Over the past year and a half, we have seen COVID-19 force massive changes in how people and businesses interact. For funeral directors, working in a profession deeply dependent on interpersonal exchanges, the restrictions imposed due to the pandemic and the reduced mobility of their clients induced sweeping changes in how we conduct funerals, upended the traditional business model and made the adoption of technology swift and inevitable. As the pandemic tore violently across the world, the need for online and remote services and the ability to provide funeral arrangements in extreme circumstances came into urgent focus.
The pandemic, which strained resources and forced funeral homes—like many other industries—to adapt to constantly changing conditions in real-time, created new challenges for an industry steeped in tradition and ritual. Despite an increase in deaths, the restrictions and added safety precautions necessitated by the pandemic hit the funeral industry hard as families sought stripped-down funerals devoid of many of the traditional products and services. With funerals reduced to small, socially distanced affairs, more families opted for direct cremation, choosing to forgo viewings, elaborate caskets, and flower arrangements. Pre-need sales, critical to the funeral industry sales model as a reliable cash flow generator, plummeted by as much as 35% last year as people struggled to take care of present concerns and chose to postpone future arrangements. All in all, the funeral industry lost revenue even as they, sadly, gained an unprecedented number of clients.
On top of reduced sales, funeral homes also saw their costs increase in 2020 as the sudden spike in demand for funeral services and the heightened risk of infection created a need for more refrigerated trucks, personal protective equipment, and other necessities even as employees had to observe social distancing and enhance their own health and safety procedures.
But the pandemic only accelerated inevitable changes, driven largely by “digital natives” who expect to conduct most of their transactions through user-friendly online portals and have grown increasingly comfortable with making important purchases directly, without the aid of a salesperson. The unparalleled circumstances of the pandemic laid bare the crucial role of remote services in an increasingly uncertain and globalized world, where even in the best of times we may not be able to travel to a loved one’s funeral, but also showed the importance of accessible, human customer service. From broadcasting to loved ones at “drive-up funerals” over AM radio signals to hosting virtual memorials accessible from anywhere in the world, 2020 taught us that keeping families and loved ones connected can be the most impactful service at our disposal. The adjustments that funeral homes made over the last year will help propel the industry into the 21st century and provide a working model for a more integrated experience that combines personal service and digital convenience.
Going digital doesn’t mean having to let go of the personal service that your industry thrives on. You can appeal to digital natives while maintaining the reputation and personalized touch you and your team have built. For example, the past year highlighted the importance of remote services. When loved ones die far away, whether or not we are in quarantine, we may not be able to reach them in time for the funeral. Funeral homes that offer live streaming services and options for virtual tributes will remain ahead of their competitors as young, mobile people seek to stay connected to their families while pursuing opportunities across the country or the world.
Services such as live-streaming, virtual tributes, and online guestbooks will likely supplement other add-ons long after social distancing restrictions are lifted. With each generation more technologically savvy than the last, the industry has to speak to new customers in a language they can understand. Understanding the tools at your disposal will let you take advantage of the convenience and cost savings provided by technology and improve the experience for both your clients and your staff. When you provide your clients with more options and an easier way to make decisions, you’ll improve your relationship and enhance the value of your services.
Technology doesn’t have to be impersonal. As a busy funeral director, you can use technology to enhance your customer relationships and customize services to meet each client’s unique needs. When used strategically, digital tools can enhance your business and help you maintain your revenue stream. Although direct cremation and simple services grew in popularity during the pandemic, the “traditional” funeral isn’t entirely dead—no pun intended. When families once again want to celebrate their loved ones with more elaborate products and services, you can be ready to serve them with improved digital tools and a streamlined, easy-to-use web presence that complements your personal service. The days of $20,000 funerals may have fallen by the wayside, but families will always seek meaningful ways to honor and remember their loved ones, and a funeral director can help them choose the memorials that are just right for them. The funeral industry has a unique opportunity to change with its customer base and adapt to a new era through the pandemic and beyond.