Sales


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?

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About a year ago, I started looking at the funeral business in a radically different way. I joined an organization that helps women starting businesses, called Ladies Who Launch (http://ladieswholaunch.com/).

The core of the program is a four week long “incubator”. The general theory is that when we try to innovate for ourselves, we tend to be unsuccessful because every new idea is met with four or five reasons why we think it would never work. Other people will tend not to see those limitations, and will dream bigger for us than we do for ourselves. My homework during those four weeks was to think about everyone else’s business but my own.

When it came time to hear what ideas the other women in my group came up with for my funeral home, I was expecting to hear a lot about cremation, green funerals, East-Asian and new-age rituals, and other scenarios that are hard for funeral directors to make a living on.

I was very, very wrong. Their perceptions of what can and can’t be done to memorialize someone were worlds apart from mine. Overall, their ideas harkened back to making things very simple, but meaningful. Most were also fairly expensive: several people suggested ‘destination funerals’ in The Adirondacks or the Jersey Shore. As a whole, they saw nothing wrong with spending money if they could see the value in the cost.

I think many of us in the funeral industry get stuck in a mindset about how we think the industry should progress, and what we think the consumer should want.  My experience in the Ladies Who Launch Incubator showed me that what this group of consumers wants from me as their funeral director is vastly different from what I thought it was.

From this stems my frustration with the majority of those who market their wares to me as the funeral director.

First, of course, are those who try to get me to buy an item for anywhere from $50 to $150, and just “throw it in” with a funeral. This demonstrates a (perceived) lack of understanding by the vendors about how much my actual costs are, and what I can realistically afford to absorb before passing the cost on to my clients. They also seriously underestimate the intelligence of my clients if they think I can tack and extra $100 on to their bill without them noticing or questioning it.

Second, many of the things I see that are intended to be resold to families are just too complicated, especially in an at-need situation. Most often, the families have a million things going on in their heads, and have varying levels of focus on the task at hand. I’ve got a limited window of time and attention during which to sell them items. That, and I personally just don’t like doing a hard sell at any point during the arrangement process.

There’s a woman I met in Ladies Who Launch, Jen Groover, who sells the Butler Bag, a compartmentalized handbag for women. (http://butlerbag.com/). It’s great because you never have to dig to find anything in your purse- it’s always right there. I own FIVE of them. Jen and I have both lost count of how many more I’ve sold for her. The reason is because they sell themselves. In less than 15 seconds I can explain what  it is, and once I open up my own bag and show them what it looks like inside, they’re sold.

My general rule of thumb now is if I can’t sell a product to my families the way I can sell Butler Bags to my friends, I won’t waste time on it during arrangements.

More importantly, most items I come across are marketed to me because, as a funeral director I’ll appreciate them. Very few items are marketed to me because of what they’ll actually do for my clients. I find that very frustrating.

At the last convention I attended, it was the casket-makers that had the largest displays, as usual. If you took away their logos, it would have been hard to tell one from the other. Both were pushing their arrangement-making software in a big, big way.

So I asked myself, is this something my client would really be interested in? Generally the answer was no. Even if the software is free to me up front, we all know it’s going to be factored into the costs of the caskets I buy. How will that benefit the families I work with?

As a funeral director, I was really impressed by caskets with new types of interiors, or a new type of scrollwork carved into the exterior. However, before I became a funeral director, I honestly couldn’t tell you the difference between wood that was actually cherry, or pine that was given a cherry finish. Most of my clients can’t either. A few will come in and ask me for the very best I have on hand, an equal number want the absolute minimum. Most, however, just want something that will do the job within their price range. The less time they can spend in the selection room, the better. The same is true for most urns.

Unfortunately, I’ve found very few vendors who create products specifically for the families, and market them to me for what they’ll do for my families. Most create products to appeal to funeral directors and then sell them as such.

A man I greatly admire, is the funeral director and poet Thomas Lynch. In a conversation I had with him not long ago, he lamented that most funeral directors sell personalization as though it were a commodity, instead of simply making funerals personal.

He’ll be featured in a documentary on PBS October 30. Here’s a clip of him describing what he wants for his own funeral:

You’ll notice he never mentions what kind of casket he wants, or that he better be brought to the cemetery in the newest Cadillac hearse. It’s because those are not the things that matter. Not even for him, a funeral director.

Unless you sell fluid or cot covers, chances are you shouldn’t be marketing to me as a funeral director. 

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A licensed funeral director, Michelle Carter is also a funeral consultant and grief counselor from Westchester County, New York.

Through her company, New York Center for Transition, she provides counseling for those who have recently been diagnosed with diseases, grief counseling for those who have experienced a death and funeral consulting to families in need.

Michelle is working toward opening her own funeral home.

Since my friend, Michael Manley of the Funeral Business Advisor, has been so kind as to share his plans for world domination (insert maniacal laughter here) I thought I’d rain on his parade a little.

Actually, Michael has basically (in not so many words) asked me to give him my impressions, so I’m going to do it.  Hopefully he can use these questions and the suggestions I’ve offered (without being asked) to make his plan more robust.  No sense conquering only half the world if a little tweaking could help you take it all.

If you’ve got no clue what I’m talking about, read Can You Negotiate SCI-Level Casket Discounts?, where I answer a reader’s question about creating a collective, and then check out Michael Manley on a Possible FBA Buying Collective, where Michael Manley describes the plan he’s already formulating.

Here’s a recap of Michael’s plan, as I understand it:

1.  Solicit vendor members and funeral home members using the current advertising and subscription list from Funeral Business Advisor.  The vendors will get orders and advertising while the members will benefit from group-only discounts.

2.  For a fee ($99 a month for vendor, $19 a month for funeral home) the collective will create a website to show off all the discounted products.  The collective will also have a “Buying Guide” section in the Funeral Business Advisor magazine.

3.  Twice a year they’ll publish a “Buying Group” catalog for members.

4.  The collective will handle the ordering and invoicing for members. 

And now, my questions:

1.  Encouraging a funeral home to spend $19 a month for this service means you’ve got guarantee you’ll save them at least that much on merchandise.  Without signing up every casket manufacturer (a difficult task), how can you guarantee that big a savings, especially if the funeral home doesn’t use one of the casket makers you’ve signed up?  While I know Final Embrace will be offering our quilted mortuary cot covers through your collective, I can’t imagine that even a 10% savings on a product someone buys once every few years will make up for the expense.

2.  Will you allow more than one vendor for each market segment?  In other words, will you restrict membership to just one casket maker, one cot cover maker, one fluid seller?

3.  How do you keep advertisers from abandoning the more expensive advertising space in your magazine by joining the buyer’s group?  Do you think you’ll be able to encourage companies to continue advertising in the other sections?  Or is the buying collective one way to encourage smaller companies, who might not be able to spend a lot of cash on big ads, to utilize your ad services?

4.  Will you charge a transaction fee to the vendor?  If your collective makes great strides, handling orders, invoicing and collections might cause a strain on your administrative staff.  And since they’re aren’t infinite numbers of potential vendors and clients, wild success might mean a huge strain on your ability to service the group without equal gains in cashflow.  It’s possible that charging a transaction fee after the first “X” number of orders might be more appropriate.

5.  Would you streamline the process by requiring all vendors to offer the same discount (say, 10%) or would you allow each vendor to create their own offer?

6.  Could you expand the group by buying a few pages in other industry publications and advertising the group?  This would help mitigate any credibility issues your magazine might have with people who haven’t yet received your publication.  Of course, just because I hadn’t seen it doesn’t mean most of the independents haven’t.

7.  What keeps the vendors from simply raising their price by 10% and marketing exclusively to your 17,500 prospective buyers?

8.  How will you handle firms with multiple locations?  Will they be receiving an unfair advantage because they only pay $19 for all their locations? 

9.  Now that I’ve finished giving you heck, when can I sign up?

Michael Manley, publisher of Funeral Business Advisor, the magazine that wants me to advertise in their relatively-new publication, responded to our post, NFDA Convention Contract Already Yielding Unwanted Sales Pitches, with the following letter: 

As publisher of Funeral Business Advisor, I would like to comment that we are a REAL magazine, circulating FREE to over 30% more death care professionals than any other industry magazine.  And Funeral Business Advisor’s success has evolved with a very simple premise; our publication provides insightful content, advice, and information that is intended to help the funeral director manage and run their business more effectively.

Yes, our content is typically provided by our advertisers, but not intended to be viewed as an “advertorial.”  Quite to the contrary, we go to great lengths to ensure that our contributing writers DO NOT write in a self-promotional (self-serving) manner.  We edit the content to maintain as unbias approach as possible.  In reality, we are as a marketing vehicle for manufacturers, distributors, and industry providers to highlight their products and services to the funeral industry.  

But what most who are in the publishing business don’t realize, is every magazine is designed in this manner. Not a single magazine would be in business if it wasn’t for their advertisers, so every publisher is concerned with their advertisers first and foremost.  At FBA, this is especially important since we are solely funded by our advertisers.  The reason we can bring such great content to the industry is because our advertiser help pay for it.  Unlike most of the other industry publications, we can’t subsidize our costs with subscription fees.  I like to say we are like a co-operative.  We provide a marketing tool that everyone shares in the cost and everyone receives the benefit.

Here is how it usually works.  Most magazine have an editorial staff, or they pay freelance writers to provide content for the publication.  Then those same magazines contact advertisers to solicit advertisements to place around the editorials that they intend to publish.  They do this to encourage the advertiser that their ads will have more visability and effect because it will be included with an editorial that has content relating to their business.

At Funeral Business Adisor, we don’t ignore the reason other magazines do this, but we take it a step further and make it much more effective for our advertisers.  Who is best suited to educate and provide information and advice to the death care industry?  Is it a member of an editorial staff or freelance writer?  Or is it someone who works in the death care industry daily?  In fact, we believe it is the industry experts themselves.  The people making the products or selling the products/services are the experts.  They are the ones who should be educating the industry.  Funeral Business Advisor does exactly what ever magazine does.  We bring “buyers and sellers” together for the benefit of both parties.  

We give the industry participant the opportunity to have a voice, and in return for this opportunity we provide two very important benefits:

(1) Funeral Directors get great information.  Information that is fresh, current, and designed to help improve their businesses.

(2) We provide the industry suppliers a direct marketing venue (same as every other publication, but provided in a different manner) that is far more effective than traditional magazines.  

Instead of just purchasing an ad as every other magazine offers, we offer the opportunity to purchase a marketing package.  

THE END RESULT:  Our readers (funeral directors) have responded with overwhelminly  favorably feedback.  

How do we know we are being read?  Our advertisers have consistenly told us that they get many more calls from their advertisement in our publication than from competing industry magazines.  In fact, these testimonials are posted on our website as proof of these claims.  

In the end, all magazines success relies upon the success of generating sales leads for their advertisers.  Without good ad results, advertisers would pull their ads and the magazine would go out of business.  

Yes, we are less than 1 yr old, but looking at the major industry suppliers who have entrusted us with a portion of their marketing dollars with us, it is obvious we have made a BIG SPLASH and will be in business for many years to come.

Sincerely,
Michael Manley
Publisher

If you’ve had a chance to check out their website, you’ll see that they offer quite a lot for a free publication.  Even with content provided by the advertisers, the magazine feels substantial and offers a wide range of subject matter.

The folks at FFM Media (who also publish Recruiting & Staffing Solutions, Pet Product Resource Guide, Club Solutions and Golf Management Solutions) are new to the funeral industry, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a winning strategy.

I would, however, make the point that, despite Mike’s claims, the way they get content is not new.  Every funeral publication solicits editorial content from the industry.  I’ve written articles for several trade magazines, with no return ($$$) except for the byline that follows the article.  Final Embrace contributors like Kim Stacey write for the trades as well.

The difference?  Getting published in one of the other trade magazines is not about buying ad space.  It’s about having something to say that isn’t necessarily ad-supported.

And to be fair, The Director, Mortuary Management, American Funeral Director and others publish their editorial calendar far in advance of their publication date.  This is to, obstensibly, give advertisers a chance to decide which editorial content would best fit their ad.

So do I think that the Funeral Business Advisor is “bad” or “evil”?  ABSOLUTELY NOT!

In fact, they’ve got the same model I’ll be using when we launch Final Embrace:  The Magazine.

Do I think they’ll accept my article submissions, even if I don’t advertise with them?  That’s an answer I don’t have yet.  But once I figure out whether Final Embrace can afford to advertise with them, I’ll let you know.

We’ve just signed the contract and, more importantly, paid a BIG CHUNK OF CASH to the NFDA to exhibit at the national convention in Las Vegas, October 7-10.

 I’m excited and nervous.

Excited because this is our chance to sell our great product on a national stage!  Our main competitor, Ron of Quilted First-Call Covers, has gone the last three years.  Common sense says he wouldn’t keep going if the $2000 booth didn’t pay for itself.

But I’m also nervous, because we’re already running near our current capacity.  Even with four part-time employees, I’m going to have to start adding some folks if we hope to meet all the demand.

I’m confident there will be demand, because our product is so much better than the competition, which includes:

Standard, fake fur covers.  These are those ugly puppet-fur covers that are available in red, green and blue and are sometimes embroidered with a funeral home name on the side.  If they’re lined, it’s with brittle or hard vinyl.  If they’re not lined, you’ve got a germ warehouse in your funeral home.

Cordura or plain covers.  These are sold by the cot makers.  Besides being unattractive, lined with vinyl and too heavy, they’re also INSANELY expensive.  Ferno charges almost $400 for a slip-over style plain cover for the 24-Maxx cot.

Cot Quilts.  These are made by Marty at The Last Quilt Company.  They are beautiful, but they’re not fitted or lined.  Funeral directors I’ve talked with say they fall off the cot very easily.  Oh, and they’re a lot more expensive than our superior covers.

Quilted First-Call Covers.  Ron has a great design, but his product suffers from two BIG problems:  they’re sold unlined (a lining costs $50 extra) and most of the patterns are light colors.

Homemade covers.  Some folks make their own.  Unfortunately, they don’t have ready access to the great FluidBlocker lining fabric we use.  They also suffer because we’ve made thousands of these covers and we’ve perfected the design and manufacture.  And by the time you pay a seamstress to make it for you, you’ve got almost as much invested as any of my clients.

So why am I nervous?  Because this is our first time on the national stage.  Because the suits from many of industry chains will be there.  Because we’re being seen by other vendors for the first time.

Because sometimes success is as frightening as failure.  Imagine it all unfolds exactly the way I’ve dreamed it.  While that would be nice, I dream big!  What if it’s all too big for our little company?

Wish us luck out on the tightrope!

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Clear Writing = Clear Results 

Ours has become a visual culture.  Most people have hundreds of television channels streaming into their homes, but very few books, and often just a few magazines.  The written word has been left behind, in favor of exciting images and special effects.  The Internet has changed the way we use language too; muddying the written communication channel.  

If you write your own advertising or informational copy, always (and I mean always) have others read through it.  A second or third set of eyes can make all the difference.  

And, always remember that most people aren’t equipped to read complex information.

While more Americans are graduating from college, and more than ever are applying for admission, far fewer are leaving higher education with the skills needed to comprehend routine data, according to the federal study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics.  

This means the old acronym, K.I.S.S. still applies: Keep It Simple…Sweetie!

And, that means, reviewing, editing, and rewriting – until a 10 year-old can understand everything on the page.

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.

There are two distinct types of crippling challenges in business.  The first is devastating:  something is wrong and you can’t find the right answer.  And while business still goes on, the problem threatens to unravel some well-made plans.

The second is more immediate and even more dangerous:  the business killer!

Our fledgeling quilted cot cover business was humming right along when the business killer swooped down on us. 

Seems the vinyl lining we were using in our beautiful covers was causing some of our clients problems.  Further investigation showed that each new shipment of vinyl was more brittle than the last.  Worse still, several old clients who had bought from us years before were reporting that their vinyl linings were splitting from wear, cracking in the cold or falling out in the wash.

And while we only warrantied our covers for 180 days after order, I still knew that we’d be getting more calls regarding the lining.

Could we have ignored the problems and continued making the inferior covers?  Of course.  But that would mean creating hundreds of dissatisfied customers every year.  We couldn’t afford to alienate our past customers and we couldn’t afford to replace all the old covers we’d sold, especially if we just replaced them with covers that would fail again.

I spent a few terror-filled nights (the kind where you get into bed, stare at the ceiling for eight hours, then get out of bed) and finally hit upon the solution:  we’d find a stronger lining for our covers, we’d replace any warrantied covers with new ones and we’d offer a discount to anyone who owned one of our original covers.

Finding a new lining turned out to be more simple than expected.  The new material, a treated nylon that is washer and drier safe and won’t melt like vinyl, is more expensive.  And while we’ve tripled our materials cost for lining, we’ve also added years of durability to our lining and made our covers many times more attractive than the alternatives.

We replaced quite a few covers during those first months.  But we also doubled sales, as folks who had hesitated to buy a vinyl-lined cover because they were worried about durability decided to take a chance on our great product.

Still others were so pleased that we fixed their problem and offered a better solution, they ordered more covers to augment what they already had.

 And because our covers are so strong now, we’ve upped our warranty to a full year and we offer a 90-day money-back return on all orders.

What started as a threat to our small company turned into the second best change (right after selling to retail customers) we ever made.

I know, some of the replacements we sent will last quite a few years longer than the originals, meaning we’ll sell less covers to those firms.  But we’ve only sold to a fraction of the 22,000 funeral homes in the United States.  It didn’t make sense to ruin our fledgeling good name by not standing behind our product.

And since our goal is to make quilted cot covers the industry standard (we’re trying to replace those ugly fake fur covers and the corduroy ones that have no character or class) we’ve got to be a reputable and remarkable company.

So far, we’ve been both.  But we could have very well ended up like this: 

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