Jan 08, 2021
It was right around this time last year when everyone was welcoming the year 2020 with eager anticipation and excitement. As both the culmination and beginning of a decade, the year carried a special significance and the symmetry of the repeating 20-20 numbers seemed oddly hopeful. No one could have predicted how much this year would test each one of us as well as the entire funeral profession. As they say, hindsight is 20/20.
Normally, this is the week when ASD would publish our annual Year in Review blog recapping all of our funeral home conventions and Team ASD events. Like everyone else, our scrapbook pages for 2020 are mostly blank. The pandemic has robbed us of so many traditions and time-honored rituals that it is tempting to want to close the book on 2020 and never pick it up again. Yet, letting this year end without taking time to reflect on all of those hard lessons would be a missed opportunity. For us here at ASD, we think there is value in looking back, despite the fact that we were never as challenged as a company as we were in 2020.
At the start of the year, one of the major goals we focused on was delivering mobile technology education to funeral directors nationwide. ASD’s technology solutions are vast and can streamline many different processes for funeral homes. Providing live, in-person demonstrations and Q&A sessions would give us an opportunity to help more funeral professionals get the most out their experience using our answering service. We planned to kick start this effort with a workshop held in March near our office and then travel to different locations to offer our seminars to funeral professionals across the country.
Unfortunately, the pandemic put an end to these plans and just as soon as we began organizing our March 12th Tips and Tricks workshop, we had to announce its cancellation due to the spread of COVID to our local area. We never could have imagined at the time that we would be unable to reschedule the event or travel anywhere for the remainder of 2020. Still, we began working on different methods for showcasing ASD’s technology virtually and this has remained a major focus. In 2021, we plan to offer funeral professionals more ways to see live, virtual demos of ASD’s technology and mobile solutions.
ASD’s Client Solutions Supervisor, Sherry Martin, and National Sales Manager, Craig Meehan, giving a virtual demo of our mobile app.
While virtual conferences, seminars and demonstrations can certainly help fill the education void left by the cancellation of in-person meetings, they can never replace the social value that such events offer. For us, this was one of the most difficult losses of the year as we really cherish the opportunity to spend time face-to-face with our clients and friends at conventions. Still, we know that funeral directors were hit even harder by this as it robbed them of a chance to connect with those who could directly relate to the difficult challenges they faced during this pandemic year. While we commend all of the associations who adapted by offering virtual conferences with social components built in, we are counting down the days until we can all safely gather in person again.
In the meantime, we enjoy looking back on the few events we were able to take part in before COVID shut down life as we knew it. In February, ASD attended our last in-person conference of 2020: The Cremation Association of North America’s Cremation Symposium in Las Vegas, NV. ASD Sales Office Manager, Stephanie Bradford, attended alongside Operations Supervisor, Brian Pretti. We didn’t know at the time it would be our last time shaking hands and sharing cocktails with funeral directors for at least a year. The event was extra memorable for us because Brian bungee jumped from the Stratosphere skyscraper. Click here to see the video.
Stephanie and Brian attending the CANA Cremation Symposium in February 2020
In those early days of 2020, we planned on attending more than 40 events throughout the year along with the educational seminars we planned to hold. I can distinctly recall feeling overwhelmed by all the “20/20 vision” ad campaigns that were filling up my inbox last January, along with my newsfeed emails which kept including headlines about some phantom virus impacting Wuhan, China. I use a service called ContentGems which sends me articles on anything mentioning the funeral profession, and the year had hardly begun before I started seeing headlines like, Amid Virus Outbreak, Funeral Home Officials in Wuhan Reveal Sharp Increase in Cremation. At the time, it felt like a distant threat, but I do remember being caught off guard by the headlines about funeral professionals in China being overwhelmed. I remember thinking, “it must be really bad if the funeral homes are struggling.” Never could any of us have imagined those same headlines would be printed in the United States within months.
On Friday, March 6th, we learned that a person in our local area had tested positive for COVID-19. This was the moment when everything changed for us here at ASD. Upon learning this news, ASD began operating with an abundance of caution in an effort to protect the health and well-being of our employees as well as their families. In previous years, ASD took steps to ensure the majority of our workforce could handle calls from their homes in the event of a major weather event. These advanced preparations allowed us to transition seamlessly to a remote office model, ensuring that our funeral home clients received consistent and reliable telephone support through the pandemic.
ASD staff working remotely throughout 2020
In the weeks that followed, ASD’s Technical Team worked around the clock to expand our company’s remote capabilities. Previously, we provided home computers to any person who had been employed for 9 months or longer. After learning of the coronavirus outbreak in the local area, ASD began deploying home computers to every single one of our employees. These efforts quickly brought ASD’s home user count to over 250 employees.
While working from home certainly reduced the potential for our staff to catch or spread the virus in our office, it also had the unfortunate effect of isolating us all from one another during the most difficult time in our company’s history. For ASD Call Specialists, the month of April was extremely difficult. For a period of time, ASD was handling 1,000 more death calls per day than our typical average. This pandemic proved to be a trying test for all of us answering calls for funeral homes at ASD.
“As owners, it was heartbreaking watching the number of death calls our staff handled for so many families across the United States. ASD staff was on the frontlines battling similar to healthcare workers. We are very proud of our team’s dedication and ability to serve so many families during this unprecedented time,” said ASD Family-Member Owner, Kathy Kelley. “This situation is unlike anything we have ever gone through in the many decades of handling calls for funeral professionals. The abundance of calls in the New York City area crippled the death care industry and caused dreadful backlogs like never before. With the lockdowns and social distancing, loved ones were isolated during this grief process. Families were, and still are, frustrated, depressed, and hurting. ASD Call Specialists provided a kind voice offering support to people in their most difficult period. We commend them for helping each and every caller through this extremely horrific ordeal and recognize the ministry they serve in helping all people.”
One of the most important ways ASD’s owners and managers supported staff was by acknowledging the heartbreak we were encountering and praising our efforts continually through the pandemic. Every one of our employees was sent a specially made T-shirt and ASD hat. The T-shirt, emblazed with the words “ASD Essential Worker – Serving Families & Last Responders – We’re in this Together”, provides us with a wearable badge of honor. In May, every ASD employee also received a special “hazard bonus” in their paycheck. This bonus was given to our staff for the difficult work performed from mid-March through mid-May.
In addition to this, ASD’s owners sent out delicious food deliveries to staff throughout the pandemic year, including homemade cookies, family-size turkeys, fresh fruit, and artisan cheeses. At the end of the year, ASD’s owners sent every employee a huge Italian dinner from a local restaurant to thank them for their dedication and perseverance throughout the year.
Although there was little that could be done to decrease the high call volume our company was tasked with handling during the peak of the pandemic, ASD’s owners and managers were able to help curb the tide by continuing to hire and train new employees. Our company became one of the only places in our local area those out of work due to the pandemic could turn to for employment. The combined technical and problem-solving skills of our owners helped them to formulate a creative solution that made this possible.
With our remote capabilities, ASD was able to hold in-house training classes with our new employees adhering to social distancing guidelines. The classes were held at different times with employees spaced out in our state-of-the-art training center, which was disinfected continuously. We worked to transition our training class to remote model while prioritizing the health of our trainers and taking steps to ensure their safety. Despite all of the challenges we faced, we were able to grow our staff during the peak of the pandemic, adding 72 new employees this year through a massive training and recruitment effort that was unprecedented in our company’s history.
Thankfully, our call volume returned to normal by the month of May, but ASD has remained committed to growing our workforce. There have been zero cases of COVID-19 traced to our training classes. Our new employees have adapted very well to our remote work-from-home model and have excellent call scores. Based on these positive outcomes, we will continue to hire and train using this model going forward. Both our clients and staff benefit from ASD’s commitment to growing our workforce as it helps ensure calls are answered promptly and our call volume does not become overwhelming.
As the answering service trusted by 45 percent of the nation’s funeral homes, ASD’s death call data gave our company unique insight into how the coronavirus impacted the national fatality rate. In early May, we decided to make this information public because we believe our independent, real-time data can help to better illuminate what might otherwise be obscured as many studies and reports on this topic have been contradictory. Throughout 2020, ASD has continued to monitor our statistics and update our blog with our latest findings. Click on the graph below to learn more.
At the beginning of summer, ASD’s death call numbers began to normalize and for several months, pandemic restrictions in our local area were lifted with the exception of mask mandates and capacity limitations. Some of our staff began returning to work in the office, although the majority of our employees continued to work from home. Still, we recognized that the lower numbers might be the eye of the storm and we never stopped working to expand our remote capabilities in preparation of second wave. Our company’s investment in advanced technology and remote solutions has enabled us to meet the challenges brought about by the pandemic head on.
Behind the scenes, ASD has taken measures to improve and expand our bandwidth capabilities. Our in-house technical team has worked tirelessly upgrading computer hardware and software along with implementing many custom improvements to our system at large to handle COVID-related requests. From asking callers on death calls if the person who passed had an infectious disease to communicating important pandemic-related mandates to callers inquiring about upcoming funeral services, we have been able to accommodate the specific customizations of all of our clients.
One of the things we’ve learned this year is that when families need us the most at unexpected times, being able to relay information to funeral directors in the most efficient way possible can make a big difference. In 2020, many of our clients began utilizing features that allow them to respond to messages via ASD Mobile, text messaging or email. These solutions eliminate the need for ASD to contact the on-call person via a phone call, which reduces the funeral home’s billable calls while helping our answering service to perform at the highest level. If you have not already, we strongly encourage you and your staff to explore these options. Click here to learn more.
In the fall, we attended the very first Virtual NFDA Convention. ASD’s Sales and Client Solutions teams worked to provide attendees with an interactive experience at our booth. We learned so much about how to provide live demos in a virtual setting and were able to catch up with a lot of the funeral professionals we normally see at this annual event. The educational opportunities were also plentiful. That said, we really look forward to the 2021 NFDA convention being held as an in-person event again as nothing can replace those priceless social interactions. We will value them all the more in the future!
ASD National Sales Manager, Craig Meehan, explaining the benefits of our answering service at ASD’s Virtual Booth.
The autumn season also brought another virtual event to ASD—our Pick a Park initiative. Between the months of October and November, Team ASD cleaned up more than two dozen parks, trails or public lands. We were absolutely blown away by our staff’s participation and willingness to donate their time to make their community beautiful. Even though we couldn’t gather in person for our Team ASD volunteer events this year, it was wonderful to know our staff could still get out there and make a difference while representing ASD!
By Thanksgiving, it was clear that a second wave of COVID was on the rise, impacting funeral homes even in rural areas that had been largely untouched by the first wave in the spring. It has been devastating reading so many stories about funeral homes struggling to keep up with the surge in cases. Even more heartbreaking is knowing that behind every one of those death calls, there is a grieving family struggling to cope with the reality of their loved one’s passing. Going into 2021, we will continue to pray for an end to this awful pandemic that has overwhelmed funeral professionals, shattered families and ravaged our world. We wish you all a safe and happy 2021 as we look forward to brighter days ahead.
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