Listening to (and Satisfying) the Never-Satisfied Customer

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

Trends indicate that there are more families out there who are more difficult to satisfy than in the past. Some observers have noted that today's consumers are "never satisfied customers."

In the face of these challenges, it seems those of you committed to the future of funeral service confront an important choice. On the one hand, you could decide to throw in the towel, to give up, to project that it's this new customer's problem. On the other hand, you could work to really listen to your new customer, to hear what they are telling you and to respond accordingly.

Yes, the consumer-driven marketplace has changed the heart and soul of funeral service. Today's enlightened funeral home understands that customer satisfaction is won only one way: by dynamically serving the customer.

Dynamically serving the customer means providing information, education and choices that meet individual needs and circumstances, creating authentic, meaningful funeral experiences for each family served, and constantly working to make small, gradual improvements in the service you provide.

If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that many in funeral service have internalized this assumption: "We know what our customers want and need even better than they do." Indeed, it is tempting to believe that years of experience "in the business" have made us omniscient.

Can this kind of thinking get a funeral home in trouble quickly today? Not only can it, it already has for some.

Funeral homes that best understand that there is a new and very different customer out there will work to create and communicate a well-defined, customer-inspired service strategy. The funeral home of the future will be focused on listening to and understanding and responding swiftly to the changing wants, needs and expectations of families served.

The funeral home of the future will create and maintain "customer-friendly" service delivery systems. The funeral home of the future will hire, inspire and develop customer-oriented staff.

Even those of you who think your customer orientation is excellent shouldn't relax into smug self-congratulation. Today's families are: more apt to use technology to consider choices (people are accessing wholesale casket prices on the Internet and bringing them into funeral homes with a demand to meet or beat the price); more diverse and mobile; and more demanding of respectful and courteous treatment. The demands of funeral homes to meet and exceed service expectations will only continue to increase into the future. Are you prepared to not only survive, but thrive?

At bottom, the successful future of funeral service hinges on listening to the customer like never before. This means not only listening to the needs of each individual family who walks through your door, but also paying close attention to trends and new requests. In other words, listen to your customers and change with them, or run the risk of being left behind.

Responding to the trend of the "difficult to satisfy" customer

Let's explore several essential reasons to listen to those you are privileged to serve.

If you want to not only survive but thrive into the future, LISTEN to the families you serve. The funeral home that will go out of business is the one that doesn't believe there is anything to learn from customers. The future of funeral service is filled with both dangers and wonderful opportunities. Think of it as a time of "dangerous opportunities."

Dr. Alan Wolfelt is well-known to funeral service as a leading educator. He derives great satisfaction from studying funeral service trends and assisting funeral directors in preparing to meet the challenges of the serving the new customer. He will write a regular column forThe Director starting with the February issue. Dr. Wolfelt would like to hear from you if you have ideas for his new column. You can contact him at the Center for Loss and Life Transition, 3735 Broken Bow Road, Fort Collins, CO 80526, (970) 226-6050, fax (970) 226-6051, e-mail wolfelt@centerforloss.com, website www.centerforloss.com.

Managing Customer Service into the Millennium

When the customer changes, management philosophies must change too. While some funeral homes have adapted more contemporary management models, many are still operating on a dated model. Consider the ways in which a 1950s management model vs. a 1990s management model might respond to various customer service challenges:

CHALLENGE 1950'S MODEL 1990'S MODEL
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 fortunateto 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.