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Hi. Robin Heppell here. On today’s show, I’m going to be talking about how you can be an all-star funeral director.
Topics discussed / In this video:
- 3:20 – Advice from a hand-written note from Grandpa
- 4:25 – Stand out with a little spit
- 5:15 – The sweetest sound is a lost art
- 7:10 – Turning around my greatest fear from the 3rd grade
- 13:15 – The most profitable skill a funeral director can have
- 12:05 – Understand profitability of the funeral home
- 14:30 – The #1 way to improve your cash flow
- 16:55 – What do nose hairs and cuff links have in common
- 20:10 – Hello, my name is…
- 25:05 – One communication a day keeps the problems away
- 26:55 – How to separate you from the rest of the pack
- 28:30 – How to get the most number of positive survey responses
- 30:10 – My first mistake in funeral service
- 34:35 – 2015 Funeral Rock Stars includes tour of my training grounds
- 35:40 – Here is what the Historian and the Futurist are up to
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Download My Funeral Director’s Report
Welcome to another edition of the Funeral Strategy and Marketing Show. Now, before I dive into today’s topic, I want to let you know to stick around till the end of the episode because that’s where I’m going to tell you where you can get your own copy of my personal funeral director’s all-star checklist. This is something that you can use just to record different things for every service that you do so that you can be a funeral director all-star.
Now, let’s get in today’s topic. How to be a an all-star funeral director. Now, first off, I’m not going to say that I am the best funeral director ever. I will say though that I feel that I was a really good funeral director and I still get called upon by close families to act in that capacity or even act as a celebrant so I still see things on the front lines.
What I want to share with you today is some of the things that I learned from my mentors and that can help you to rise above maybe the rest of the staff so that you can look like you would be the all-star funeral director on your staff. This is isn’t just for employees. It’s for owners as well, anyone who is working day to day on the front lines with the families, making the arrangements, embalming, directing the services.
Now, the reason why I want to share this with you is that I wanted to look back what would happen just recently. One of my mentors, Stu Carrol, who is the manager of McCall Bros. for a long time recently retired. I spoke just to have a little segment at his retirement dinner that I shared a few things. I thought, “You know what, this would be a great things for me to share with everyone, all the things that I learned from Stu plus my other mentors.”
First of all, when I started I started working in Ontario at my uncle’s and grandfather’s funeral home at Egan’s Funeral Home in Bolton, Ontario just northwest of Toronto. I came back to play hockey here in Victoria, British Columbia. It was funny because I was so shy I didn’t even … My dad phoned down to McCall’s and got me an interview. Actually, I had an interview with Stu way back so that’s almost 30 years ago.
Now, at McCall’s, I had great mentors there as well. Dave McCall gave me lots of great opportunities. He was very patient with me and his uncle, Torrey McCall taught me a few things that I’m going to share with you. Ken Kyle, who helped me during my apprenticeship. He’s an excellent embalmer, lots of attention to detail. For funeral directing and arrangement, Stu Carrol was the guy. He checked all of our work and made sure that we were doing the best that we could.
What I’ve done is I’ve broken this down into three areas. First of all, the first area is just the general attitude. The first one is, show up early. Show up early for work. Maybe ten minutes early. It’s funny. When I first started working at McCall’s, I got a handwritten letter from my grandfather, just checking in. This was way before e-mails and things like that. He wrote me a note saying and one of the suggestions that he made in that was to show up early.
I got to tell you, when you show up early for work, maybe it’s just ten minutes early, the day just rolls a lot better. McCall’s is a very busy funeral home and lots of things are going on. If you just up right up when you’re supposed to start working, there’s things that you could miss and it might threw you off the entire day. Get there early. If you drink coffee or tea or whatever you do, you grab that, find out what happened over the evening before, check out what’s happening today, make sure anything that you’re assigned to do, you’ve got that completely detailed and just be prepared.
Next, super simple one but be well-groomed whether it’s with your hair and your clothing, making sure that your shirts are pressed and not wrinkled. Make sure that your shoes are shined. Just little things but these things really stand out now more than back a generation ago, you won’t have to remind people because that’s why the people were. Nowadays, noticed many people uphold those types of things. There’s never going to be a negative just make sure that your shoes are shined, shirts are polished, you have a nice tie on if you’re wearing a tie. However you dressed, just make it the best that you can be.
Another skill that, I think, goes by the wayside is remembering names. If you have the chance to read and you should read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, just being personable and if you can remember someone’s name. They always say that the sweetest sound is someone’s own name. If you can call people by their name, remember their name especially certain pronunciations of names, how you say names, just make sure that you have that dialed in. Whether its certain things like Dana or Dana, Tara or Tara, things like that, just how do people pronounce their names, Ian or Ian, little things like that. Remember their names too.
I used to have this little book like a Day-Timer, not even a Day-Timer just a little pocket calendar and it had squares in it. I would write down the names of people once I met them. On the day that I met them, I put that it there. People on the staff and my friends would say, “Oh, what was that person’s name?” I wouldn’t even have to look back. I would just know because I just took that time at that point and wrote it down and that was enough for me to remember.
Now, with all our digital gadgets, we don’t always have that opportunity to do that. Somehow, maybe just key it in on your phone or enter them as a contact and put a note of how you met them and that’s going to go a lot further because, as I said, people love the sound of their name. People, even years later, will say, “I didn’t think you’d remember me. Thanks for remembering my name.”
Another thing too is public speaking and I lead it to the story of when I started at McCall’s, I was so shy, get this, that my dad actually phoned down to McCall’s for me to get an interview. I can even remember in Grade 3 and I still remember this. This is how paranoid or not paranoid but fearful I was of speaking aloud. We had to do this exercise and we’re reading a short story and the whole class had to read it and we went paragraph by paragraph. I can remember counting how many people are next because we’re going through the rows and then which paragraph I would have to read. I was just so hoping that it was a small paragraph and I can remember who has the big one.
I was so afraid but over time, if you practice and speaking aloud is a great or public speaking is a great skill because a lot of people stay away from it. Right? You’ve heard the thing that people even fear that more than death itself. Obviously, you’ve heard that, so many people used that in the eulogy but it’s somewhat true and it’s a great skill.
The first presentation that I ever did for McCall was a preneed presentation. It wasn’t the greatest. I basically read off a sheet of paper. Now, I can just have a few bullet points. I can tell stories and try to be a lot more engaging. I’m not the greatest order in the world but if it wasn’t for public speaking, I won’t be able to do what I’m currently doing. I think, it’s a skill that people put off to the side. They make up a lot of excuses why not to do it. If you can be that person of learning how to do it then do it.
Then also learn how to present and just get up just doing that. The more that you do it, there’s lots of books on it, lots of videos online to learn how to present, but don’t overthink it. The number one thing is to practice. Get a short presentation and offer that at smaller groups and they’ll become bigger and bigger. Now, I’ve presented hundreds of times to funeral directors all around the world and also hundreds of webinars and videos like this.
Those are some of the key things that are general skills. One more, anticipation. One thing that, I think, is really important especially in today’s busy lives is we have to anticipate what might happen or what might not happen. We can’t just assume that everything is going to go according to the way it’s been planned. I like to joke. The best way to be spontaneous is to have a plan. Just have an idea of, “If this happens, then this is what I should do.”
I can remember being in front of a church with over a thousand people. I had this idea that the flowers weren’t going to be sitting on the casket and it looked too big and it might start sliding off. What I did, I anticipated that. I brought in a small table at the very front of the church. As I looked in, “Yeah, this isn’t going to work.” I just carefully took the table, got it into place, put the flowers on it so that flowers didn’t slide off or we won’t have that. Just little things like that, anticipate.
When I was a hockey goalie, we used to do lots of sports. Athletes do this as mental imagery, thinking about things. I would be making a save in my mind, all the different scenarios so when it actually happens, it’s just second nature.
Now, again, I know that we’re super busy at work but just anticipate those little things. Anticipate what happens if there’s something in the family or if there’s a small child in the family. Anticipate where would a good exit strategy would be if the mom of that child wanted to leave early and not have to walk them down the middle of the aisle in front of everyone. That could be embarrassing. Just have those plans and maybe even let them know, “Hey, if this happens, this is where you can go.” Just be ready to improvise. You don’t have to but if you, again, the best way to be spontaneous is to have a plan.
Now, what I’d like to do is to drill in more to funeral skills overall for the business operations. The first one is and this might sound a bit weird but understand the profitability of a funeral home. This doesn’t matter who you work for. Maybe you work for a family, maybe you work for a corporation but you need to understand the profitability of the funeral home because if the funeral home is not profitable, one major thing is that you may be out of a job. We don’t want that to happen.
If you understand how the company makes money and making sure that … Not how much they’re making or anything at that but what’s important to them then you’re just going to approach things differently and you’ll be more valuable to that funeral. You might wonder, “Why do the owners and managers go around and turn off the lights when no one’s in the room? It’s not a big deal. They’re energy-efficient lighting.” Every penny that gets wasted is one less penny for the overall profitability of the firm.
If we dive into this a little bit deeper, I think, the most valuable skill, the most profitable skill, sure, as funeral directors we need to have a ton of skills but the most profitable one is if you can win price shoppers or phone shoppers. Not everyone’s a price shopper but they usually start out with that question, “How much is this going to cost?” If you can be excellent at that and maybe even a go-to person, that’s going to be very valuable because you got to think.
Here’s what happened, two major things had happened when there’s a phone shopper. Number one, someone has died or is about to die. That only comes around once in that person’s life so you only have one chance. Secondly, the phone has rung so that means that your marketing has worked up to that point. At that very moment, that call is yours to either win or to lose and if you lose it, it’s lost forever and you have to wait until the next person dies and, hopefully, your marketing works so that they call the funeral and that’s the cycle.
If you can really understand that and I know that role plan. I can remember I don’t want … That’s role playing and stuff like that and doing scripts but the more you practice it, the more comfortable that you get at that, you’re going to be that much more valuable to the firm.
The next one too is getting the money. You’ve got the arrangement. You’ve made the arrangements. Now, it’s time to how are you going to look after this. I think, funeral homes nowadays are on the ball about this and a lot more on top of it. When I started, it was, “Okay. Yeah, we’ll send you the bill in a couple of weeks,” or whatever or after the service. Nowadays, the cash flow is so important to a funeral home is that it’s better to get the money sooner than later.
A lot of funeral directors haven’t been on the other side of the desk. They’re not the business owners but, personally, as a business owner with a staff of 8 people, I know what it’s like when payday is coming around. Sure, you may have had a lot of sales or a lot of business coming in but if that money hasn’t been realized, if it’s still accounts receivable, you can’t pay your staff in money that you haven’t collected yet.
People will say, “The funeral homes got a lot of money. They can still pay for things.” In funeral homes, that money has been allocated to something else, just a pool there waiting if we haven’t received money yet for the next month. As a funeral director and as an arranger, it’s up to you to make sure that you take responsibility of getting that cash secured.
One of the lines and I’m sure your management has talked about this. How would you like to look after that today? They might ask what the options are and you can say, “We prefer to have everything paid up front. We can take a check or a credit card,” or however it’s set up at your firm. Assume that they’re going to pay today because almost everywhere else they go, they’re paying upfront for any other transactions. Funeral homes shouldn’t be any different. Just really understand that.
Now, I mentioned this, the next one is attention to detail. We hear attention to detail all the time but sometimes it gets lost or overdone or it’s talked too generally that we don’t really know what we’re paying attention to. This goes back to Stu Carrol. With the presentation of the deceased, we were always so competitive when I was embalmer/funeral director/arranger. If we were doing the preparation and the cosmetics, at the end of the day, we would have the deceased in the different viewing rooms and so we put them out and then Stu Carrol would walk around and check out how everyone looked.
The things that he always taught us to do was make sure that the colors are perfect on a male, that’s a nice knot on the tie if they’re wearing a tie, that the shirt is nicely snugged down, that’s not wrinkly. You can do that. There’s little tricks of doing that with the shirttails down in the pockets. In the pants pocket, you can tug those down to make those snug.
He was really meticulous on cuffs, that the cuffs were always straight and showing just a little bit past the jacket. If they’re wearing cuff links, that the cuff links were clean. There weren’t smudges or fingerprints on them or anything, that they’re always cleaned up and visible, and that everything just looked like they just came out of the tailors, out of the barber shop. Making sure that there’s nose hairs or ear hairs, that there’s not an eyelash out of place, that the mustache or facial hair that it was nicely trimmed if that’s the way they were just like they came out.
Same with females too, that everything was just right. Any dresses or blouses were always on properly. Sometimes I’ve seen other times at other places where things just looked a little disheveled and that’s not the way to do it. If you want to impress people, you have to pay attention to the detail.
The other thing too just in general arrangements. The obituaries, make sure that you double-checked all the names of the survivors. Obviously, the date and time of services. I’ve made that mistake before. That’s a story for another day. Those are really important. Same with flowers. Double-check if those flowers have been ordered and that they’re going to be on time at the proper location because that’s what those people are thinking of.
We just have service the other day and my mom, the first thing when we got there, she wanted to let me know that the flowers that we sent as a family, so Mom did it and put all our names on it but that’s the first thing that she did. Check to see if those flowers are there. Double-check that those are ordered just like what you hear about carpenters. They measure twice, cut once. Just double-check that information before it get sent off, before the order gets placed. This is the same with engraving urns as well. Make sure that that’s double-checked because you don’t want any mistakes. Same with monuments if you’re dealing monument cells. Those are some of the funeral skills.
Now, I wanted to talk you about the arrangements themselves. First off, I think, one thing that we don’t do enough of is introduce ourselves before the arrangements and you can do this via e-mail. Now, sometimes different funeral homes are going to be really busy. You may not know who’s going to be meeting that family but, I think, once the first has been taken, one of the critical pieces of information that is, after taking that first call, to ask for the e-mail address.
We always think, “They might think we’re prying or anything like that,” but they’re just giving you the business to look after their loved one, the deceased. I think, that they will be willing to give the e-mail address and just let them know, “We got some important information to send you before the arrangements and we find it best just to send it by e-mail. Can you give me your e-mail address, please?” Or, “What’s your e-mail address?” It’ll just be automatic that they give that to you.
Then you send an e-mail and you can briefly introduce yourself or maybe this is the admin staff sending it on your behalf. Maybe put a link to the staff page and say, “If you want, Rob Heppell will be meeting with you today,” or “I’ll be meeting with you today. For a little bit more information on myself, check out our staff page or my bio here.”
The reason why I say this is probably dozens of times, McCall’s, I’ve been working with McCall’s on their website. It was 1996 that we first had a website for McCall’s. Even then, the super tech-savvy people, I can remember this one lady, she was over 60 at the time. She started asking me about Ontario and Toronto and things like that. I said, “That’s strange.” I answered the questions. She says, “I was on the McCall’s website and I looked up your information.” It makes people more at ease and we’ve been working with this with our funeral boardroom members of actually creating a special page on the website that’s not part of the general navigation that we send families between the time of the need or by the time of the first call and before they come in for the arrangements.
Obviously, this isn’t going to work for walk-ins but for people that get that e-mail ahead of time, they’ve land on the page that has like these are the things that we’re going to cover. It’ll also introduces them to new services such us … Maybe it’s a tribute blanket or something like that. Instead of after 80 minutes of your 90-minute arrangement and I know that there are so much detail that we have to go through nowadays.
The boss will probably say, “No, no. Make sure you introduce cremation jewelry and tribute blankets and anything else that’s part of what you’re offering.” If they’ve never heard it, it’s sometimes even uncomfortable to bring that up. If they’ve had a chance to read that ahead of time on their own time, spend time on the website and see the sample of that tribute blanket, they might actually initiate the conversation. “Oh, tell me a little bit more about the cremation jewelry. Tell me a little bit more about this tribute blankets. I saw a sample on the website.”
If they start it then it’s not like you’re being sales-y at all but if you’re going through your list, over time, you might be getting uncomfortable. You might think they’re getting uncomfortable. I believe that the more comfortable that they are coming into the arrangement, it’s going to just set them at ease. It’s going to be a better experience for them. It’ll be an easier arrangement for you. I believe that your averages will go up because they’ll be more preconditioned to some of the new offerings that you might have.
Also, in that e-mail too, if you receive a personal e-mail from me, you see my picture at the bottom of the e-mail. Dr. Robert Cialdini who spoke at ICCFA a few years ago, one of his studies that he’s done show that people that insert a picture in their e-mail when they’re just introducing themselves to someone else, that those relationships are much stronger than people that don’t. We’re trying to build trust and credibility. Include a picture and also if you’re comfortable with it, include your mobile phone, your cell number.
Again, those are only given out to people in trustful situations so here you’re extending it to them and they feel then, “Hey, this is good. We know we’re going to be busy and this person has gone over the way to make sure that we can communicate with them however we need to.” Those are just some suggestions for that.
Now, another thing that I would do. Here in Victoria, it’s not uncommon for the service to go from … It might be four days later or even seven days later or it can be a couple of weeks or longer than that. Now, if it’s four days later or even it’s two days later, I would always check between the time of the arrangement and the day of the service with the family. I’ll give them a phone call and touch base. Let them know, “Okay. These are the things that happened so far. We’ve made the transfer so your mom has been transferred from the hospital and she’s now in our care.”
Again, we do this every day. We know it like the back of our hand. It’s totally new to them. They may not even have a clue like, “I wonder if they picked up Mom or not. I don’t know. Should we phone the hospital? Do we phone the coroner?” The funeral director who’s on the ball is going to be letting you know.
It’s not every little bit of minutia that you’re sending then ten e-mails a day but just touch base with them whether it be by phone call or maybe send them an e-mail or maybe if they’ve given you their cellphone number and the person thinks that communicating by text message is okay then you can send him a quick text just to keep him up to date.
I found that it’s just a lot easier to pull off a really good service by having that communication ahead of time because there’s not going to be as many surprises for you and you know what it’s like to get surprised by the family an hour before the service. A lot of those things can be looked after if you’ve been in touched with them.
Another thing that I would recommend is to put some note, just put any notes on the back of your file however you arranged, however you do your process of things that you can have went above and beyond. Just the little things. Instead of saying, “Hear people, he liked to fish and then he liked to golf.” Instead of saying, “Oh, make sure you bring in the good golf clubs or the fishing rods the evening before, you dropped them off.” If you’ve got free time, go out to the house and say, “Hey, I’m going to be in the neighborhood, would you mind if I go and picked those up?” Then you can get them, then you can have them set up early.
You’re not waiting on them to bring them in because they’re bringing them late, maybe they forgot them. You know what that’s like and then someone’s got to rush back. Just do these little things. Again, it’s usually not going to cost a lot of money or any money just maybe a little bit of time and maybe a little bit of gas but you’re providing a service.
More so now than ever, we have to justify why they’re paying a lot of money for funeral services. If we’re doing these things, they’re going to feel that they’re getting more value so do that. Write some notes on the back of your file and add just the little things in. I always put one or two things. It’s almost like a little challenge to me of what I could do extra for that family. Again, these are little things but they’re things that people remember.
Now, another thing that you can do is if you’re giving out surveys, the practice that we had at McCall’s was we have a survey and the survey would then be given to them with the information usually at the grave site or at the end of the service. We have the pouch with the guest book and thank you cards and give them the survey. Every family had to get one.
Back to Dr. Robert Cialdini, he recommends that if you’re using surveys, write a personalized sticky note, like a yellow sticky note, Post-it note in handwriting and just write, “When you have time please fill this out” or “I’d really appreciate it if would complete this. Rob.” Just put it on top. You got to remember, you’ve just done all this work for the families and now they’re indebted to you and here’s the personalized note so they’re probably going to fill that out for you and you probably get more positive feedback.
Especially nowadays you can take that and turn that into a positive review online then follow-up with an e-mail and say, “Thank you so much for the feedback on the survey. Would you mind sharing that on Google Plus or Yelp” or wherever. Use the yellow sticky to get more of those back because that’s one of the competitive things that we have at McCall’s. How many positive surveys that each one of us would get back. If I would have known the yellow sticky deal then, I would have definitely done it. I think, you should do it too.
One last thing and this goes actually back to Torrey McCall. One of the first times that I started there, I was a young kid, 18 years old, and I can’t remember what happened but I remember what happened afterwards or how it happened. I must have been closing the coach door and there’s probably a foot away or two feet away and I just let the handle go and the way to the door slammed shut. Torrey McCall who would have probably been 70 at the time quickly came around and instructed me on the proper way to close the door. You just take the door and push it closed, holding it all the way.
A couple of things, one, it looks a lot more professional. Two, it doesn’t make a big bang. Three, it’s going to be less wear and tear on the vehicle. Those funeral coaches nowadays are $100,000 so you don’t want something to bang or things to shake and get loose over time. It just looks good.
Another quick note that I was taught was always walk around the back of the car so don’t cut in front of the car all the time because as a driver you can usually see what’s in front and you should take a quick look but always work the back of the car. In closing the doors, that’s not just the coach, that’s also the limousine as well. Closing those doors just firmly shut.
Another thing and this is for Stu Carrol and he was a huge stickler on this. The door stoppers that flipped down, they got the little rubber grommet on them, he would make sure that we’d always bend over carefully, push that up, click it into place and then open the door. Once the door is open where we wanted it to, we pushed it down and put it in place. We would not use our toe to flick it up or flick it down. The reason why is, first of all, if you flick it up, it might make a big bang. If you kick it down, you may not get it so you may have to try it a couple of times and maybe it’ll slammed down.
It’s just not professional so you just quietly bend over, push it down, put it into place. It just looks a lot more professional and it saves your shoes. One of the other tips about having your polished shoes. If you’re not flicking the door stoppers up and down with your shoes, they’re going to stay polished longer.
Again, this is not a complete list but it’s just a bunch of things, general attitude things. There are other things that’s really specific but I wanted to let you know and also to really give thanks to mentors that I’ve had about being as good a funeral director as you can. I think, try some of these tips, put them into place, and whether you’re an employee or an owner or a manager, we have to really justify the things that we do as funeral directors and charging what we do for funeral services or celebrations or life services. These little things, I think, will just make us look that much better in the eyes of the public, guests, especially the client families that we’re serving. That’s my little seminar on how to be an all-star funeral director.
Now, just to keep you up to date on a few things that are going on, Funeral Rock Stars, it’s my big event that I’m having. I usually have this in Vegas but this year I’m having it right here at Victoria, B.C. and part of that is that you’ll be invited to a tour at McCall. You’ve heard me talked about McCall so much and you can actually visit. I’ll let you know the changes that have happened over the 30 years of how a funeral home can actually be successful and profitable in a market of 92% cremation.
For more details, go to FuneralRockStars.com. It’s in the third week of September, September 21. It starts right here in Victoria. Go to FuneralRockStars.com for more information on that.
Some other news that I want to share with you. Some exciting news is that I’ve been talking to my good friend and other mentor, Mr. Todd Van Beck. He’s a total guru when it comes to all things of funeral directing, administration. What we’re doing is we’re actually creating a private membership area where we’re going to be putting a lot of our resources, a lot of Todd’s teachings, a lot of my recorded seminars, are all going to go into the membership area of Funeral Gurus.
For less than a cup of coffee a day, you can access to a lot of that information and so that you can become as good a funeral director and/or as good as funeral home owner as you can be. That’s going to be our focus of putting that stuff there and then also for us to answer any questions that you have.
I just want to wrap up this episode here and I really think that being an all-star funeral director will not only help your career but help the funeral home that you’re working with. Most importantly, you’ll be providing even better services for the families that you serve. My challenge for you today is to start writing notes. Just do one of the things, start writing notes on the back of your file, and just over time or even complete the funeral checklist. If you want a copy of the funeral checklist, it’ll be below the video here and a post at FuneralFuturist.com.
Make sure that you check back soon for another episode of the Funeral Strategy and Marketing Show. I really want to thank you today for spending time with me on this. I think, it’s really important and my goal for you is to serve as many families as possible by providing them with the most meaningful services.
Thanks a lot. This is Robin Heppell.
Do you have anything to add to this list? Please leave your comments below.