Missed Opportunity--The Cost of an Unanswered Phone Call
Jan 10, 2012
(This article was originally published in the January 2012 issue of American Funeral Director Magazine by ASD Staff Writer Jessica Fowler)
Missed Opportunity: the Cost of an Unanswered Phone Call
The telephone: one of history’s greatest achievements and one of society’s biggest pet peeves. All day long, funeral homes must field calls from solicitors, advertisers, and people inquiring about services handled decades ago. While some calls can be returned another day, a single mishandled price shopping call carries a much heavier penalty for funeral professionals. Directors must safeguard new business opportunities in order to maintain a competitive edge over other firms. Poor oversight and failure to monitor how calls are handled could cost a funeral home thousands of dollars in revenue opportunities each month.
Telecommunications can play a vital role in a customer’s first impression of a funeral home. Directors must remain available to families 24/7 in order to capitalize on all business opportunities. Today’s culture of instant results coupled with an increase in price-based funeral selection has led many consumers to base their funeral decisions on a single phone call. To resolve this dilemma, new mobile strategies and educational tools have emerged in recent years that help directors secure new business from price shoppers without sacrificing personal convenience.
The Value of First Impressions
When someone calls your funeral home, the voice on the other end of the phone is often the first indication of what type of service your firm provides. While this may not be the case, it doesn’t change the fact that first impressions cement in our mind within the first five minutes of conversation, and there is little that can be done to erase or diminish the memory of a bad one.
“First impressions are very important to all of us,” says Funeral Director Margaret Fox of Fox Funeral Home in Philadelphia. “They’re not always 100 percent accurate but I think our instincts are always honed to know if we are not being treated cordially or don’t feel welcome.” As one of the oldest firms in Philadelphia, Fox Funeral Home has handled services dating back to the civil war era. Fox believes that the funeral homes’ success has been contingent on providing families with first class customer service.
In the funeral home business, emotions are delicate, insecurities are heightened and suspicions are frequent. Whether a caller is price shopping or wants to set up services based on a friend’s recommendation, one small word or sound could deter a family from using your funeral home in their time of mourning. Proper staffing and training ensures that a family won’t move on to the firm up the street simply because of an offensive receptionist.
Julie Burn, Director of Cremation Services at the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, manages ICCFA’s First Impression Cremation Phone Shopper Program. This unique tool allows directors to evaluate how their staff responds to pricing inquiry calls and whether a consumer would want to do business with the funeral establishment based solely on the telephone conversation. Participating directors are also able to hear a recording of the call to monitor if their workers are truly educating consumers on all of their cremation options and promoting the full value of the firm. Burn then informs the funeral managers if the office would benefit from a phone-training program.
“When someone is calling a funeral establishment, obviously it could be one of the biggest expenditures they will ever have in their lifetime. Therefore it is even more important to truly connect with them in someway,” Burn says. “If someone sounds like they are rushing or does not explain why you should do business with their company, it sets a very poor first impression.”
Playing the role of an out-of-town niece whose aunt passed away near the funeral home, Burn found that many of the staff members she spoke with were not utilizing basic telephone skills to put callers at ease. Hardly any arrangers asked for her name and very few asked the correct open-ended questions that would have allowed them to help her further. Educating consumers on all of their available choices is crucial for funeral homes looking to provide a high-quality, personalized service while also capitalizing on maximum profits.
For instance, Burn asked for information on cremation and was offered pricing and package information, but very few provided details on how the cremation process works or ceremonial options. Burn was rarely asked what her plans were for her aunt’s cremated remains. By not communicating all of the alternatives available, the funeral home passes on a gainful opportunity to offer urns or permanent memorials to the family.
How to Handle Pricing Inquiries
In the past, most of the incoming calls at community-based funeral homes were from neighbors, friends and family members of the director. Word of mouth, past experiences, and interpersonal relationships have always been the main factors that play a part in a family’s choice of funeral home. However, as economics and values have changed, so has the funeral selection process. Gone are the days when directors could rely solely on the faithfulness of community members.
According to Burn, “There is not the old time loyalty that there used to be. People are living all over the place now and there are many times when the person who is making the ultimate decision does not even live in that town.”
Based upon increases in acceptance over the past five-year average, the Cremation Association of North America (CANA) has forecast a national cremation rate of 43 percent by 2025. Another recent study by The Wirthlin Group found that over 50 percent of those who planned to be cremated were boomers over 40. Of that group, 30 percent named ‘low cost’ as their primary reason for choosing cremation.
In Funeral Service Customer Service A-Z: Creating Exceptional Experiences for Today’s Families, Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt examines how the boomer generation values meaningful experiences above goods and services: “The new customer, lacking an understanding of why the elements of ceremony are of value, has shifted towards the use of a purchase strategy,” Wolfelt writes. “Boomer families are more apt to use technology to consider choices; more diverse and mobile; and much more demanding of respectful and courteous treatment.”
Established in 1952, The Wilson Funeral Home in Tampa, FL maintains a competitive edge over other firms by providing a high standard of service and cutting-edge technology not offered at many other firms, including DVD tributes, living memorials, and live web casting.
“Price shoppers probably attribute anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of services at this point,” says Funeral Director Wayne L Bright. “You have to always be conscious that your lines of communication are open and that every call is handled properly.”
Understanding that a price-shopper does not necessarily equal a low-cost funeral selection is imperative for funeral professionals that hope to influence the next generation of consumers. After contacting over 200 funeral establishments, Burn found that many arrangers assumed that they should begin by offering her their cheapest package available, despite the fact that she simply asked for information on cremation without mentioning price herself. This surprising find shows that many staff members simply infer that anyone who is contacting multiple funeral homes must have limited financial resources.
“Good marketing is to start with your most complete package and work your way down instead,” Burn says. “Keep it simple, be prepared and pay attention because people can tell when someone isn’t focusing and writing them off as just a price shopper.”
Conducting research, utilizing the web and examining price comparisons are just some of the methods boomers employ when making an informed decision to choose a funeral home. Answering every question with a price-assumption in mind neglects what these consumers are really asking: why should they choose your funeral home? If you think the only answer is price, you are devaluing your own business.
Technological and Educational Solutions
A funeral home’s responsiveness can play a major role in a family’s selection of a firm. A recent study conducted by Leads Performance Intelligence found that businesses that return calls to consumers quickly have a significant advantage versus those that do not. Companies that followed up with consumers within the first three minutes of their call found an increase in conversion rates by an average of 98 percent. The study confirmed that “even though consumers may go price-shopping, a sense of loyalty drives them back to the company who called them back first.”
As a result of this, directors at funeral homes with fewer employees would need to remain close by the telephone 24/7 in order to secure new business. Now, call forwarding options allow directors to conduct business on the go without the fear of a missed call. Multiple phone companies have enabled business owners to forward their calls to personal cell phones, eliminating the need for round-the-clock staffing. Other funeral homes depend on answering services when they step out to screen their calls and contact on-call staff members for any urgent messages.
As the sole funeral director at her firm, Fox recommends that funeral homes rely only on answering services that apply the latest technical solutions and employ skilled professionals with funeral expertise: “I have the pager and cell phone with me all the time and two back up employees who handle my removals. When I have to step out, I use ASD [Answering Service for Directors] because before using their service, I could have lost a lot of business without knowing it because they were the first answering service to record calls.”
Funeral home exclusive call centers have expanded these options further by gathering detailed First Call information or answering routine funeral-related questions based on information provided by the firm. Improvements in telecommunication technology now allow directors to receive messages from answering services via text message, email and faxing.
“Nearly every death call or potential business opportunity that ASD handles is dispatched to the on-call director in less than a minute,” says Kevin Czachor, Vice President of ASD.
Funeral homes that aren’t using the Internet to build a web-based brand are forfeiting a chance to attract modern consumers. Beyond prices and packages, web savvy families can also view photos of your facilities and ceremonies to see for themselves the quality of service the funeral home provides.
“People are visual so staff members should offer to send information and ask the caller if they have access to a computer. If they do, invite them to visit your website,” Burn recommends. “People like to see pictures. Help navigate them to the information you want them to see.”
According to Burn, ICCFA’s Cremation Phone Shopper Program has yielded tremendous results for participating funeral homes. When Burn believes a funeral home could benefit from a phone training program, she recommends MKJ Marketing’s “How To Handle Price Shoppers” DVD guide. This comprehensive training program teaches staff members how to act as a buyer’s consultant, selling the funeral homes’ value instead of the lowest cost options.
“We minimize the importance of the phone overall,” explains MKJ Co-Founder and President Marilyn Gould in the program’s introduction. “Handling price shoppers is so much more than answering the phone. Most of it is the connect you make with individuals.”
About The Author
Jess Farren (Fowler)
Jess Farren (Fowler) is a Public Relations Specialist and Staff Writer who has been a part of the ASD team since 2003. Jess manages ASD's company blog and has been published in several funeral trade magazines. She has written articles on a variety of subjects including communication, business planning, technology, marketing and funeral trends. You can contact Jess directly at Jess@myASD.com