E-Serving Families: How Your Website Should Help Your Customers

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

Does your funeral home have a website? If not, you're missing a great opportunity to improve the experience you're offering customers.

The World Wide Web is fast becoming a point of entry for millions of consumers. When we want to buy a car, we can now start by browsing internet auto sites instead of visiting our local dealer's lot. When we need information on butterflies, we can employ any number of excellent search engines instead of dropping by the library.

And when families in your community need information about funerals and disposition options, they may well look online before phoning you or another funeral care provider. Think of your website as another entrance–and an increasingly popular one at that–into your funeral home. It needs to be just as friendly, just as professional and just as helpful as your staff is when a customer calls or walks in your front door.

But funeral home websites can and should be much more than pretty portals. Computer power now enables even small companies to affordably offer the kind of information, personalization and communication that only amply-staffed corporations once could. Following are some good examples of funeral home websites that are serving customers well.

E-Serving Families with Information

After relatively nominal up-front costs, space on the Web is free, right? If you put your mind to it, your website can provide families with page after page of useful information. Newsletters, articles about grief, pre-need information and forms, maps of your locations, pricing–the list is virtually (pardon the pun) endless. Of course, the goal isn't to overwhelm; be sure to break up information into small, easy-to-read chunks and let readers “click” when they want to read more.

As part of its website, Bradshaw Funeral and Cremation Services (www.bradshawfuneral.com) of Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minnesota provides a list of Frequently Asked Questions. Visitors can click on “What is embalming and why do it?” and read a brief three-paragraph explanation. They can also learn more about cremation, what funeral directors do, what kinds of funeral services are available and much more. How often are you asked similar questions by families in your community? (And conversely, how often might families want to ask these questions but are too timid, embarrassed or overwhelmed by grief?) Why not type the answers into your computer and make this kind of empowering information readily and discreetly available to anyone?

Toland-Herzig Funeral Home's website (www.tolandherzig.com) includes articles written by Director of Bereavement Services Todd Little. Todd writes a monthly column on grief for a local newspaper and simply posts the articles online as they're written. Any time of the day or night, website visitors can learn about coping with grief or joining a support group, for example.

Employment opportunity information is available on Newcomer Family Funeral Homes' (www.funeralvalue.com) well-designed website, which serves families in Newcomers' 12 location cities from Arizona to Florida to New York. Based in Wichita, Kansas, Newcomer also provides a concise “Funeral Guide” for at-need families on its website. The guide consists of a checklist of 51 items for families to consider and attend to at the time of a death.

Similarly, Tuner and Porter Funeral Directors, Ltd. (www.turnerporter.ca) of Toronto, Ontario includes a helpful button entitled “Funeral Etiquette” on its website, which takes visitors to succinct advice on customs ranging from pallbearer selection to dress to memorial donations.

Horan & McConaty (www.horanandmcconaty.com) of Denver, Colorado provides a complete price list on its comprehensive and well-designed website, including descriptions of what each fee includes. I find that many families approach the funeral planning process fearful of costs. Horan & McConaty waylays this fear with clear, forthright pricing on their website for all to see.

LifeFiles.com, a new company offering turnkey, customized websites to funeral homes, believes that part of its mission is to provide timely, compassionate information to mourners. Through their Comfort and Counseling Library section, visitors to participating funeral home websites are offered helpful articles on grief as well as a select bibliography of grief-related books. Purchasing one of the featured books is just a mouse-click away. FuneralNet, used by a number of the funeral homes mentioned in this article, is another reputable and widely used funeral service website designer.

Many of the websites I visited in putting together this article emphasize the importance of the funeral. Gently reminding visitors why we have funerals is a key piece of information that belongs on every funeral home website. You might also consider posting company history, brief funeral director bios, a list of local resources for mourners and links to other grief and death-care sites.

E-Serving Families with Personalization

Another exciting customer service opportunity afforded by the Web is the ability to post personalized tributes to the person who died.

Norris Funeral Home (www.norrisfh.com) of St. Charles, Illinois maintains an online obituary database. Website visitors can scan a list of recent obituaries, clicking on the name of their loved one, or type in the name they're looking for. A complete obituary then appears, including funeral service date, time and location and, when available, a photo of the person who died.

Expanding on this concept, Anderson-McQueen (www.andersonmcqueen.com) of St. Petersburg, Florida hosts an online guestbook. Obituaries are displayed and website visitors can click a button that says, “Sign Memorial Guestbook.” The guestbook allows visitors to type in their name, e-mail and mailing addresses and a message. “Share your sympathies, condolences and fondest memories,” the instructions invite. Visitors can then print out the entire Memorial Guestbook for the chosen individual.

Canale Tonella Funeral Home (www.canalefuneral.com) of Marquette, Michigan's website proves that sometimes less is more. Their simple but attractive website includes company history and facilities information as well as advice on pre-planning and personalizing the funeral. At the bottom of each page a candle flickers (yes, one of the marvels of the computer age is that an e-candle can really flicker), inviting website visitors to send a memory of the person who died. Instead of posting memorials for everyone to see, Canale Tonella instead passes them along to the family to be read and savored in private.

Other creative online memorial ideas include digital photo albums depicting the life of the person who died–set to background music the family chooses!–and eulogies available for reading online and/or printing out after the funeral service.

E-Serving Families with Interactive Communication

Computers also allow website visitors to participate in other interactive ways in the funeral planning process, thus enhancing their experience with your funeral home.

Flanner & Buchanan Mortuaries (www.flannerbuchanan.com) of Indianapolis, Indiana is one of many that provides an online preplanning worksheet. Website visitors are presented with a funeral planning form onto which they can enter personal information, military record, funeral service wishes, body disposition requests and other instructions. Then they can either submit this information to Flanner & Buchanan with a click of a button or choose to print it out for their own private use only.

Online sympathy cards are also available at Norris Funeral Home. Visitors simply choose from one of three graphic images and accomanying text, then personalize their e-card with a note. Norris then e-mails the card to the e-mail address provided by the card sender.

Visitors to Anderson-McQueen's website can choose among dozens of flower arrangments and pay for them with the click of a button. Orders are fulfilled by a local florist and cost the same as if ordered directly. Flower buyers enjoy both the convenience of ordering any time of day or night and the peace of mind that the flowers will arrive at the right funeral at the right time.

I've also heard talk of actual funerals being digitally recorded and played in real-time on the Web for out-of-town family members and friends. What a great way to enhance the funeral experience for the families in your care!

These are just a few of the hundreds of funeral homes across North America that have created customer service-oriented websites. Is yours among them? While I understand the technical and administrative difficulties in creating and maintaining a good website (my own, www.centerforloss.com, has been quite a learning experience), I also understand the value of a good website–both for your company and for your community.

If your funeral home is using the web to better serve your customers in innovative ways, I'd like to hear about it. Please drop me an e-mail: wolfelt@centerforloss.com.