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Tech at the Front Lines: How Technology can Address Changing Consumer Needs

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Safety, convenience, and affordability: almost a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, these timeless values have translated into crucial necessities. Throughout the last year, we have seen fundamental shifts in consumer behavior that have changed the way customers and businesses interact. Many of these changes will likely continue to be with us long after the pandemic is over. Companies are still scrambling to shift from doing business through in-person interactions to meeting their clients' needs digitally. 

The funeral industry is no exception. Funeral homes face particularly challenging circumstances as the pandemic makes serving families more difficult than ever while simultaneously flooding them with unusually high demand. Death care rituals across the world have been disrupted; Jewish shiva, communal funeral meals, Chinese tomb sweeping, and other social and hands-on traditions have, painfully, taken a backseat to public health concerns. The pandemic highlighted some existing gaps in service. It helped to crystallize the improvements that funeral homes and other businesses can make to become more agile and accessible to their clients.  

Even before the pandemic, many in the funeral industry felt that personal interaction was at the heart of their business, so they pushed back against consumer demands to digitize. Meanwhile, consumer advocates have long argued that funeral homes made it too difficult for customers to find prices online and or even compare costs before making decisions at an already vulnerable time. A 2020 survey found that more than half of consumers wouldn't do business with a funeral home that doesn't provide sufficient price transparency. The message is clear; consumers desire clear and complete information.

With less time to plan and limitations on in-person events, customers are more likely to focus on essentials. The NFDA's 2020 Cremation and Burial Report shows that cremation continued its growth, and technology played an increasingly important role in funeral planning. In 2020, cremation rates soared as families were forced to opt-out of elaborate funeral and memorial events, and direct cremation is rising in popularity as people struggle to arrange and pay for unexpected funerals. However, funeral home customers report lower satisfaction with direct cremation and COVID-restricted burials, indicating a strong desire for the communal aspects of traditional funerals.

The funeral service industry is rising to the challenge of digitizing services and continuing to meet demand in a rapidly changing market. In part due to COVID-19 and in part due to the rapid growth of demand for online services in general, 2020 forced the funeral industry to face head-on the challenges of pivoting to serving customers almost exclusively online. Funeral directors working during the pandemic have the monumental task of planning socially distanced viewings and funerals while keeping their staff and families safe from virus transmission. Their work pace accelerated to meet the unprecedented demand—demand that caused Southern California's air quality management district to temporarily suspend cremation limits. In a profession that prides itself on direct contact with clients and bringing communities together, funeral directors have had to make drastic changes in their practices and adopt digital tools at lightning speed.

When stay-at-home orders prohibited social gatherings and limited funerals to a small number of close relatives, funeral directors knew they had to find other ways to let loved ones attend the funeral, support their family, and move toward the closure that funeral rites provide. In a world where people often live thousands of miles from family, some funeral homes were no strangers to Zoom and other video-conferencing tools, but 2020 accelerated the need for remote options. Funeral homes found themselves installing cameras in their facilities and creating drive-through viewing booths to accommodate a new reality.

While the COVID-19 pandemic will eventually, inevitably come to an end, it may take years for "normal" life to resume. Many of the changes brought on by the pandemic will not be temporary. Many will likely lead to long-term shifts in how we communicate, shop, and interact with each other and the world around us. It is estimated that the pace of digitization has accelerated by three to four years in many sectors, so keeping up with tech solutions is crucial to surviving the pandemic, keeping customers, and growing your business. Industry groups have sought to support grieving families and death care workers with new resources, including the Funeral Service Foundation's COVID-19 Crisis Response Fund and Answering Service for Directors (ASD), who have expanded their remote capabilities to help funeral directors transition to remote work and continue to provide uninterrupted service to their clients.

While the pandemic has immeasurably magnified its importance, technology has steadily matured in its role in the funeral industry. From client records to payments to mortuary management, digital tools can help funeral homes stay organized, increase their efficiency with reduced staff, and offer the highest level of service to their clients in a challenging time. While nothing can replace the personal interactions and physical closeness one experiences at a traditional funeral, death care professionals are doing their best. Funeral directors can use modern tools to help their clients plan a fitting memorial for their loved one during this time and to prepare their business to thrive in the post-pandemic future.

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Friday, 26 February 2021

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