The Dirty Dozen of Customer Service: Are You Chasing Away Future Customers?

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

Question:In recent years our funeral home has seen a steady decline in the number of families we are serving. We know we are the best funeral home in town, so why the drop in business? What should we take a look at?

Answer:Your question gives us the opportunity to review signals, or "red flags," that suggest a funeral home may not be delivering excellent customer service.

The content of your question suggests one area to explore. You stated, "We know we are the best funeral home in town." Your past history of success may have led you to believe you were invincible. Staff members may have lost a sense of what a privilege it is to serve bereaved families. Explore with your staff the following reality...

We are not doing families a favor by serving them. Families are doing us a favor by giving us the opportunity to serve them. We must focus on creating a meaningful, personalized funeral service for each family we serve.

While it is nice to have a history of excellent customer service, remember–yesterday's laurels are tomorrow's compost! Never take for granted that you are providing a consistently high level of customer service. In other words, be certain staff members never get complacent. As soon as complacency sets in, service levels often fall off.

Exploring the "Dirty Dozen"

In my work with funeral homes throughout North America, I have had occasion to observe some of the following ways funeral homes alienate families. Do you see any that might apply to your funeral home?

  1. The funeral home takes its customer base for granted: "No matter what we do, we usually serve around 300 families a year."
  2. The funeral home has a merchandise-driven, as opposed to a customer-driven, philosophy. More emphasis is placed on "the amount of the sale" than the quality of service provided.
  3. Employees assume the family doesn't want or need service. For example, a family chooses a direct cremation with a church-based memorial service. One of the family members inquires about the funeral home having staff present at the service and are told, "No, you took service option #4; you don't really need us there." (A family member shared this recent example with me.)
  4. The funeral home or one or more of its employee has an attitude that projects, "You can't please every family you serve, so why try?"
  5. The funeral home values pre-need service over at-need service. This philosophy sometime results in a subtle degradation of excellence in customer service levels to at-need families. The thinking is, "Well, we are guaranteeing our future with all the pre-need we are focusing on."
  6. Employees don't know how to provide excellent customer service. The ability to perform at high service levels may be taken for granted. The fact that someone graduated from mortuary school or has worked in funeral service for years does not insure he or she has the knowledge, skills and personality to deliver excellent service.
  7. The funeral home doesn't have time to serve.Focus on the "bottom-line" has resulted in some funeral homes being understaffed. It's difficult to deliver excellent service when you were awakened to do removals during the night, made funeral arrangements for three families in the day and worked visitation that evening.
  8. Employees perceive "calls" as more of a pain to the business than a gain.The customer is viewed as an interruption as opposed to an opportunity to serve and help.
  9. A transaction mentality has infiltrated the funeral home. The focus is on, "How many have we had this month?" In other words, quantity of services provided takes precedence over quality of services provided.
  10. Staff turnover seems constant.Consistency in personnel who work in coordination with others results in high quality service. If you are constantly training new staff you are never functioning at peak service performance.
  11. The funeral home's customer service philosophy is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Employees, therefore, become discouraged from contributing ways to enhance service to families.
  12. There is a perceived lack of challenge in providing excellent service. This philosophy can be heard in comments like, "Well, we are the only one's in town who really know how to provide good service. We always have and we always will." This arrogance can lead to complacency. This attitude also sets in for those who perceive they have no competition for services.

By no means do I mean to suggest that this list of the "dirty dozen" red flags is all-inclusive. What other examples can you think of? However, I do think these signals can help you determine if you need to look at whether you are providing the level of customer service you really think you are. What is your funeral home's group attitude about customer service? Are you constantly trying to improve? Do you have a passion for service to bereaved families? Do you enjoy helping create meaningful funeral ceremonies? Does your funeral home have a sense of gratitude that families turn to you to help them?

At bottom, if you have no desire to serve bereaved families, get out of funeral service. If, on the other hand, you have a passion to serve families to the best of your ability, work to inspire everyone is the funeral home to measure every action against the needs and expectations of families served and strive to constantly exceed those expectations.

Customer Service: A Self-Assessment

You may want to use the following questions to facilitate a staff meeting at your funeral home about your current level of customer service. Make use of the resulting discussion to inspire constant efforts to improve service.

  1. Do we view families that "walk-in" as interruptions or as an opportunity to provide service?
  2. Do we use high levels of customer satisfaction as a guiding principle in this funeral home?
  3. What "first impression" do people have of us when they make contact with us?
  4. Do we like and respect the families we serve?
  5. Do we consistently thank families for the privilege to serve them?
  6. Do we in anyway project a sense of arrogance to those we serve? If so, how do we convey this either individually or as a staff?
  7. Are we merchandise-driven or customer-driven in our service philosophy?
  8. Do we place as much emphasis on at-need and post-need as we do pre-need? If not, why not?
  9. Do we provide ongoing staff training that allows us to enhance our levels of service?
  10. Are we understaffed and therefore have problems delivering excellent service?
  11. Do we focus more on quantity served than quality of service provided?
  12. What is our level of staff turnover? Does this impact our ability to provide excellent service? If we have a lot of staff turnover, why?
  13. Are employees encouraged or discouraged from making suggestions about how we can improve customer service?
  14. Do families we serve refer other families to us?
  15. Are we difficult for families to contact? Do they have to go through three people to talk to a funeral director? Do we use an answering service? Does it help or hinder us?