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Part 2: Raising the Bar – How to Choose the Right Vendors For Your Business

Aug 14, 2012

Raising the Bar:

How to Choose the Right Vendors For Your Funeral Home (Part 2)

Originally published in the July/August issue of the Funeral Business Advisor

Some companies focus on building and maintaining a facade to distract from inadequacies like unreliable technology, high turnover and poor leadership. For funeral professionals, there is much more at stake when selecting a vendor because a family may suffer as a result of a poor decision. However, choosing what companies to work with in today’s digital age can be a challenge: anyone with Photoshop® and a web domain can easily project an exaggerated image. It is essential for directors to do their homework and fully research vendors to avoid being fooled by this type of artful deception. Fortunately, several indicators can help buyers see clearly in a marketplace filled with smoke and mirrors.

In Part One of this article series, I explained how a company’s experience, transparency and reputation are crucial to fully evaluating their performance record. Part One also listed several key questions to consider and identified warning signs of deceptive marketing. To read Part One, click here.

In Part Two, I will discuss how to evaluate a vendor’s technical capabilities. Understanding the technology options a company offers and their limitations is crucial to the evaluation process. This section will also explain how making a personal connection with a vendor can improve your confidence in their ability to meet your specific needs.

In next month’s issue, Part Three will examine some final considerations that should be made before entering into a long-term contract and discuss how to monitor the vendor’s service after you become a customer.

Evaluate Their Technology

The funeral profession is very hands-on with few areas that can be replaced with automation. You may think it is not necessary to consider technical issues when evaluating your vendors, but every profitable business relies on technology. Even companies that do not provide technical services depend on some form of computerization to run their business.

From inception to delivery, technology is the driving force behind all business transactions. If a casket company’s internal communication system fails, what happens to the overnight order you just placed? If a chemical company does not invest in the proper equipment, what will the impact be on the body you just embalmed? Customer service, logistics, tracking/routing, internal documentation and quality assurance testing all require technical support in order to function in today’s business environment.

Theoretically, it should be difficult for a company to misrepresent their technical capability: either it can be done or it cannot. Yet, so many businesses use words like ‘innovative’ and ‘state-of-the-art’ in their marketing while failing to provide concrete examples. These omissions indicate that a vendor does not understand its own technology. Asking the right questions is essential to understanding the company’s performance record. Rather than inquiring if a vendor can perform a certain function, ask how it would handle a specific situation you might have.

You can easily determine the level of confidence a company has in its technology just by asking them to explain it. Before calling, consider when your interaction with the vendor will be dependent on the their technology. Choosing the right questions in advance will allow you to avoid deceptive sales techniques and focus on specifics.

Key Questions to Consider
  • ► Will you need to rely on the company’s technology? How much?
  • ► How current is the company’s equipment and software?
  • ► Does the company provide technical support service? 24/7?
  • ► What type of backup security measures and redundancies are in place?
  • ► Is the vendor’s technology flexible enough to allow changes to be made at any time?
  • ► Were the company’s systems and software developed in-house or outsourced?
  • ► Is the technology designed specifically for the funeral profession?

It is difficult, but not impossible, to rate a company’s technical capacity before learning from firsthand experience. It is important to consider the first question very carefully and ask yourself how a problem or issue with the vendor’s technology could affect the families you serve and the operation of the funeral home. Unfortunately, many business owners don’t consider these essential questions before entering into a long-term contract with a vendor.

For vendors that specialize in or rely heavily on IT such as a software provider, webcasting company or answering service, it is even more imperative to apply strict criteria when making your selection. Beware of companies that outsource their technology and rely on outside consultants to manage their systems. This type of deficiency will most certainly effect your business because the vendor will have an attractive scapegoat anytime things go awry. Seek vendors that develop their own solutions in house, as they will be able to provide a higher level of support and may offer features and services that others cannot match. An internal technical team will have greater insight into how the business operates and will have more of a stake in the success of the company overall. This should allow the vendor to update their software immediately, run diagnostics anytime and monitor activity to optimize performance.

No other vocation shares the pressures and challenges of the funeral profession. The time-sensitive demands, unpredictable schedule and emotional toll of managing a funeral home are incomparable to any other career. Therefore, your firm’s technology should be designed by those that understand your lifestyle. If you choose a generic, one-size-fits-all vendor for your technical needs, you may find yourself continually frustrated by the company’s unfamiliarity with your profession.

Get to Know Your Regional Representative

Visiting a company’s headquarters can reveal far more than visiting a company webpage. While websites and advertising can easily mask inadequacies, touring the facility will give you a good feel for the operation and areas in need of improvement. You can judge the overall efficiency of the office as well as the dedication of the entire staff, not just those who are on the front lines. If you’re making the trip, be sure to ask if you can see every department. A company with nothing to hide will be eager to show you. Ask employees about how long they have been there to estimate the turnover of the company and the commitment of their staff. Trust your intuition: if you sense that something is amiss or feel even slightly uncomfortable, there is probably a reason.

While it is not feasible to visit every business you work with, a personal introduction is a great way to gauge the stability of a company. Many national companies have local representatives who can help bridge the gap between the faceless corporation and the small business owner. Trade shows also provide an excellent opportunity for business owners to meet and evaluate hundreds of vendors efficiently. Some may argue that facts and figures are the driving force behind business decisions, but instincts play a role as well. According to a study conducted by Oxford Economics, 28 % of current business would be lost without in-person meetings.

Events, conventions and trade shows provide ideal opportunities to gather a great deal of information in a short amount of time. These face-to-face interactions allow business owners to make vendor comparisons in real time. Instead of looking at products in a catalog or on a website, you can see and touch the merchandise yourself. A video, webcast or virtual tour may be able to illustrate a concept in a way that words cannot. Companies often use exhibit time to perform live demonstrations of their services. This allows you to visualize how the solution offered could apply specifically to your needs.

If you are torn between several competing companies, talking to a representative at a trade show can help you to make up your mind. Maximize your trade show experience by arriving prepared with specific goals and objectives. Find out which companies will be exhibiting and brainstorm the questions you want to ask so the vendor won’t be able to steer the conversation away from the subjects you want to discuss.

Key Questions to Ask (beyond price)
  1. ► What is the biggest difference between you and your competitors?
  2. ► What are your plans for the future?
  3. ► What new products or features have you released recently?
  4. ► Can you show me your product or a demo of the service you provide?
  5. ► Can you provide me with statistical data to substantiate your claims?
  6. ► Can you provide me with references from your clients in my area that have similar needs?
  7. ► Do you have any materials I can take home to review?

With the exponential growth of marketing via webinars, conference calls and mobile applications, trade shows offer a rare opportunity to build professional relationships with funeral vendors. Try to meet as many representatives as possible to get a better sense of the company culture. Funeral directors interact with families in person everyday. Evaluating funeral vendors in a personal environment will give you added peace of mind and confidence in your decision.

Read next month’s issue of the Funeral Business Advisor for Part 3 of this 3-part Series on what final considerations should be made before entering into a long term contract and how to monitor the vendor’s service after you become a customer.

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