Trends Funeral Directors Should Watch in 2021

Posted December 23, 2020

9 min read

As we near the end of 2020, most of us can’t help but look forward to 2021.

Part of that is about envisioning “what’s next” for funeral service. With that in mind, we spoke to Danielle Burmeister, Homesteaders Director-Marketing Communication, about what funeral professionals can be thinking about right now and in the coming months.

Check out the informative interview below to learn more trends including tech-friendly aftercare to what you should be thinking about when it comes to online review management.

Whenever I’m asked about what’s new or what’s ahead for funeral service, I always think about the technology adoption life cycle – a Roger’s bell curve that maps the journey new technology moves through before achieving widespread use. The curve is divided into five groups, based on the speed of adoption and the characteristics of the user.

The first group, about 2.5% of the potential user base, falls into what we call “Innovators” – those daring few who are willing and eager to try something new, whatever that something is. They are followed by the “Early Adopters” (around 15%), then the “Early Majority” (around 34%). By that point, new technology has reached critical mass. More than half of the potential user base has adopted it, and now those stragglers – the “Late Majority” and “Laggards” – are starting to use it.

Again and again, you can see this play out – kitchen appliances, television sets, computers, smart phones. Different technology, same life cycle. I think the same holds true for innovations in the funeral space.

My dad, a Licensed Funeral Director for nearly four decades, falls squarely into the “Early Adopter” category. When he managed a funeral home full time, he was always investing in new tools and coming up with creative ideas to help families. His willingness to research and try new things made him a better funeral provider, and it paved the way for better experiences for the families he served.

So, when I think about new trends in funeral service, I think about my dad, too. And I’m hopeful that there are more funeral providers like him out there – those who are always asking, “What’s next?” followed by, “And how will that help me serve families?”

1. Tech-Friendly Aftercare

It has been a year of incredible loss and fair amount of acute, complicated grief – made worse by unrelenting anxiety and an inability to gather and grieve together. Grief is a physical thing, and there is significant benefit to being in the same space, grieving together. Families who buried a loved one this year are really grieving two things – the one they lost and the connection with family and friends that would have made it all more bearable. Both losses, though very different, are likely to lead to lasting mental and physical health issues.

So, aftercare has to be a key focus as we move into 2021. But not just run-of-the-mill aftercare. Even with all the good news around vaccine development, we are not likely to return to “normal” life for several months. We can’t rely on grief support groups and home visits like we have in the past. We need to find new and innovative ways to connect with families virtually.

The best aftercare providers have already mastered this – providing thoughtful family follow-up through text messages and phone calls. (Did you know that 98% of all text messages are read within 90 seconds of being sent?) That sort of innovation is going to be even more important as we move forward – not just because we cannot meet face to face, but because it is more customer-centric to offer accessible aftercare in whatever medium is most comfortable for families.

2. Family Directed Funeral Planning

This is an interesting trend to include, largely because I feel like we have been talking about family-directed funeral planning (or online funeral sales) for a few years now. But this year renewed our focus on giving families a way to plan and pay for their funerals online, so it merits another mention.

This trend is not going to go away. Families want – and expect – to be able to plan preneed and at-need funerals online, either self-directed or with the assistance of a funeral provider. Today’s consumers value control. They want to make informed decisions at their own pace and in their own homes. They’re not as likely to pick up the phone and call a funeral provider, and they’re even less likely to walk into a funeral home to make arrangements. But that doesn’t mean they’re not interested in your expertise or your services.

Family-directed sales may feel less personal to you as a provider – after all, you’re used to sitting next to someone, drinking coffee and sharing stories about their loved one in between casket selection and scheduling. But we have to acknowledge that for some people, online planning offers a more convenient and simple experience, making it more personal for the end user.

Family-directed funeral sales reflect the way consumers want to interact with us, not the way we wish they would interact with us. It is just another way to provide exceptional service to families.

3. Online Review Management

Consumers increasingly look to the internet first when researching purchase decisions, and that includes funeral planning. Your online presence matters – both the things you fully control (like your website and social media pages) and the things you don’t, like online reviews. Consider the following statistics from Forbes magazine:

  • Online reviews impact nearly 70% of all purchasing decisions.
  • Nine out of 10 consumers will read an online review before they ever step foot inside your business.
  • Eighty-four percent place as much trust in online reviews as in recommendations from friends and family members.

If you’re not sure if your funeral home even has online reviews, Google it. You may be surprised at what you find. And if you’re not already encouraging satisfied families to leave reviews on Google, Yelp and Facebook, you need to start.

Findings from the Spiegel Research Center further underscore the importance of online reviews: Consumers are four times more likely to buy from a business with at least five online reviews, and 87% won’t considering doing business with a company with fewer than three stars.

Developing an online review strategy that both generates and responds to online reviews is critically important. But you don’t have to do it alone – find a trusted provider in the funeral space who understands your profession and has a proven track record of generating positive online reviews for similar businesses. Work with them to establish and implement a strategy that works for your business and your community.

Q: And why, in your opinion, is each of those something that could help a funeral home business in 2021 and beyond?

You can easily bucket all of these trends into one category: customer service. When we use emerging new technology to improve efficiency, we are offering better service. When we provide a way for families to direct their own planning experience, we are offering better service. When we meet consumers where they’re at with our aftercare, we are offering better service. And that matters, because service is one of the biggest competitive differentiators at our disposal.

Service is what keeps families from hosting their loved one’s memorial in the hotel ballroom down the street. It’s what keeps families from demanding cremation only – no additional services required, thank you very much. And it’s what compelled most of us into funeral service in the first place.

But beyond that, countless studies have demonstrated the impact customer experience has on long-term growth and profitability. Forrester Research estimates that brands that excel in customer experience earn 5.7 times more in revenue than lagging customers. They also found that customers will pay a 17% premium to work with a brand known for superior customer service.

Consider the impact cremation has had on funeral businesses – the average cost of a full-service funeral with cremation is 15% lower than the same service with a burial. Statistically, excelling at customer service – being mission-focused in delighting client families – can close that revenue gap. And, as a fringe benefit, companies that work to improve customer service have historically increased employee engagement in tandem – to the tune of 20% on average.

That is significant and bears repeating: Funeral providers who excel at customer service will serve more families, make more money and find greater satisfaction while they’re doing it.

Q: Well said. Anything else funeral homes ought to consider as we reflect on 2020 and look ahead to 2021?

Like many of us, I will be so grateful to say goodbye to 2020 – but that doesn’t mean this year was without value. As a profession, we faced historic challenges and catastrophic losses with empathy and creativity.

We taught ourselves new ways of doing business, new ways of staying connected, new ways of serving. That is truly something. And I fervently hope we remember the best of this year and bring it with us as we move into the new (and hopefully) happier days ahead.

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