Pre-Planning


A few recent commenters and emailers have asked me questions about pre-need, with two questions specifically about generating cold leads.

Unfortunately, my experience with pre-need is limited to working with the sales force at a large chain (there are three letters in their name) and selling insurance to walk-ins at a small funeral home.

My time spent with that big company brought quite a few interactions with pre-need sellers.  Unfortunately, characterizing those encounters or experiences as pleasant or even tolerable would be over-generous.

In truth, most of those sales people were ruthless and seemed more preoccupied with their own welfare and wallet than with taking care of their clients.

But here’s my caveat:  while I met many “sharks”, I also had the fortune to become friends with some very nice, wholesome and caring individuals who were more concerned with their customers and worked to provide the best possible care.  It’s unfortunate, then, that the machinery in the large corporation seemed designed to eat the nice ones up and reward those with less scruples.

When I left and went to work for a small family firm, I saw the flipside: an ineffective pre-need drive.

Within two years, I took the necessary classes, passed the appropriate test and background check, and received my license to sell funeral insurance for the funeral home.

My pre-need duties, however, were secondary to my daily chores, which included running all the day-to-day tasks required by a small family funeral home.

All of which limited me to selling pre-need to walk-ins, families we had previously served and referrals.

And that, my readers, makes me less than qualified to teach anyone how to generate cold leads.

Of course, I can tell a new salesperson how to leaf back through old files and cold-call widows, checking up on their well-being and trying to encourage them to buy pre-need.  And I can talk about how to present seminars and display at health fairs, but what about the business of generating completely new leads?

Is it about charm?  Should you stand in line at McDonalds wearing a nametag (see the post, DAILY NAG: Wear Your Nametag!)?

Or is it “who you know?”

You got any insight?  Feel free to comment.  We need guidance on this subject.

You’ve got to check out the way pre-planning is being approached by folks who, hopefully, won’t need funeral services for sixty or eighty years.  Click the link above to visit the site.

The Argus, a British newspaper, conducted an interview with Victoria Vanstone, the site’s creator.  You can read it here.

ASK YOURSELF:
What are we doing to reach out to the folks who will plan their own funerals in sixty years? 
Have we considered that they’ll probably be handling their own parent’s funerals much sooner? 
How do we interact with 20-somethings at our firm?

Robin Richter (who received the email and is my mother) received an email from Legacy.com which asked her to rate her experience wth Legacy.com.  She responded with a reference to the story I’ve laid out in Part 1, Part 2, Part 3Part 4. the interview and the conclusion.

Legacy has responded with this email, which reads as a standard answer to questions about spam email:

Dear Robin,

We understand your concern about spammers harvesting your e-mail address from our Web site. To prevent this, we do not display any user’s e-mail address in the Guest Books. Instead, a link labeled “Contact me” is displayed in the Guest Book. Clicking this link allows anyone to send e-mail to the author of that Guest Book entry without ever obtaining his or her e-mail address.

Unfortunately, we cannot prevent spammers from sending e-mails through the “Contact me” links. Please note that nobody will ever see your e-mail address, and entering your e-mail address is not required to sign a Guest Book.

If you would like us to remove the “Contact me” link from your Guest Book entry, please let us know and we would be happy to do so.

Linnea
Legacy.com

Would this pacify you?  Or would you, like me, be even more annoyed because they haven’t listened close enough.  While I have really tried to see this through less-impassioned eyes, I just keep coming back to the idea that someone who makes $8 an hour scanned an email until she saw “spam” and fired back a pre-written response.

Worse yet, some companies have computer which can handle this task, saving them the $8 an hour.  Linnea could stand for Library of Intuitive Natural and Normal Email Articulations.

I hope they haven’t trusted their customer service responses to a computer.

Many of you have been kind enough to comment (on the site and in emails) about this story.  I’ve heard the horror stories.  I’ve discussed with several readers the issues that this type of outreach (cold, impersonal email) creates.

But most of all, I think I’ve told the story the best way I know how and I’m ready to move on to more interesting topics.

I know that I promised that we’d hear from Legacy.com and TBO.com and Stowers Funeral Home, the firm which actually handled the arrangements for John Winter.

Here are my excuses for flaking out and not printing anything about those companies:

1.  Legacy.com hasn’t returned any detailed response.
2.  TBO.com has not responded.
3.  I decided not to contact Stowers Funeral Home as Ms. Blackburn did not contact a large number of guestbook signers and I didn’t want to put Stowers in the position of badmouthing their competition.

So I’m ending this story unless anything else substantial develops.  I have, however, formulated some conclusions based on this story and am ready to share them with you.

WHAT I LEARNED FROM THE JOHN WINTER GUESTBOOK EMAIL:

1.  Email is, by it’s very nature, impersonal.  Because it doesn’t allow for the complexities of vocal or phsyical conversation, it prevents the receiver from understanding the full context of the message.  Since email hampers this understanding, the reader is forced to make decisions about intent and tone from only the words on the page.  As my friend, Kim Stacey, points out, email is best used for making appointments or confirming information.  Email is very bad for introductions, unless you’re really good at it.

2.  The internet has evolved into a place to read static information about an issue or a place to converse with others about topics of interest.  Web surfers have come to expect ads to be static (something they choose to click on and read) and conversations to remain commerce-free.  If I comment on a blog, I don’t lead (or, heck, even mention!) that I sell quilted cot covers for funeral homes.  Why?  Because my role as a blog-commenter is to add to the conversation, not stop it with a sales pitch.

3.  Grief is personal and different for each person.  While we can identify the stages of grief, everyone is different, and we must remember that there are no shortcuts when it comes to speaking to or helping someone in grief.

4.  Sometimes people don’t think their actions through.  When this happens, it’s often best to act graciously and gently tell the person of their mistake.  I should have done that with Ms. Blackburn at the beginning.  I hope my later email was much nicer than my first post about her here.

5.  Everything you do, every email you write, every phone call you answer and every personal interaction you have defines your brand.  And since your brand is how your community sees you, and your community decides whether you stay in business, making sure all those things are done in a pleasant and dignified way is important!

6.  The best way to market to people who are grieving is to take care of them.  They will remember that more fondly than you pushing your promotional materials on them.

7.  Online guestbooks are becoming quite popular.

And now back to our regularly scheduled programming…

This is a continuation of our series, “Questionable Pre-Need Tactics?  You Decide.”  You can read the previous parts here:  Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 Part 4.

In an effort to promote transparency, I recorded my interview with Robin Richter (my mother), the woman who forwarded the original email to me.  I’ve included the full recording below.

PODCAST:  Questionable Pre-Need Tactics?  The Robin Richter Interview 

You will notice that at the beginning of the interview she doesn’t remember sharing her email address in the guestbook.  Later, she walks through the steps to sign the guestbook and realizes that she DID indeed have to share her email address.

Also, this interview was completed on April 25, before I had spoken with Ms. Blackburn.  This was still developing at the time and the facts were still up in the air.

However, the reactions caught on this recording are her TRUE reactions.  She had not even read the last part of the email, the part that suggests that “John would have wanted you to have this Simplicity Planner.”  Her reaction to that part was spontaneous and provides us an opportunity to examine the effects of marketing words.

Enjoy!

Read Part 1 here, read Part 2 here and read Part 3 here.

Sharon Blackburn, the family service counselor who authored the email in Part 1, answered a few questions in a preliminary phone interview which I neglected to record.


(ABOVE:  Garden of Memories, the firm Ms. Blackburn represents as a Family Service Counselor)

In fairness, since I am not a journalist, I didn’t know how to ask her permission to record her responses without scaring her off, so I chose instead to take notes.  Unfortunately, I’m not a fast notetaker, and the conversation was over quickly.

To recap, Sharon asserted these points:

1.  She did not acquire any kind of list to “blast-email,” instead choosing to send notes to those who’d invited others to contact them on the guestbook.
2.  Her boss gave her permission to do this. 
3.  She was sorry for any offense taken to her email.
4.  She did NOT have the approval of the family to send the email.
5.  She had not received any other negative response.
6.  Her purpose was NOT to sell pre-need, but to share the Simplicity Planner.

Now that we’ve published several parts to this story, I invited Ms. Blackburn to participate in a longer interview, recorded in a podcast, so that her full story could be shared.  She chose not to do so, opting instead to send this email:

Tim, thanks for the ‘opportunity’ to answer additional questions you might have, but I think I answered all of your questions – both fairly and honestly – when you called me at my place of work last week.

After reading Part 1 of your blog, I’m somewhat surprised, however, that you didn’t mention Robin Richter (if that’s really her name) – the woman so “aggravated” by my e-mail is, in fact, your Mother!

You misquoted me by stating that I said this e-mail had been sent to ‘many’ people. What I said was that I’d sent this same e-mail to several people (more than 2) and had received no negative comments in return. In fact, I told you that I’d received responses from a couple of people who simply wanted to verbalize their feelings about John’s death. Nothing was ever discussed about the Simplicity Planner, selling pre-need funeral services or anything remotely connected to my career.

As I told you when we spoke by phone, I am very, very sorry that your Mother was offended by my e-mail to her. Unfortunately, when we ‘internetters’ leave our e-mail ‘open’ for others to contact… we invite all types of e-mails in return. I realize your Mother wasn’t expecting to ‘open herself up’ for my e-mail any more than I was expecting to ‘open myself up’ for your phone call and subsequent e-mail. I guess we’ve both learned a valuable lesson from this experience.

You’re right, Tim. I absolutely meant no ill will toward your Mother when I sent her my e-mail offering her a complimentary Simplicity Planner. I was also not attempting to pre-sell her anything. What I was doing, however, was simply offering a free gift – complete with information on wills, social security benefits and other invaluable information. Everyone in my family as well as all of my friends have been given this Planner and yet… not one person (not even my parents) have bought a dime of anything from me! If my intent in giving this Planner was to sell pre-need funeral services, Tim… don’t you think my family would have been the first to buy?

I will close by simply saying how very sorry I am your Mother was on the receiving end of my e-mail and that she took such offense to same.

Sharon

So, in interest of full disclosure, here is my response, freshly sent to Ms. Blackburn:

Sharon:

Thank you for your reasoned response to my request.  On first reading, I noted a tone of either anger or angst in your tone.  Upon second review, I understand that you may have missed parts of my website or misunderstood others.  I also realize that I might have been less than perfect in the way I have presented the story.

Let me correct those issues here:

1.  You did answer all my questions.  I merely wanted to give you the same opportunity (recorded on audio) I gave Robin when discussing this issue.  You have chosen to respond by email, parts of which I’d like to share with my audience. 

2.  Please read the initial post about this issue, the one which includes the email you sent out.  It is here: https://finalembrace.wordpress.com/2007/04/27/questionable-pre-need-sales-tactics-you-decide/ .  You will notice the line “My mother, Robin Richter, chose to log onto the Tampa Tribune’s website” in the second paragraph.  And yes, that is her real name. 

3.  I shall change the site to reflect “several” instead of “many.”  I will make sure that my readers understand that you have offered this correction and that I agree wth it.  In fact, you never told me how many people you sent this email too and I should have been more forthright with that info.

4.  Yes, you can assert that my mother ‘opened herself up’ to any kind of email and you would be right.  My site deals with how funeral homes market themselves.  I hope I do a good job of sharing wth funeral directors and staffers the effects of marketing efforts.  I hope I’m able to show them how consumers react when they’re marketed to in ways like this.  And while you assert that you weren’t trying to market, I assert that you still marketed, even if your intentions were innocent.  In my mind, funeral marketing is about changing your community’s perception of your firm.  For at least one person, you did that, regardless of your intention.

5.  I was not attempting to sabotage your career or cause havoc at your workplace.  Which is why I have not contacted your supervisors or sought reaction from Stewart Enterprises in New Orleans.  I also have not shared this story with other news sources or pushed to publish articles in any other media.  And while you might not want to continue this conversation, you are welcome to discontinue it at any time.  That is why I was pleasant to you on the phone and why I have tried to keep my tone even.  I had hoped you would notice.

6.  I appreciate that you consider yourself to be a different kind of pre-need counselor.  I have spent 10+ years in this industry and have seen many who are not.  And while I think you meant no harm by your email, I also think this is an important lesson for the 90% of the pre-need sales crowd who see dollar signs instead of people.

Thank you for being so generous and responding to my requests.  I apologize for causing you further concern.  And yes, my mother was offended.  I was shocked as well.  I think if you re-read your letter, you will see that it can be misconstrued as a sales pitch.  If I have offended you by my own writing, please understand that it is merely a side-effect of my limitations as a writer.  Please stay tuned to our site to read how I present your part of this.  I hope you’ll feel comfortable enough to continue to correct any errors I might make.

Thanks,

TIM TOTTEN

Read Part 1 here and read Part 2 here.

When news spread that metereologist John Winter had committed suicide, Robin Richter was upset.  This man had been a “friend” for many years, bringing her the daily forecast for several years on the local news station.

Robin was not alone in her grief, as many other fans and friends of John Winter had begun expressing their sympathies on websites and in the news media.

“Since he was part of a local news station I knew there would be something on their site,” says Richter.  She visited the obituary on TBO.com (Tampa Bay Online) and signed the guestbook as shown below:

guestbookentry.jpg

The guestbook, which is managed by Legacy.com, was familiar to Richter as she’s signed online guestbooks for other funerals and was aware of the Legacy.com brand.

None of that is shocking.  She was merely following in the footsteps of over 10,000 others who have signed the book for Mr. Winter.  But what was waiting for her in her email inbox two days later was a shock.

“It was an extremely long email.  It started out very kindly and then it went directly into a sales pitch for her funeral home.  I was totally offended,”  says Richter.

“My hair stood on end, I was so aggravated that this woman had used my words of sympathy to…try to sell me pre-need care.  I did not say I wanted to be connected with that, I did not have the option to opt into that.”

What Richter did opt into was allowing other readers to be able to contact her.  The Legacy.com guestbook allows others to contact signers.  To do so, you must click on each individual entry and compose a message.

While she admits to choosing the option to allow contact, “that does not mean I wanted to be contacted to be solicited,” she asserts.

The email writer, Sharon Blackburn, a family counselor at Garden of Memories and Myrtle Hill Memorial Park, suggests includes a line that leads the reader to believe that John’s family was aware of or approved the message by writing (correction made 5/2/07):

I believe John would have wanted you to have this Simplicity Planner. If for no other reason, to help answer some of the questions and ease the burden that Karen Winter has undoubtedly had to deal with since April 5, 2007.

Robin admits that she didn’t read far enough to get to that part.  She was too offended to continue, so she sent it to me.  When I read the section to her, she was beside herself.

“I would be surprised if Karen knew this was being done and her behalf.  And that’s the way it makes it sound.  It makes sound like the family completely endorsed it and felt it was okay for several thousand people to get an email soliciting this company product,” she said in shock.

Ms. Blackburn claims that she had no ill intentions toward any readers.  She also asserts that she sent the email to “many”  several people (she has recently corrected me) and that this was the first negative comment she has received.

TOMORROW:  Part 4 – Ms. Blackburn’s Response

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