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During the past decade, the growing number of funeral homes arranging for limousine services has led to more steady business opportunities for operators. But transporting mourners as a reliable revenue source requires being able to handle unique needs, offer flexible pricing and adust to varying service demands.
Getting in the Door
Funeral homes, by their stately and somber nature, can be intimidating places to conduct cold calls. Funeral industry associates interviewed for this article said they would frown upon a person without an appointment showing up at a mortuary to discuss a business proposal, and likely would not do business with the cold caller.
You should arrange an appointment first if you want to get into this industry. There are many people who work in funeral homes in various capacities. They have “pre-need counselors” who help a client select a plot and funeral details while the person is still alive. There are mortuary managers who might be a good starting point for contact, but they are not the people you need to develop your ongoing relationship with, says Mark Anspach, a third generation mortician.
Funeral directors run the show, Anspach says. The director is a facilitator who meets with the family and plans every aspect of the service. These services may include many “accommodations,” as they are known in the funeral industry. This includes everything from the release of doves to having a mariachi band perform graveside. Funeral directors maintain a wealth of contacts to set up the accommodations and have the ability to pitch ideas and companies such as limousine transportation for the family, says Jim Lamar, president of Greenlawn Mortuaries and Cemeteries in California.
While the common joke is people are dying to do business with funeral homes, the truth is that mortuaries have experienced the same bad economic conditions as the rest of America in the past five years, says Jessica Koth, public relations manager of the National Funeral Directors Association (www.NFDA.org). As much as people think of the funeral industry as being a recession-proof industry, it takes economic hits like any other, Koth says. The profitability of funeral homes is based on the sale of ancillary items that may or may not be required for a funeral. Premium, high-dollar caskets have higher profit margins for funeral homes, but as consumers are squeezed financially, they tend to take what they can afford rather than what they might want. This decreases the overall profit margin of the mortuary.
An average funeral home does about 150 services each year, Koth says. With that number remaining constant but the profit margin shrinking, Koth has noted a trend by funeral homes to retire limousines without replacing them. Instead, they are contracting with local limousine services to perform transportation services as an “accommodation.”
In other words, when the funeral home uses its in-house limousine, it is considered a “service” and the funeral home makes money on the use. When an outside firm is used, whether it is a dove release or a limo ride, the actual cost is passed on to the consumer with no mark-up. It is a request accommodated on behalf of the family but not a service of the funeral home. The NFDA does not keep any official statistics of how many funeral homes own limousines versus contracting for them, Koth says.
Likewise, they offer no formal guidelines or expectations. However, in realizing the national trend to contract outside sources, the NFDA has created two contracts for mortuary members to use when engaging outside services. One is a contractor agreement and the other is a confidentiality agreement.
Pricing and Profits
Funeral directors have no interest in the rates you charge. As an “accommodation,” the rate you provide will be passed on to the consumer. There is no markup done by the mortuary. If the mortuary has its own limousine, it usually provides a fixed price for use by the family. It is not by the hour. If you were to take the total hours used and divide the amount charged for hours used, the hourly rate would be ridiculously low by our standards.
Compared to most “As-Directed” trips we perform, the fuel consumption is generally low since there is plenty of downtime. In most scenarios, you pick up a family, take them to the chapel, wait, take them to the cemetery, wait, and then drive them to a drop-off point. When faced with the purchase of a casket, a burial plot, embalming fees, obituary notices and reception expenses, the family’s budget may be tapped out before even considering transportation. Set your pricing as low as you can to help a grieving family, but remember that funeral work is usually four to six days a week, so you will increase the volume of work but make a smaller profit on each job. On some days, you may do multiple jobs and you must set your rates based on what you believe is a decent profit for the work.
Unique and Sensitive Issues
“Funeral directors are privy to very sensitive information and have to be very protective of the families and make sure they have space to grieve and mourn their loved ones,” Koth says. As a result, they are very careful about who to partner with. There are unique situations with much emotion brought to the table. They say your dirty laundry can fall all over the place when you die. Sometimes that dirty laundry needs to be tended to by service providers. Take for example a young man who died suddenly, leaving behind his gay companion. Because he was not openly gay, his parents had no idea.
But the companion wanted to have a say in how the service was planned and be treated as a grieving widower. This is just one scenario in which the emotional human needs must be met without compromising the wishes of the deceased. The director informed the parents that a “close, personal friend” had come to ask how he might be able to help. In a gentle conversation that the companion planned to attend the service alone, and was a best friend, it was suggested that it might be appropriate for him to sit with the family. In situations such as this, a working relationship between the limo service and the mortuary would allow full disclosure of this information. But, without a trust and bond in the relationship, the information might not be shared.
An Extension of Service
As the transportation provider, passengers may not know that you have been contracted. In their minds, the limo was provided by the funeral home. Because of this perception, chauffeurs become an extension of the funeral home staff and are expected to act and behave as such. Mourning passengers may ask questions of the chauffeur that may need to be answered. Rather than reply that you don’t know the answer to the question, tell the inquirer you will find out the details, Anspach says. Make sure you pass requests for information, services or assistance to a mortuary staff member as soon as possible. By responding with an answer such as, “I don’t know,” it makes the mortuary look bad, as the passengers assume you are an employee.
Emotions Bring Drama and Protocol
The nature of our business frequently reveals poor human conduct. It is usually influenced by alcohol. In the case of funerals, emotions can overshadow decent manners. A 27 year-old man suddenly died one week before his wedding. The fiancee arranged a limo service for her family. The family of the deceased requested a limo through the funeral home. An aunt and uncle requested a third limo from the same limo service. As it turned out, the parents were not fond of the bride-to-be and specifically requested that she was not to be treated as a widow as they were not actually married. It was a difficult situation. Protocol dictated the procession order would be the hearse, the parents, the immediate family and then the fiancée, who would technically be termed a “friend” for the procession. The mother of the deceased insisted that she be allowed to exit the limousine and enter the church before the fiancee was allowed to exit her limo. Situations such as these require extreme tact, professionalism and finesse.
Jim Lamar, president of Greenlawn Mortuaries and Cemeteries, which has four locations in Central California, shares the most important concerns of funeral directors when seeking transportation services for families:
Jessica Koth, public relations manager for the National Funeral Directors Association, says the most important trait to earning a mortuary’s business is the ability and desire to care about the family being served. She advises using the following steps to develop a relationship:
Fees for outside limousines are passed on to the consumer so they don’t care how much the cost is as much as your representation of the mortuary with the family. This is your main selling point. Directors are looking for companies that have “a great approach and treat the business as a calling or ministry,” Koth says.
National Funeral Directors Association
Jessica Koth, public relations manager
(262) 814-1536 • [email protected]
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