It's the Experience That Counts: Funeral Home Customer Service for Today's Families

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

I've long been a proponent of meaningful funeral ceremonies. In fact, in 1994 I wrote a book called Creating Meaningful Funeral Ceremonies: A Guide for Caregivers, which bemoaned the new customer's lack of understanding of the funeral's value and emphasized the importance of creating new, more personalized ceremonies that better meet Boomer needs.

I've spoken on this topic to hundreds of funeral directors, clergy and other bereavement caregivers across North America countless times in the last eight years. I told them, as I tell you now, that their businesses would not survive unless they changed the way they do things.

But until the 1999 NFDA Convention in Kansas City, when I sat in the audience and listened to keynote speaker and author James Gilmore say, "The Service Economy is peaking. A new, emerging economy is coming to the fore, one based on a distinct kind of economic output (experiences). Goods and services are no longer enough," I hadn't made the connection that what I was championing on behalf of funeral service was the creation of meaningful experiences. And, moreover, that it wasn't just funeral service that needed to make this shift but the entire economy.

Of course.

In his speech Gilmore explained how our economy has evolved from being commodities-based to goods-based to service-based, and now, to experience-based. This evolution of economic offerings can itself be instantiated in something as commonplace as the birthday cake, which I previously noted in this column.

Gilmore pointed out that in the agrarian economy, mothers made birthday cakes from scratch, mixing farm commodities (flour, sugar, butter, eggs) that together cost mere pennies. As the goods-based industrial economy advanced, moms paid a dollar or two to Betty Crocker for pre-mixed ingredients. Later, when the service economy took hold, busy parents ordered cakes from the bakery or grocery store, which, at $10 or $15, cost ten times more than the packaged ingredients. Now, in today's time-starved economy, parents neither make the birthday cake nor throw the party. Instead, they spend $100 or more to "outsource" the entire event to Chuck E. Cheese's, the Discovery Zone or some other business that stages memorable events for kids-and often throws in the cake for free.

Experiences, says Gilmore, are a fourth level of value (above commodities, goods and services) and thus can command a much higher price than mere goods or even excellent service. Boomers want and are willing to pay for memorable experiences. They may buy the less expensive toothpaste or contract with the cheapest lawn care service in town, but they are more than willing to pony up for lattés at Starbucks, vacations at Club Med, and the "Total Ownership Experience" of Lexus". Unyoked of the abbreviated lifespans and hardships of generations past, and beneficiaries of the strongest economy in the history of the world, they're more affluent, more educated and more able to turn their attention to "the things that really matter."

And it turns out that the things that really matter-the things that give life meaning-aren't things at all but experiences.

We know that Boomers typically want more information and more ideas for personalization. They increasingly want cremation. They often don't care about the casket.. Some days it feels like they're picking on just funeral service, but they're not. They're voicing similar wants and complaints about restaurants, clothing, education, home design, etc. etc. etc.. Across the board, Boomers want engaging experiences. Funeral service just happens to be an old-fashioned, traditional goods- and services-based industry that might suffer more growing pains because it may have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the Experience Economy.

So I returned home from the NFDA Convention buzzing with new ideas and connections. And I read Gilmore's book, The Experience Economy: Work is Theatre & Every Business a Stage (Harvard Business School Press, 1999), which he coauthored with his business partner, B. Joseph Pine II, I found that the concept of creating meaningful funeral experiences could be further explored in context of the Experience Economy.

Before we go much further, however, I should point out to you that experiences are not synonymous with entertainment. Don't dismiss the experience concept because it conjures up images of funeral directors tap-dancing in tails alongside the casket. While the visionary Walt Disney and others who followed in his footsteps certainly foresaw and capitalized on the value of entertaining experiences, companies stage an experience whenever they engage customers in a personal, memorable way. Experiences engage, preferably on emotional, physical, intellectual and even spiritual levels; they don't necessarily entertain. And buying those experiences is akin to buying a series of memories. If that doesn't describe funeral service at its best, I don't know what does.

The Realms of Experience

If experiences aren't about entertaining but engaging, what constitutes a non-entertaining experience? There are four "realms of experience," according to Pine and Gilmore, and entertainment is just one. You can guess what the entertainment realm is all about (think Disney again). The other three are educational, escapist and esthetic.

In the educational realm, customers learn as part of their experience. Here at the Center for Loss in Fort Collins, Colorado, I teach a number of week-long courses to bereavement caregivers each year. Groups of 18 caregivers such as hospice workers, funeral directors, physicians, and clergy gather to learn from me and each other. Their experience includes five days of interactive, discussion-based content, as well as sharing their own personal stories of loss, listening to music, enjoying meals together and hiking in the rugged mountain foothills around the Center. The Center itself is a lovely hexagonal-shaped building with many windows, comfortable seating and a tasteful decor. Consciously, I have set the stage to make this week of education as much of an experience as possible for everyone who participates.

The escapist realm, on the other hand, immerses customers in a totally different reality. Examples of escapist environments include theme parks, chat rooms, laser tag centers and casinos. Have you ever tried to find your way around a mirrored, labyrinthine casino without getting lost or disoriented? Casino designers are very good at creating escapist experiences. Escapist experiences actively involve customers; people come to "do" in the escapist realm.

In the esthetic realm, people come just to "be." This realm immerses people in unique and often awesome events or environments in a passive way. Relaxing on the ocean shore, viewing the Louvre's Mona Lisa, gazing up at a lunar eclipse, soaking up the atmosphere in Time's Square-these are esthetic experiences.

Funerals traditionally are esthetic experiences. People come to funerals just to "be there," to demonstrate their support and love by their presence. For the most part, they do not play an active role in the funeral itself, but rather "take in" the sights, the sounds, the readings, the music. They allow their thoughts and feelings to wash over them as they focus on the life and death of the person who died.

Esthetic funeral experiences are wonderful and healing, particularly when funeral homes do a good job of creating a sense of place, engaging all the senses and eliminating negative cues-topics discussed later in this chapter. However, exceptional funeral planning attempts to integrate more than one realm of experience for bereaved families and friends. The escapist realm, in particular, offers many possibilities for funeral directors; indeed, we are already seeing a trend toward escapist funerals.

The escapist realm would ask: What can bereaved families and friends "do" at the visitation or funeral to further immerse themselves in the experience? When you sit down with families and actively engage them in arranging the funeral, you are creating an escapist experience. When family members and friends participate in the service by giving readings, playing music, sharing memories and lighting candles, they are in escapist realm territory. When funeral guests not only sign the guestbook but are asked to write down a specific memory of the peson who died, they are venturing into the escapist realm. When people lay flowers or throw dirt atop the casket at the close of the committal service, they are in the escapist realm of experience. Anything you as a funeral director can do to present families with "escapist" options-never forcing them but encouraging them to take advantage of these healing activities-helps create an exceptional funeral Experience.

The educational realm is also not out of place in funeral service. A few years back I launched a program called "Honoring Family Choices" in conjunction with Batesville Management Services. Honoring Family Choices is a series of signage and literature for display in funeral homes that teaches the importance of funerals and the elements of ceremony. The signs ask, for example, "Why do we have funerals?" then provides answers in simple, direct language. Your funeral home brochure and website should also educate consumers and community members about what you do and why. Giving talks to service clubs and other community organizations about the history and importance of funeral service is yet another way to capitalize on the educational realm.

The entertainment realm of experience can also be used to great effect in funeral planning. While few would term the funeral an "entertaining" experience, humor is certainly an appropriate part of many eulogies. The gathering or reception after the funeral is perhaps the best time to consider the entertainment realm: tasty and visually-appetizing foods; memory tables filled with memorabilia that encourages mourners to reminisce about "the good times;" more festive decorating and lighting; round tables surrounded by upholstered chairs. All these things encourage family and friends to stay, to stick around, to talk and enjoy each other's company. Funeral homes would be well served to consider the entertainment realm as they plan the building or remodeling of their reception spaces.

According to Gilmore and Pine, "When all four realms abide within a single setting, then and only then does plain space become a distinctive place for staging an experience. Occuring over a period of time, staged experiences require a sense of place to entice guests to spend more time engaged in the offering."

Are you creating staged experiences with a sense of place worthy of a family's time, money and love for the person who died?

Positive and Negative Cues

One of your main responsibilities in creating exceptional funeral experiences is ensuring that every impression families have of your funeral home is a good one. Every impression. Every single one.

When passersby drive past your funeral home, what impression do they get? When a family first phones you, what impression do they get? (When they see your Yellow Pages ad, what impression do they get? When you go to their home to remove the body, what impression do they get? When they walk in your front door, what impression do they get? When they sit down with you to arrange the funeral, what impression do they get? When they view the body for the first time, what impression do they get?

Each of these key steps in the funeral planning chain of events is a Moment of Truth and merits scrutiny. Individually they form a largely unconscious (but nonetheless indelible) impression in your customer's mind. They are the main moments in time in which a customer judges who you are. Collectively these moments form the backbone of the Experience the customer will have with your funeral home.

In addition to Moments of Truth, other, seemingly more minor impressions contribute to the Experience. Take your funeral home's layout, for example. Is it easy for families to find their way to the right visitation room or the chapel or the restroom-or do people tend to get lost or disoriented? (The latter makes good business sense for casinos but defintely not for funeral homes.) Or consider the jargon you might sometimes use in front of families. (Have you ever said, "Where is the deceased now?" instead of the preferable "Where is your mother/Edna now?" Also think about how your funeral home smells, how the upholstery feels, how the background music or other noises contribute to the Experience.

Emphasize positive cues and eliminate negative cues if you truly want to improve your level of service and create exceptional funeral Experiences for today's families. Bring in an objective outsider-not a funeral service "expert"-and create a mock funeral planning experience for her. Afterwards, ask her how she felt during the various Moments of Truth and which cues she found negative, which positive. Or better yet, have an objective outsider interview several families you've served recently. Take this feedback seriously and make changes where necessary.

Charging for Experiences

Funeral service is falling prey to commoditization. Many funeral homes and "alternative" funeral service providers are competing based on low prices: "We can do it all for $595," "Lowest prices in town.". So, at the same time Gilmore observes that people are seeking "experiences" (and believes, as do many of us, that this applies to funeral service), much of the advertising we now witness in funeral service is based on competing on the basis of price for goods (commodities).

Let's learn from Gilmore's very words: "While customers love a sale, businesses perish from relying on low prices . . . that system of competition no longer sustains growth and profitability. You know it; we all know it. But what do we do about it?"

What we do about is create exceptional funeral experiences, which we know Boomers value and are willing to pay for, then charge accordingly for those experiences. Gone are the days when the sale of the casket and other products could support your funeral home. Going are the days when simply charging a "service fee" for the basic services you render is justifiable to customers. They want more bang for their buck, more Experience and less focus on goods and services.

Gilmore and Pine give the example of computer giant IBM. At first IBM offered free service to support computer sales until the computer industry matured to the point that the computer itself was of less value than the service behind it. So then IBM started buying its industrial customers' mainframe computers for them if they would contract with IBM's Global Services to manage their IS business. Flip-flop.

What if you created a pricing structure that built little if any profits into the casket and other products you sell and instead firmly planted your profits where they belong-in the valuable, value-added Experiences you help families create? Can you imagine the feeling of empowerment (and creativity-inducing, constructive pressure) this would place on you and your staff to indeed create exceptional funeral Experiences for today's families? After all, if you're charging for incredible funerals, you will have no choice but to deliver on that promise.

I agree with Pine and Gilmore that the Experience Economy is a fourth and higher level of economic offerings. Boomers and X- and Y-geners value experiences are willing to pay for them. You are in a position to provide those experiences, to differentiate yourself among area funeral homes. For many families, it won't matter if you charge more to plan and carry out the funeral IF you create the best experiences. Families and community members will come away from your funerals saying, "Wow. That was absolutely the best funeral I ever attended. I never knew a funeral could be so powerful, so meaningful, so healing." Word of mouth will spread and calls to your funeral home will grow. So will your bottom line, if you're charging accordingly for the value you provide. It's a win-win situation for families and for funeral service.

This article is excerpted from Dr. Wolfelt's book Funeral Home Customer Service A-Z: Creating Exceptional Experiences for Today's Families. This revolutionary and comprehensive manual, which covers the full gamut of customer service issues from aftercare to cremation to products to visitation, is available from Companion Press for $24.95. An abbreviated pocket-sized version is also available. To order or for more information, visit www.centerforloss.com.