Sep 26, 2012
Raising the Bar: How to Choose the Right Vendor For Your Funeral Home
Originally published as 3-part seires in the Funeral Business Advisor.
In Part One of this 3-part series, I will identify how to fully evaluate a funeral home vendor’s experience, transparency and reputation. Part One was originally published in the May/June issue of the Funeral Business Advisor.
Part Two will provide information on how to compare the technical capabilities of different companies and discuss the benefits of making a personal connection with a vendor. Part Two was originally published in the July/August issue of the Funeral Business Advisor
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. Part Three was published in this month’s issue of the Funeral Business Advisor.
Appearances can be deceiving. Take this photo of a snowman outside of our building for example. Some people saw the picture and believed someone built a child-sized snowman from a minor snowfall of only 2 inches. But take a closer look…the snow man in this picture is only six inches tall, sitting on top of a picnic bench outside the building. Did it fool you too?
In life, there are many examples of illusions like the this snowman that appear to be one thing, but end up looking completely different from another angle. How many times have you purchased a product or service only to find it lacking after closer inspection? Some companies focus on building and maintaining a facade to distract from inadequacies like unreliable technology, high staff 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 a false image. It is essential for funeral directors to do their homework and fully research vendors to avoid being fooled by this type of artful deception. Fortunately, there are several indicators that can help business owners see clearly in a marketplace filled with smoke and mirrors. Here are some ways to separate the authentic from the duplicitous:
Research Their Experience
Just as employers typically hire job candidates with the longest record of exemplary work, business owners should place a high value on the length of time a vendor has worked in the funeral industry. The company with the most experience will have better knowledge of issues that affect you and will have had time to develop solutions and products specifically for your line of business. Assessing how a company has grown and evolved over a longer period of time will help you to judge how equipped the vendor is to manage your unique needs.
Key Questions to Consider:
► When was the company founded?
► How many years have they worked with funeral professionals?
► Do they work exclusively with funeral homes?
►Has the company remained under the same ownership?
►Is the company privately controlled or publicly owned?
►How has the company changed since it was founded?
Many companies intentionally misrepresent their background to appear more competent. A vendor that lacks experience will rarely advertise the year they were founded: a telltale sign that you should steer clear. You should also be wary of companies that use the phrase “combined experience” in their bios. “Combined Experience” could include everything from two employees with 50 years of experience to 50 employees with two years experience. Inquire about the length of employment of management personnel to weed out companies that lack consistent leadership. Don’t be afraid to consider a vendor you used years ago. The company may have grown exponentially since you last worked with them and may be better equipped now to handle your specific needs.
Before entering into any business arrangement, you should have a complete understanding of how the company has evolved over a long period of time. Look at the products and services added over the years to see how successful the vendor has been in expanding its reach. Even if the company is well established, they may have handled the specialized needs of the funeral profession for a short while. If there are large gaps in the company’s timeline after conducting your research, it is often because the vendor has a spotty performance record, lacks transparency, or is projecting a false image.
Evaluate Their Transparency
Sharing information is one of the simplest ways a company can earn your trust. Many vendors deliberately keep their business practices as close to the vest as possible to conceal inadequacies. A company that stands by its mission and has nothing to hide encourages customers to assess their performance and welcomes feedback. This open line of dialogue demonstrates a proven commitment to the best interests of funeral professionals.
You may not have the ability to monitor every aspect of your business, but for things that are absolutely critical, transparency is a necessity. Foot traffic at your funeral home can be measured with a receptionist and a register book, but what about your after hour phone calls and website visitors? You know that your facilities are well maintained, but how can you be sure your suppliers are following the same code of ethics? Think about every vendor you work with and rate their level of transparency.
Key Questions to Consider:
► Does your crematory allow you to check in and oversee cremations?
►Does your coach company provide you with a detailed history report for every vehicle?
►Does your answering service allow you to listen to your calls and disclose the number of times the phone rang before it was answered?
►Does your website provider give you accurate, daily statistics about your webpage activity?
Companies that don’t make the grade will rarely provide the data that reveals their shortcomings. Before selecting a vendor, inquire about the level of oversight you will have. If company policy is to not disclose the pertinent information you want, seek out a vendor with a more open policy. In today’s digital age, funeral homes require a vendor that can substantiate their business claims with transparent business practices.
Check Their Reviews
For funeral professionals, there is no source more reliable than opinions and endorsements from their peers. No one else better understands the profession or the specific pressures you face. Ask vendors for references from funeral homes who recommend their service or product. While testimonials are certainly a positive sign of a company’s performance record, even substandard businesses can easily produce a few recommendations. To narrow your search, request that the vendor send you testimonials from longtime clients in your local area.
Any occasion that you have to network with other funeral professionals can be an opportunity for evaluating funeral home vendors. When you are attending conventions or continuing education classes, ask other directors what companies they use. The internet can also be a fantastic tool for connecting with funeral directors from across the country. An inquiry on a Linked In discussion board or a Google Business review may tell you more about a company’s reputation than the owner wants you to know.
Research the company’s standing with other major players within the funeral profession. If the vendor is embraced by the rest of the industry, it demonstrates that the company is highly respected and has cultivated business relationships with funeral professionals. When funeral home vendors partner together, directors often profit from attractive promotions, discounts and opportunities. A vendor that has not connected with other industry leaders will not be able to offer these same benefits.
Key questions to ask:
►Have you asked other funeral professionals about the vendor?
►Have you asked the vendor to send you specific testimonials from other directors?
►Have you thoroughly researched the company on the Web?
►Have you checked the vendors social sites to rate the level of client engagement?
►Does the company support funeral home associations?
►Is the vendor connected with other industry leading organizations?
As a funeral director, protecting your reputation for excellence is a crucial necessity. You should expect no less from the companies with whom you conduct business. If a vendor offers a better price, consider the quality you might be sacrificing if you choose a second-rate company. There is no better standard to hold vendors to than the standards you follow as a funeral director.
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):
- ► What is the biggest difference between you and your competitors?
- ► What are your plans for the future?
- ► What new products or features have you released recently?
- ► Can you show me your product or a demo of the service you provide?
- ► Can you provide me with statistical data to substantiate your claims?
- ► Can you provide me with references from your clients in my area that have similar needs?
- ► 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.
Illusions are all around us. If you stare at an asphalt road for too long on a hot sunny day, imaginary puddles will start to form in front of you. It is not until we are upon the mirage that we recognize it for what it truly is. The same can be said for vendors that rely on all types of marketing tactics to win your business. Just like in nature, the business world is filled with false appearances. Buyer Beware: what you see is not necessarily what you get.
While some businesses have the flexibility to take greater risks, the repercussions for funeral homes can be far more severe. As a funeral director, there is a lot at stake when selecting a vendor—including the trust of families you have served for generations. A close inspection of the companies you work with is crucial to protecting your reputation for excellence.
Choosing the right vendor is more challenging for funeral directors today than it was 20 years ago. Companies have succeeded in camouflaging their inexperience, high turnover, poor technology, and other shortcomings with a carefully constructed facade. In today’s digital age, anyone with Photoshop and a web domain can easily project a false image. With a marketplace so cluttered with smoke and mirrors, how do you separate the authentic from the duplicitous?
In Parts 1 and 2 of this 3-part series, I identified how to fully evaluate a funeral home vendor’s experience, transparency, reputation, and technology. Additionally, I explained how a visit to the company’s headquarters or meeting with a representative can help you to better gauge the stability of a company. Part 3 will examine both the complexities of business contracts and the value of maintaining maximum oversight after becoming a customer.
Parts 1 and 2 helped you to develop a concrete formula for choosing a new vendor. You should have an understanding of what key questions to consider before making a selection. You know when the company was founded and how long they have served other funeral directors with similar needs of your own. You have determined if the vendor can substantiate their business claims with transparent practices. You have checked their reviews and spoken to other funeral professionals, both in your local area and online, about their experience using the company. You understand that technology drives every business and you recognize the value of meeting an owner or representative in person.
After analyzing these factors, you may feel ready to jump into a new relationship with a vendor. Here are some ways to test the water before you dive in headfirst:
Beware of Long-Term Contracts
Freedom of choice for a business owner is one liberty that should rarely be sacrificed. Imagine if you wanted to hold a graveside service at a cemetery and the owner told you that you would have to arrange every one of your burials there for a full year. It may seem like a ridiculous scenario, until you factor in how many businesses waive the right to change their minds by signing agreements that bind them to a single merchant or service provider for an extended period of time.
Certain contracts can be a major hinderance for independent funeral homes while others simply set the terms of your relationship with the vendor. They may also shield you from fraudulent lawsuits or protect your confidential information. Regardless of the type of document you sign, it is essential to investigate the reasons a contract is required and how it may affect you down the line. There is a substantial difference between signing a Hold-Harmless Agreement that releases a vendor from liability and signing a term contract that requires you to use a product or service exclusively for any length of time.
According to the Federal Trade Commission, a Three Day Rule (sometimes called a “cooling off” period) provides purchasers with three days to legally change their mind after signing a contract. However, the Federal law only protects buyers who have purchased something for personal use. Some states offer business owners extended protection under the three day rule but others do not. The time you have before you sign the agreement may be your only opportunity to minimize the odds of running into future problems.
Funeral directors are often contemplating the worst case scenario when making a decision: you only have one chance to hold a dignified funeral service so it is imperative to prepare for every possibility to ensure all goes according to plan. Similarly, when you are negotiating a contract with a vendor you are essentially drafting the blueprint of how your business relationship will be structured. The time you have before you sign the agreement may be your only opportunity to minimize the odds of running into future problems.
Think about how the contract could restrict you in the future and carefully read between the lines so that you are not blindsided after you sign the dotted line. That fantastic discount you’re focused on might actually be a lure to distract you from the sentence stating that the vendor can raise their price at any time. If you don’t feel 100 percent confident that you understand the contract in its entirety, consult a lawyer to review the document with you.
Key questions to consider before signing a contract:
- ► Are the terms of the contract clearly defined?
- ► Do the terms address how and when the contract will terminate?
- ► How will your business be affected if you have to breach the contract?
- ► Will you have to pay an early termination fee if you decide to take your business elsewhere?
- ► What remedies will be available if the vendor does not hold up their end of the contract?
- ► Does the contract include a three day “cooling off” or “look back” period?
- ► What are the credit terms and how much time will you have to make payments?
- ► Does the contract lock in a price or can the vendor raise your fee at any time?
If after careful analysis you are still willing to sign a long-term contract, negotiate with the vendor to find out what else they can offer, such as an attractive discount, flexible repayment terms, or free delivery, to persuade you the risk is worth taking. Scrutinize all of the potential challenges that may result during the length of time you are contractually bound to work with the vendor. Issues such as unsatisfactory service, defective products, and late delivery may arise and you should determine in advance what recourse you will have if such a problem occurs repeatedly.
The funeral profession is inherently unpredictable. Your fiscal needs and the shifting demand for merchandise and services may change unexpectedly. A company that understands this about the funeral industry will allow you to change your mind anytime. The quality of the vendor’s service should be enough to retain your business. Whenever you are choosing between different companies, always consider the benefits of a less rigid contractual agreement. These extra insurances reveal that the company stands by its commitment to funeral professionals.
Grading the Vendor’s Performance
After you select a vendor that you are confident is the right fit for your business, set time aside to evaluate the company’s performance record on a weekly basis. While it may tempting to put the task out of your mind and leave the job in the capable hands of your chosen vendor, failing to monitor the company after you become a customer can be a costly mistake. Until the vendor has earned your trust with a proven record of reliability, you are risking your reputation if you operate on blind assumption.
Loyalty is synonymous with the funeral profession. When someone passes, loved ones turn to the funeral home their family has been using for years, and that act of loyalty is invaluable to most funeral directors. Repeat business is a testimony of the funeral home’s commitment to the community. Understanding that funeral directors place such a high value on the faithfulness of those they serve, vendors may be more likely to test the limits of your loyalty, especially if you don’t regularly monitor their performance. It is certainly preferable to work with the same companies all the time, but never allow your congeniality or good manners to give a company the impression that they can take your business for granted. You will have less of an influence over the vendor if you fail to measure their performance in some way.
Imagine you are a teacher filling out report cards. What if there were a few students that you truly liked and respected that were not making the grade? You may be enticed to give those students a free pass but ultimately you will be the one held accountable if your leniency is discovered. Likewise, families won’t want to hear that a vendor mishandled a task that resulted in problem with their loved one’s funeral. As a funeral director, you are often held responsible for things that are completely beyond of your control. Fortunately, one thing you are able to monitor and change is the level of service provided by your chosen vendors.
Schedule time to fill out a progress report for every merchant or service provider with whom your funeral home conducts business. Be sure to ask for feedback from any of your staff members that interact with these companies regularly. Develop a standard scoring system in advance to help you fairly rate and assess the companies to determine your level of satisfaction from month to month.
Key questions to ask:
- ► Is the vendor flexible enough to meet your specific needs?
- ► Does the company understand your funeral home’s business requirements?
- ► How would you rate the quality of their management systems?
- ► How consistent is their approach?
- ► Do you typically have the same experience each time you use the vendor?
- ► What is your complaint history with the company?
- ► How responsive is the vendor to your concerns?
- ► How would you rate their customer service?
Your findings will help you to determine whether you need to redefine your current relationship with a vendor or switch to a different company entirely. With an impartial system in place to help you evaluate your suppliers and service providers equally, there is less of a chance that you will be blindsided if a company performs on a subpar level. Knowing that a single misspelling on an engraving, scratch on a hearse or type on a prayer card could lose you the trust of a family forever, it is crucial to hold vendors to the same standards you follow as a funeral director. Illusions are everywhere, but if you empower yourself with knowledge, oversight, and a comprehensive follow-through plan, your funeral will always be protected from deception.
Kevin Czachor, Vice President & Family Member Owner of ASD – Answering Service for Directors, has helped develop telecommunication strategies for 25 percent of funeral homes located in North America. With a visionary approach to business, the ASD team have redefined the way Funeral Directors serve their families through combining unparalleled levels of training and advanced technology. Kevin can be reached at 800-868-9950 or via email at Kevin@myASD.com.
About The Author
Kevin Czachor is the Vice President and Family-Member Owner of ASD – Answering Service for Directors, the only funeral home exclusive answering service in the United States. Kevin has written several articles on the subject of communication technology and delivers seminars annually on how mobile solutions can help funeral professionals conduct business on the go. He can be reached at 800-868-9950 or Sales@myASD.com.