Guest Blogger Lee Barringer On the Funeral Service Shopper

The Shopper

Published in: American Funeral Director Magazine.

The phone rings at the funeral home; you answer and find yourself dealing with a shopper. Often the conversation starts by the familiar question of, “How much do you charge for a simple cremation?”

In my experience, I’ve witnessed three types of funeral directors when confronted with the shopper.

The first is the very kind and helpful director, who welcomes the opportunity to be on the shoppers call list for service and price comparison.

The second tends to be methodically dry and indifferent in their relaying of possible service options and associated costs.

And the third are the one’s that seem to be offended by such calls. Handling the calls in an uninterested manner, with that underlying tonality of, “you’re bothering me, if you haven’t made up your mind yet.”

If you fall into the first group, then you deserve the credit of being a professional that truly understands the importance of the “shoppers” inquiry.

To the second and especially the third group, you are missing the true nature of such inquiries.

Years ago I read a book from the self help guru, Anthony Robbins. One quote in that book has always stuck with me, and it read. “Life is nothing but a mirror, of your consistent thoughts.”

If your consistent thoughts about shoppers is one of time wasters, deal seekers, and people in general that don’t appreciate what it is you do? Then perhaps a new perception in the psychology of these shoppers is needed, before you pick up the phone again and handle such calls?

Because the “shopper”, is here to stay in this day and age of education, personal choices and industry competition.

So let’s take some time to explore the mindset of most shoppers, because avoidance or mishandling of such calls will only diminish your good name and reputation in the community.

Knowledge in the psychology of grief is paramount to all funeral professionals, and that opportunity to exercise such knowledge starts when we answer the phone. If this is not handled well, I hazard to guess that subsequent steps in the follow through are also going to be challenging.

As the old saying goes, “You only have one chance to make a first impression.”

In funeral service we often hear fellow directors speak of the importance of the funeral ritual, and all the benefits from having such rites take place.

We are all aware of these psychological benefits to the bereaved, through are schooling, continuing education and of course our first hand experiences.

My question is this, “How will a family experience and feel these benefits, if they do not trust us enough, based on the initial phone call?”

Our knowledge of our profession is quit vast, too vast to share in one initial phone call. When speaking to a potential client family, our knowledge and sincerity is shared in increments, small building blocks of trust and rapport before they can entrust us or be open to learn more about our services. All relationships start this way, we do it everyday.

Small baby steps are essential in conveying our compassion and reassurance to the shopping family, as we do with all families, but particularly in the case of the shopper, as they are much more cautious in their reaching out from this dark unfamiliar territory.

Trying to assist a family with indifference and or annoyance is a sure fire recipe for losing them completely.

If we think about other areas of our life for a moment, we all need this transitionary and trust building space before we commit to any sort of decisions.

When we enter into a nice restaurant for example, we are usually greeted in a calm transitional area we call the foyer.

It is here that we greeted, are able to remove our coats, confirm our reservation and adjust from the outside elements as well as the mood and thoughts we carried in with us. It’s a time to adjust before being subjected to a sea of tables, chairs, other customers and menu options.

The shopper needs to be handled with the same respect. Confuse them and you will lose them. When the shopper calls us, often we do not know the reason behind the call.

Sometimes it’s because someone is imminent, and the person inquiring has not yet been subjected to the actual loss as of yet.

Other times, they have just received the news of the death, and you are speaking directly to the next of kin who is in a state of overwhelm and confusion.

Or perhaps the individual is a friend of the family, or another third party such as an executor of public trustee.

Regardless of who it may be, they will need gentle, compassionate and knowledgeable guidance in order to build the necessary rapport and trust to securing the first call.

To better understand their view on this crisis situation, we have to see it from their eyes. To do this it’s better to use a different crisis than that of a death in the family.

When ever any of us are confronted with a crisis, we become overwhelmed and are unable to think clearly at first. Usually the crisis situation requires expertise outside of our own circle of knowledge. We will usually pick up the phone and reach out for some assistance and expertise to an expert in the field. Example: In owning a couple of homes, I like many of you have been confronted with a leaking roof that needs replacing, or sewer backup and basement flooding, or perhaps a furnace that stops working in the middle of winter.

What did I do about my roof? I started to phone three or four different roofing companies, always with the price in mind first. It’s a knee jerk reaction many of us have to just solving the problem fast, and not considering any long term benefits.

When I finished my calls however, I discovered that they all were fairly competitive, they all generally asked the same questions, and they all generally offered the same types of service and products.

My decision has made though, on the one I felt most connected with. The one who knew what they were talking about, and who was genuinely interested and knowledgeable about roofing.

I realized that although this was an unfortunate event and one I didn’t really want to budget for, I was also not going to forsake the comfort and safety of my family in simply rewarding the lowest bidder nor to any representative that was not interested in their business.

A death in the family and the problems in dealing with this immediate crisis are no different! I often have heard directors barking that the shopper is only concerned about the lowest price. Yet many times this often misperceived, prequalifying assumption could not be further from the truth.

Most people dislike having to ask for help or assistance when they feel defenseless and/or vulnerable. The person still needs assistance though and some measure of personal control, the only control in this situation is the fact that they hold the money and the choice of who will be entrusted with the services.

Hence why it always seems to be about the money, but really it is not in most circumstances. Cost is just the metaphoric “toe in the water”, a starting point in a conversation that we are unknowledgeable about.

What the shopper actually wants in phoning three or four funeral homes, is someone they feel comfortable and safe with, someone who listens and assures them that they will be looked after in this difficult time. If they feel respected, they will be more confident in entrusting you with their loved one.

When we dip our toe in the water, what are we really doing? We’re looking for some reassurance of warmth before we commit and jump in.

So next time a shopper calls you, take a deep breath and focus on this person who is reaching out to you for assistance.

Don’t get put off by the hard nosed price shopper either, they probably have not had a kind knowledgeable person deal with them for a long time, and are simply not used to it.

Comforting, sincere guidance will build the necessary rapport to keep the call.

Explain your prices with no tone of apology or apprehension. You do a difficult job that many people would not dream of doing, and you’re worth every penny.

Start by asking them if they have a pen and some paper to make notes?

After you’ve answered their price questions, shift the conversation by asking them some heartfelt questions of your own. Ask about the deceased; was this sudden or had they ill for some time? Are there many immediate family members? Are there any younger children or grandchildren that will be feeling this loss? Have there been any questions that I could answer to comfort them?

This will refocus the “shopper” on what they are really shopping for, -someone who cares and can be entrusted with their loved one.

Funeral homes usually spend tens of thousands of dollars on advertising each year, in getting the public to call their establishment. The shopper usually is working with a short list, not a long one. If your on that short list, be grateful that your advertising and/or reputation has led them to you for comparison.

Countless times, I’ve hung up the phone from a shopper, but before doing so I have always reassured them that we can walk them through this process one step at a time.

I also encourage them to call me back as many times as they need too as to help them in their decision.

Usually within thirty to forty five minutes they do call back with a question. That question is often asking when they can come in and meet and start making the arrangements.

This article was originally published in the July 2011 issue of American Funeral Director magazine, and is shared with the magazine's permission. To learn more about American Funeral Director, visit http://www.americanfuneraldirector.com.