Creating Excellence in Customer Service: A Mandate for Funeral Homes
by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
Have you ever noticed how customer service receives a great deal of lip service in this industry? Across all of funeral service, in both small and large funeral homes, family-owned and corporate, many people hold the timeless thought that the "customer is king." Yet, despite this philosophy, funeral service is confronted with a service crisis.
Why? This article will present reasons for the service crisis and emphasize the need for funeral homes to proactively seek excellence in their day-to-day customer service delivery.
Exploring the Why? of the Service Crisis
First, let me acknowledge that the majority of funeral directors–owners, manager, and front-line personnel alike–generally want to deliver excellent customer service. However, observation suggests that there is often a gap between the desire to offer excellent service and the performance of that service.
Here are some reasons for this phenomenon:
- The Customer Has Changed
The consumer-focused movement that began in the 1960s dramatically changed people's expectations of business throughout North America. The government responded to the Ralph Nader advocates and created new consumer protection laws. The politics of consumer protection raised people's paranoia that they might be ripped-off and increased their general service expectations as well.
Today's consumers are better-educated. They want value for their money and aren't afraid to ask for explanations of charges. Nor are they afraid to comparison shop. In fact, for some people today there is more status in saving money on funeral services than there is in spending a lot of money.
In addition to being a more savvy shopper, today's funeral home customer has also been influenced by our mourning-avoiding, efficiency-based culture. To paraphrase these social influences, "I don't want to hurt and the funeral makes me acknowledge pain. Besides, faster is betterÓ (this mentality is reflected in the increased rates of direct cremation.) Many, though certainly not all, primary survivor's lack an understanding of the value of ritual and minimize their need to mourn the death.
Finally, funeral service is less product-driven today than it has historically been. In the past, the customer was more interested in the casket, for example. Today's funeral director must consciously work to create a package of values to offer families along with the product. To survive into the future, funeral service must focus on being customer-driven, not product-driven. After all, the same casket can usually be provided by different funeral homes. The difference between one funeral home and another has increasingly become the package of values and quality of service that comes with the product.
- Management Philosophies Have Resisted Change
A change in the customer requires a change in management philosophies. While some funeral homes have adapted more contemporary management models, many are still operating on a dated model. Consider the ways in which a 1950's management model vs. a 1990's management model might respond to various customer service challenges:
Requirements of Family Served
Assume requirements are met; 75% of families wanted the same thing (traditional funerals)
Constantly research requirements and change as appropriate
Level of Service Priority
Nice to have good service and assume it is provided
Major priority of management; Constantly train staff to focus on excellent service
Communication Patterns Among Staff
Top down, directive style of management; Employee feels fortunate to be employeed
Interactive, bottom up style of management; Employee is seen as an internal customer of management
Measurement of Quality of Service Delivered
Families served tell us we did a good job, high level of service quality assumed
Customer-centered goals are created and continually measured
In short, today's funeral home managers must actively promote excellence in customer service if they are to keep in step with contemporary management philosophies. Those funeral homes that fall back on the status quo will find themselves falling behind in market share.
- Lack of a Service Strategy
Developing a service strategy involves defining your potential customers, determining what their expectations are, and creating a match between your customers' expectations and your ability to deliver service. Operating a funeral home without a defined service strategy may have worked twenty-five years ago, but it won't work in today's competitive environment. Without such a strategy, you don't know who your customers are and how much they value different aspects of the products and services you provide.
Without a service strategy the funeral home is often not managed in a way to assure quality service, while a well-defined service strategy helps create high quality service standards. Funeral homes that have a clear, focused service strategy will be better prepared to be successful today, tomorrow, and well into the future.
- The Importance of Employee Training Has Been Overlooked
Without ongoing training, owners, managers, and employees will not provide top-notch customer service. Everyone benefits from being exposed to new skills, attitudes, concepts and ideas.
While mortuary colleges have made strides in teaching customer service skills, the bulk of the educational experience is still on embalming and preparation. Employers should not assume that the new graduate is qualified to fulfill the customer service obligations of the position.
My experience suggests that many funeral homes place little, if any emphasis, on ongoing staff training. The potential result can be a downward service spiral. One unhappy, untrained employee can result in an unhappy customer. The more the customer is unhappy the more the staff is unhappy and so the cycle reinforces itself.
One negative interaction between a staff member and the family being served can cause headaches; that small incident can overshadow all of the good things that had been done before. This fact alone underlines the importance of ongoing customer service training for every funeral home employee, from the funeral director to the part-time assistant.
- The Evolution of the Large Corporate Structure
Many think that the growing trend toward the large corporate structure will create a financially stronger funeral service industry. However, those participating in this natural change must guard against diminished levels of customer service.
As an organization grows, it tends to drift away from the needs of the front line customer. Sometimes it is tempting for the corporate executive to increase prices to enhance cash flow while downplaying the need for an ongoing focus on customer service excellence.
As the corporate hierarchy grows and policy makers become more distant from customers, the risk is that people in the system may forget who the customers are. Though this is certainly not true of all corporations in this industry, I have observed that it has happened to some of the players in corporate funeral service.
The challenge for funeral service corporations is to keep their ears to the ground and listen to what the customer, on the local level, is telling them. Bottom-up management techniques facilitate this process.
Excellence in Customer Service: A Challenge
Owners, managers, and front-line employees must realize that customer service excellence is a strategic process. Lip-service, slogans on stationary and advertisements won't suffice in today's world. Families served and those you hope to serve must be at the center of all your management decisions, changed attitudes and customer-friendly behaviors.
Moreover, funeral homes across North America must realize that this service crisis affects all of them. Funeral homes in small communities sometimes think that customer service problems only apply to large funeral homes in large cities. This is not true. If it hasn't already, the service crisis will soon reach the smallest of funeral homes.
Without the necessary training–from the top level executive to the front line part-time employee–positive strides toward excellence in customer service are unlikely to occur. I challenge you to lead your funeral home staff in the direction of total commitment of quality service.