By Thomas A. Parmalee
The fourth installment of the Funeral and Cemetery Consumer Behavior Study – a service to the profession commissioned by The Foresight Companies – does not disappoint.
For the first time, the study, which was carried out by SoCal Approach Marketing and Consulting Group, tracked responses to various questions from two different groups – consumers and death-care professionals. The results are astounding, showing that in many instances, death-care professionals are nowhere near marching in lockstep with the families they serve.
The idea to compare and contrast the two segments came from SoCal, said Chris Cruger, the CEO of The Foresight Companies, who says the insights gleaned from the approach are “incredibly valuable.”
“You’d expect them to be in complete alignment, right?” Cruger said with a hint of sarcasm. “The reality is there is a grand canyon between what the profession thinks consumers understand and the reality of what consumers want.”
The idea for the study began in March 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was blazing across the world. “It was at that point we surveyed the consumer,” Cruger said. “And we did so before, during and after (the peak of) COVID. Subsequently, we have drilled into recurring themes and expanded on the study each year.”
The results show that death-care professionals continue to be overconfident when it comes to gauging what their community wants, Cruger said. “When funeral professionals talk about their families, they know exactly what they want … but if they talk about the profession as a whole, they may say they don’t have a clue,” Cruger observed.
The reality is that the divide in both cases is significant, he said.
Consumers Crave Transparency
By now, it’s old news that the Federal Trade Commission is looking at whether to update or revise the Funeral Rule, including whether to mandate the posting of prices online – something that funeral homes in California have already had to do for years.
No matter what the FTC decides, however, the results from the survey make a case that funeral homes and cemeteries should post their prices online now – whether a mandate comes or not, Cruger said.
“Consumers say that they want access to pricing when they are looking online – and they want online reviews,” Cruger said. “But we as a profession have shunned them for years.”
The COVID-19 outbreak caused some funeral homes and cemeteries to change – but not nearly enough, Cruger said.
“We were 15 or 20 years behind the times prior to COVID,” Cruger said. “And COVID has forced us to become somewhat current in our technology and a little more integrated based on what the world around us is doing.”
There have always been some funeral professionals who engage in livestreaming, virtual arrangements and posting prices online, but now there are more. “But still, a majority think that it is going to go back to the way it used to be,” Cruger said.
And those people are wrong, he contends.
“Even before people were sheltering in pace, we at Foresight were talking about where the consumer is going to go,” he said, noting that the company began the study to “get its arms around this.” He added, “We have to figure out how will the consumer change and what they will do differently.”
The objective of continuing the study is nothing other than to “level up funeral service,” Cruger said. “How do you get the right resources and training in front of people so they can serve the consumer better?” he said. “Because as consumer preferences, attitudes and behaviors change rapidly, if we don’t adjust, there will be a lot of people who cease to exist over time.”
If you don’t have competition today, then you are lucky … “but someday you will,” Cruger promised. “Whether it is on the internet, a phone number of whatever, a disruptive third party may come into the mix – and there will be lots of change.”
The study has become a foundational tool for Foresight clients and the profession at large, Cruger said. “It has also led Foresight down the road of doing more and more research of this nature,” he said.
Some Concerning Results
It concerns Cruger that the study shows that consumers have a better opinion of internet providers and rental car agencies than death-care providers. “To me, that is shameful!” he said. “The public perception of the industry right now is alarming.”
But similar to the medical field, when the public is asked about their perception of the profession overall versus their personal experience with their own doctor, death care makes significant headway.
“The trust and confidence in the medical field is 57%, but when you introduce the primary care physician, it jumps to 95%,” he said. “When you have that relationship, confidence and trust goes up.”
But the faith in death-care professionals, however, lags with the confidence going from 54% as a whole up to 76% in terms of a personal provider, according to the study. “The primary care physician is at 95%, so we still fall way short of that,” Cruger said.
About 42% of consumers say that don’t feel like they have enough information to make informed decisions when making funeral arrangements, according to the study.
Moreover, the results show that death-care professionals overestimate what consumers know. For instance:
- The industry believes 93% of consumers are aware of cremation memorialization, but actual awareness stands at 43%.
- The industry believes 84% of consumers are aware of online arrangements, but actual awareness is 14%.
- The industry believes that 39% of the public is aware of “water cremation,” but actual awareness is 8%.
- The industry believes that 59% of the public is aware of home funerals, but actual awareness is 29%.
“We are not educating the consumer well enough,” Cruger said. “We are not getting them all the tools necessary in order to trust the process … and it is leading to a great level of dissatisfaction and distrust in the profession.”
Perhaps more concerning than the public’s perception of funeral and cemetery professionals is the opinion practitioners have of themselves. For instance:
- Only 76% of the profession believes practitioners are honest.
- Just 74% think that the profession is responsive to cultural traditions.
- Only 66% of respondents think the profession is responsive to problems.
The outcome will get ugly if funeral and cemetery professionals keep walking down the path they are on, Cruger warned. While plenty of professionals are adapting to what consumers want, there are many who are failing to do so, he said.
Why Post Prices Online?
Sixty-eight percent of consumers want to see pricing online, according to the study.
While there are many throughout the profession who don’t believe in doing so, Cruger wants them to reconsider, noting that many consumers simply want a general idea of what they will need to pay and what they will get. Many times, seeing those prices posted boils down to whether or not they feel they can trust you.
“Look at our study: 70% think they simply cannot trust you if the prices are not there,” he said. “Just the fact that they are there gives them confidence that nothing is being hidden. And if they can’t find what they are looking for from you, they will go somewhere else.”
If consumers trust you, they will be more willing to explore different options, he said. “If you communicate, if you educate and engage them in a conversation, that is the single most important thing,” he said.
For those who balk at posting prices online, Cruger asks a critical question that may prompt some soul searching: How much of what you do in your everyday life do you actually apply to your own business?
“I can get a Range Rover delivered within a couple of hours,” he declared. “People go and compare prices for RX drugs – these are our clients. These are people in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, and they are going online each and every day to research drugs.”
He continued, “Starbucks gets almost 50% of their business through the drive thru, and about 40% of their business comes through mobile app orders. We are all being conditioned in every single thing we do to get a certain level of information … and if we don’t get a price list, that just breeds distrust and dissatisfaction in my opinion.”
To help promote more trust, Foresight is working on a plug-in bot that clients can place on their website, Cruger said.
“The consumer will answer six to eight questions, and it will say ‘At XYZ Funeral Home, based on what you told us, your funeral would be between X and Y – would you like to set up a time to chat with us?’” Cruger said.
Something even that simple could be a game changer for many firms, Cruger said. “It gives consumers an avenue to understand the value proposition,” he said.
The study reveals a variety of insights for death-care professionals. We recommend you download it, print it out, and review the findings. Then review the study again before sharing highlights with your staff – as well as implications.
- Forty-four percent of consumers do not know where they want their remembrance to take place.
- Thirty-six percent would like some help to figure out what to do with a loved one’s cremated remains.
- Thirty-six percent would prefer to have their cremated remains scattered (and yet about half of funeral homes do not offer this service).
- Those who prefer cremation expect to pay about $5,700.
- Seventy percent of consumers agree that trust decreases if they do not see online prices.
- Only 33% of death-care professionals say they are prepared for an FTC mandate of posting prices online.
- Seventy-six percent of consumers say online reviews and ratings are important.
The study also includes recommended action steps for the profession to overcome challenges.
Fewer Firms in the Future
Moving forward, the innovative firms that adapt to change will be the ones who survive and thrive, Cruger contends.
“I think there will be 3,000 to 4,000 fewer funeral homes in the next four to eight years,” he said, noting that even the National Funeral Directors Association has reported a decline in its membership base.
“Time and time again, people coming to us are looking to sell – and part of the challenge is there are not as many buyers out there for some of these smaller, rural funeral homes,” he said. “What might have gone through a family succession scenario years ago, there are now just fewer of those options. There are fewer people getting into ownership.”
The buyers are also being more selective, and there is no longer a widespread willingness to buy a rural firm that does not serve a large number of families, he said. “Now we have a much more disciplined buying population, as well as volatile capital markets.”
The biggest takeaway Cruger takes from the study is the disconnect between the profession and consumers. “To me, that is very alarming,” he said.
Download the complete findings of the study, courtesy of Cruger and The Foresight Companies.
Learn more about The Foresight Companies.