre Blair, event planner and owner of Final Reflections

 Of course, we’re still looking for a “few good writers” who want to share their insights.

So drop us a line or comment hear if you’ve got something to contribute, a product to share with our readers or an interesting story to relate.

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