By Thomas A. Parmalee

Liza Altenburg, the sales manager at Oakview Cemetery and Acacia Park Cemetery, both of which are owned by Park Lawn Corp. and located in Michigan, recently published the book that she wish she had when she first her journey in the death-care profession: “Selling with Sensitivity: Achieving Success in Deathcare Sales through Empathy Service and Connection.”

“When I first started my journey in cemetery sales, I remember searching high and low on Google and Amazon for a guide that specifically catered to the unique challenges of death-care sales,” she told FuneralVision. “I wanted something that understood the sensitivity and emotional aspects of this profession. But to my surprise, I couldn’t find anything that addressed these needs. It was frustrating.”

Her answer was to write a book – one that someone very specific could benefit from – “none other than the old me!” she said.

She explained, “I wanted to create a resource that would have been a game-changer for the person I used to be, stepping into death-care sales with uncertainty and a lack of guidance. My goal was clear – to ensure that no one else in this profession struggled to find the right resources and support when embarking on their sales journey.”

In her book, she pours forth insights, tips, and lessons in empathy that she wishes she had when she embarked on a career in death-care sales. “My hope is that it will serve as a guiding light for others entering this important and sensitive line of work,” she said. “I want them to feel empowered and well-prepared, knowing that they have a companion in their corner – a resource that truly understands the challenges and emotions tied to death-care sales.”

We recently caught up with Altenburg to learn more about the book – and to glean some of her insights on how to sell with sensitivity. Edited excerpts follow.

In your book, you share how you found your father after he died. How did that impact your decision to enter the death-care profession?

Early on in my grief, I discovered the healing power of sharing my story with others. Unintentionally, I became a proponent of advanced planning, advocating for open conversations about death, something that I had never considered before. It was evident that my own cultural background, where death was treated as a taboo topic, and my father’s similar mindset had influenced my perspective.

As I shared my experiences and encouraged people to initiate discussions about their end-of-life wishes, I stumbled upon a role in cemetery sales. It was during this time that I recognized the potential to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives by guiding them through the advanced planning process. Each time I helped a family, I felt a profound sense of fulfillment and found my own healing progressing to a deeper level.

Gradually, I came to realize that the death-care profession was a perfect fit for me. Being able to assist families in preparing for the inevitable and navigating the complexities of end-of-life arrangements resonated with me on a profound level. It was through this journey that I understood my true calling lies in the death-care profession, where I can truly make a positive impact and support others during their most vulnerable moments.

You previously worked in direct selling and network marketing, which like funeral service, sometimes struggles with its reputation among the public. What lessons did you learn from that niche that you’ve been able to apply to death care?

Both direct selling and the death-care industry share a common challenge – the negative stigma associated with them. In my previous experience in direct selling, I faced the persistent assumption that all direct sellers and network marketers were pushing a pyramid scheme, and I had to constantly combat that stereotype. Similarly, in the death-care profession, there’s a perception of funeral professionals being driven solely by greed and taking advantage of grieving families. Unfortunately, these stigmas have arisen due to some unethical practices in both industries over time, and it will require significant effort to change public perception.

However, it’s essential to acknowledge that not all – or even most – professionals in these industries engage in unethical practices. There are numerous individuals who genuinely care about serving their clients and providing value. Just as the negative stereotypes didn’t develop overnight, transforming the industry’s reputation will also take time and consistent ethical practices.

To overcome these stigmas, we must strive to do better each day. Maya Angelou’s wise words, “When we know better, we do better,” resonate deeply here. By focusing on serving one client, one family at a time with integrity and compassion, we can work toward dispelling these negative perceptions. As more of us commit to ethical business practices and prioritize the well-being of our clients, we can gradually dismantle the stereotypes surrounding our professions and foster a positive image that reflects the true values and principles we stand for.

You chose not to split the book between at-need and pre-need strategies – why not?

Both at-need and preneed discussions involve individuals courageously facing their end-of-life plans and mortality. Whether or not someone has recently experienced a loss, there’s an emotional process akin to grief that occurs when they actively address their own mortality during advanced planning. I learned a valuable lesson early in my career when I failed to show the necessary sensitivity with an advanced planning family. I had wrongly prioritized logic over emotion, treating their decisions as if they were merely bargain shopping. This experience taught me the importance of approaching such conversations with reverence, understanding the courage it takes for people to confront their own mortality.

In essence, both at-need and pre-need strategies demand compassion and respect, acknowledging the emotional journey each person is undertaking. By not splitting the book, I aimed to emphasize that regardless of the context, the significance of these discussions should never be underestimated. Whether we are helping families cope with fresh grief or assisting individuals in their advanced planning, it is vital to approach these moments with empathy and sensitivity, recognizing the bravery it takes to confront mortality in any setting.

Why is sensitivity so important in the selling process – particularly when it comes to death care?

In the realm of death-care, sensitivity holds a critical role in the selling process for various significant reasons:

  1. Emotionally charged nature: Death-care deals with deeply emotional and sensitive subjects, where individuals and families may be grieving the loss of a loved one or contemplating their own mortality. Being sensitive during the selling process is crucial, as insensitivity can further compound their pain and distress, making the entire experience even more challenging for them.
  2. Building trust and comfort: Sensitivity is the foundation of trust and comfort in sales. When we approach clients with empathy and understanding, it creates a safe space where they feel at ease discussing their needs, concerns and wishes. This level of trust is essential for building strong relationships, ensuring clients open up and share their thoughts openly.
  3. Upholding ethical standards: It should go without saying, but we have to prioritize clients’ well-being over purely financial gains. Being sensitive ensures that our recommendations and services genuinely align with the best interests of the bereaved or those planning their end-of-life arrangements.
  4. Fostering personal connections: Sensitivity enables us to form authentic and meaningful connections with clients. Acknowledging their emotions and experiences demonstrates care and compassion, leaving a lasting positive impact and fostering loyalty.
  5. Cultivating Long-term relationships: Long-term relationships with clients are paramount. Many people return to the same providers for end-of-life services over the years, sometimes even across generations. Approaching our interactions with sensitivity helps establish a foundation of trust that can endure over time, leading to repeat business and valuable referrals.
  6. Embracing cultural and religious diversity: Death-care involves diverse customs and traditions across different cultures and religions. Sensitivity to these differences allows us to accommodate individual preferences and meet specific cultural or religious requirements.

In essence, sensitivity in the selling process acknowledges the profound impact of death on people’s lives. Our focus on sensitivity not only delivers valuable services but also offers a sense of comfort and support, helping individuals and families navigate through their grief and end-of-life preparations with understanding and care.

How can salespeople develop more empathy?

I’ve always believed in the “what if it were me?” approach to cultivate empathy. It’s essential to prevent ourselves from becoming desensitized to the emotional impact of our work and instead refocus each time we interact with someone grieving or confronting mortality.

One effective method to develop empathy is by reflecting on personal experiences with loss. If you’ve suffered a loss, revisit those emotions and memories. Recall how you felt during that time and what you needed from the people guiding you through the process. Were they understanding and compassionate? Did they provide the support you required? Each interaction with a client becomes an opportunity to be the person you needed when you were grieving. By tapping into those memories, you can better understand and connect with the emotions your clients are experiencing.

For those who haven’t experienced personal loss, it becomes even more important to be mindful of your tone, messaging, and vocabulary. The language we use can significantly impact the grieving process for our clients. While we may use common terms like “body” or “grave” daily, these words can be distressing for those who have recently lost a loved one. Practicing empathy involves softening our vocabulary and choosing words that convey sensitivity and understanding.

Other than YOUR book, what other books would you recommend death-care sales professionals read?

Start With Why by Simon Sinek: This book delves into purpose-driven service and the power of starting with the “Why” in any endeavor. Understanding the deeper purpose behind our work in the death-care industry can significantly impact our approach to serving clients.

Cues by Vanessa Van Edwards: This book is a treasure trove of knowledge on verbal and nonverbal communication, a masterclass in cues.

It’s Not About the Coffee” by Howard Behar: As a favorite business book of mine for over a decade, this book by the former CEO of Starbucks offers invaluable lessons on prioritizing a people-first culture. The principles discussed are highly applicable to our work in the death-care industry, where empathy and understanding play a crucial role.

These books provide insights and strategies that can enrich our skills as sales professionals, ultimately allowing us to better serve our clients and make a positive impact in their lives during difficult times.

Learn more about “Selling with Sensitivity.”

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