By mid-March, we were flooded with stories from our partners. They were standing on the frontlines of a crisis, a wave of heroes making headlines, and caring for families had never been more challenging.
As funeral professionals, they knew what transformative moments looked like. They were skilled at helping families make sense of how death divides life into two distinct pieces.
But historical turning points are different. The COVID-19 crisis presented a clear before and after moment, with the safety of the community taking obvious priority while managing a successful business was forced into the background.
A meaningful solution would need to effectively balance both without sacrificing quality.
I’m sure you can recall the pace of change during those first days of the crisis. States were shutting down one by one, new guidelines were being enacted, and uncertainty spread quickly.
On the preneed side of things, in-person appointments were being cancelled, and it was clear that COVID-19 would have a significant impact. Families were still expressing a desire to preplan—that hadn’t changed. What had, of course, was the appointment process itself.
Precoa’s ProActive model is built on the quality of our in-person appointments. We manage our funeral home partners’ preneed programs from end-to-end, so what begins with carefully managed marketing carries through to high quality appointment setting for our advance funeral planners, who Precoa recruits, trains, and manages.
Our advance funeral planners are highly skilled at creating meaningful connections with families, but as we watched our appointment hold rates drop suddenly, we knew an effective solution was needed.
For many years, we’ve found that the appointment hold rate is an important metric that helps us measure the quality of our appointment setting process. We measure it alongside our appointment set rate and close rate so that we can quickly determine where in the sales pipeline we can improve.
As families began canceling in-person appointments, our metrics helped us isolate the problem and showed us why we needed to quickly adapt.
To start, we created nimble cross-functional teams. Small yet effective, these teams needed the right blend of executives, managers, and experts from across our organization who could quickly develop and implement new strategies.
In other words, they needed to act, and act fast.
Within three days, the Phone Consultation Appointment team prototyped and tested a new remote appointment option. This represented a complete shift to our entire model, but we proceeded quickly, knowing how important it was to support our advance funeral planners and partners.
Within a week the new option would be rolled out nationwide, but first it was necessary to think through how it would be effectively integrated into the many moving parts of Precoa’s ProActive model.
To start, the Field Operations Team needed to work out how the new appointment option would be implemented while the Lead Generation Team worked on how it would be marketed. Meanwhile, the Remote Sales Process Team helped develop new scripting for the Funeral Planning Center while working closely with the Appointment Setting Team.
As soon as we were satisfied with a reasonably successful baseline, we were ready to move forward. And within ten days, over 2,000 new Phone Consultation Appointments had been set.
During these same first ten days, we also closely monitored our marketing. Direct mail returns remained consistent, generating a steady stream of qualified leads for our Funeral Planning Center to connect with.
Plus, almost everyone was now at home. Contact rates for qualified leads increased by 25%, and our appointment set rate increased by 20% post-COVID.
Digital marketing, on the other hand, provided an immediate window into how customers were responding. On an average day, we run hundreds of ad variations for multiple funeral homes. In real time, we can watch the ratio of negative comments to total ad views, which average a total of .000032% of all daily impressions.
During the first week of the crisis, this ratio briefly spiked to a rate of .0001% of all daily impressions, so we paused our digital marketing in those markets that saw the greatest increase in negative comments.
Of course, negative comments are inevitable with any marketing. In the funeral profession, marketing must be sensitive and carefully managed, and this has been especially true during the COVID-19 crisis. While some might choose to ignore negative comments and others might choose to cease marketing altogether, the most effective option is to simply listen to how consumers are responding and adapt.
In a matter of days, after refining and adapting our messaging, we carefully tested our digital marketing and watched as the negative comment ratio returned to normal.
What we quickly saw during this process of developing Remote Preneed was how fast we could pivot and how effectively we could communicate. Taking the time to perfect every detail was not an option, and not every idea was successful.
What made the difference, however, was our shared purpose. Knowing that our end goal was to enrich life through meaningful connection, we focused on how to improve Remote Preneed for our partners, advance funeral planners, and families.
What also made the difference was knowing that families still wanted to preplan. They needed the opportunity to create an intentional plan to heal after the loss of a loved one, and the importance of gathering for funerals was brought into stark relief by the crisis.
Experimentation and testing drive most of today’s most successful businesses but testing in the funeral profession is difficult. It requires the utmost sensitivity and care, especially right now.
The thing is, Precoa has experimented and tested from the outset. We rigorously measure set, hold, and close rates for appointments, and our marketing is driven by A/B split testing and algorithmic predictive modeling.
At the same time, our appointment setting and sales processes are grounded in forging meaningful connections with families. We recruit and train individuals who possess that talent, and at the end of the day we strive to deliver impactful experiences.
We had quickly proven that Remote Preneed could reach families. Now, we needed to improve it.
In Precoa’s Funeral Planning Center, the past fifteen years have led to numerous improvements and refinements in training, scripting, technology, and incentive structures for setting appointments.
As the Funeral Planning Center began setting remote appointments for planners, we drew from their expertise for making meaningful connections over the phone as we adapted our preneed appointment script.
At first, as would be expected, there was a learning curve for Phone Consultation Appointments. Advance funeral planners had to learn how to adapt their talents and could no longer rely on the subtle cues that come from body language and facial expressions.
These insights helped us refine our scripting for appointments, and they also directed us to the places where advance funeral planners would need more training and practice.
Learning takes time, but what speeds it along is great teaching. Giving advance funeral planners instructions for setting up Zoom would not be enough to ensure that they could successfully conduct Phone Consultation Appointments.
For one, we needed to make sure they felt comfortable with the new technology. We surveyed all of our advance funeral planners, and from nearly 100 respondents we learned their thoughts about video conferencing software and the electronic signature options available. Having this data at our fingertips would help as we began to expand the presentation options for the Phone Consultation Appointment.
Simultaneously, we scheduled digital training sessions to walk everyone through the new appointment process. In 7 days, we trained more than 250 advance funeral planners, with many of them returning multiple times to make sure they were proficient with the new script.
But most important of all, was the one-on-one support. Field managers spent afternoons and evenings coaching advance funeral planners and rehearsing the script. Although appointment hold rates had improved, improving the close rate was initially a challenge. By providing the opportunity for advance funeral planners to practice, a space where they could troubleshoot problems, they became more successful as a result.
Indeed, average efficiency rates for preneed appointments that result in a prefunded funeral have improved by 50% since the beginning of the crisis.
This same level of kindness and support was seen when it came to assisting with technology. When surveys were returned expressing how comfortable advance funeral planners were with technology, we discovered some respondents were overly confident.
Giving them resources and guidance became a priority, and advance funeral planners have paid this kindness forward.
“Phone appointments have really taught me a great deal of patience,” Advance Funeral Planner Kristy Jones said. “One of my first appointments involved someone who had trouble even using their phone. I walked her through it step by step, and she thanked me for it afterward—and I feel like that was a win!”
More than anything, advance funeral planners are grateful for the level of training they’ve received. It has boosted their confidence and has helped them be more effective over the phone.
“Overall, I’ll be a better presenter because of this,” Advance Funeral Planner Logan Stark said. “Unlike an in-person appointment, you don’t have that instant rapport. I’ve had to focus on my diction and tone, and the practice has helped me be much more successful. ”
On many days over the past two months, it felt like everything was happening at once. Soon after Phone Consultation Appointments launched, we added the option of video conferencing and began making good on our promise to provide a complete remote solution.
Working closely with our insurance partners, we also set up a voice authorization process that we integrated into the virtual presentation we were developing.
And the virtual presentation, dubbed the Digital Sales Kit (DiSK), helps keep families engaged and is 100% electronic. It includes all essential forms, which prepopulate as information is added, saving time while also ensuring that no one is waiting in silence. (Even a few seconds of phone silence is a huge distraction and can feel almost endless.)
DiSK also includes merchandise and service options personalized for every funeral home. This means advance funeral planners can now walk families through their options and fund appointments, all within the same program.
The effect so far has been noticeable. Nearly 50% of advance funeral planners are already regularly using the Digital Sales Kits, and the efficiency rate for preneed appointments that result in a prefunded funeral has improved by 2X.
Above all, advance funeral planners appreciate how these enhancements to Remote Preneed have made it easier to connect with families.
“I love how it allows me to focus on the important parts of the presentation,” Advance Funeral Planner Jacob Jenson said. “But what I love most is how it helps the families I meet with grasp what it is I’m filling out. It helps phone appointments feel similar to meeting in person with families.”
Families who are preplanning right now are grateful for the chance to connect. They appreciate the relationships they develop through the Funeral Planning Center, and they value the compassion of advance funeral planners.
Because so many individuals have faced recent loss and have a greater awareness of their own mortality, we have also developed programs for them to gather virtually. These Virtual Community Education Programs provide opportunities for many people to connect in an online space to learn more about the importance of funeral service.
We chose to promote these webinar events solely through social media, which has yielded insights of its own. For years, testing has demonstrated that postcards are the most effective tactic for advertising standard community education programs, yet the switch to exclusively digital advertising has reduced marketing costs by 30%, allowing us to focus even more on innovating the quality of the experience itself. Right now we’re averaging 20 RSVPs per event, and 32% of attendees schedule preneed appointments through the follow-up support of the Funeral Planning Center.
We have faced so much uncertainty in the past two months, and the future is just as unclear. What we do know is that families will continue to want options.
Even as in-person appointments become available again, having a complete digital program that delivers a meaningful experience will help funeral homes reach more families.
The story of how Precoa has adapted will always be less important than why. Funeral homes and advance funeral planners deserve a preneed solution that balances safety with results and quality.
Retooling the preneed experience for the COVID-19 crisis is an important first step. Yet adapting the experience completely means crafting it to make sure it lasts.
By monitoring the entire process, from marketing response rates all the way through completed plans, we have been able to continuously refine how families experience Remote Preneed.
We will continue to add to the program, and we will continue to work to make sure the experience serves funeral homes today and helps prepare them to face tomorrow.