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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ben Schott: What banks and airlines can learn from funeral homes

By Ben Schott Bloomberg Opinion

A few days ago the father of a dear friend died. Because he was of an age, and had been unwell for several years, his death was expected, yet still it was a shock – an emotional paradox that will be familiar to many who finally experience long-anticipated grief.

After discussing the injustice of his father surviving the worst waves of COVID but not living long enough to enjoy the fruits of our unlocking, my friend turned to the question of logistics. “It’s interesting,” he said. “They can get it right when they need to.” “Who is they?” I asked. “Funeral homes.”

Having rung at least half a dozen funeral homes to check availability and compare prices, my friend had identified two common threads. First, every home he spoke to deployed an identical timbre and tone of voice – warm, caring and with a pitch-perfect balance of compassion and commerce. Second, the customer service was impeccable – crisp, professional and dovetailed to the brain fog of grief. Calls were answered by humans, not machines, and these humans were humane: They listened, they heard, they were well-intentioned and well-informed.

“If undertakers can get it right at the very worst of times,” my friend observed, “it’s obvious that the banks and airlines and car-hire companies simply don’t care.”

Funerals are not cheap. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the 2019 median “nondeclinable basic services fee” for an adult funeral with viewing and burial in America was $2,195. To this, mourners are delicately (up)sold from a menu of add-ons, including transfer of remains ($350), embalming ($750), viewing facilities ($425), funeral facilities ($500), metal casket ($2,500) and hearse ($340). Together these raise the median cost to $7,640 – 21% of median annual personal income – on top of which are “miscellaneous cash-advance charges” for flowers, obituaries and the like. Again, these are national American median prices, bearing little relationship to the prices in big cities or tony ZIP codes. (The solid bronze “Promethean” casket retails at $24,000.)

Given this, it could be argued that the very cost of funerals enables a higher standard of customer service – just as the platinum-card membership line is inevitably answered first. However, from a practical perspective, funerals are more or less a parity product and, unless there are family traditions to be respected, funeral homes are essentially fungible. Consequently, customer interactions matter. In the United States, 89% of funeral homes are privately owned by families or individuals and, as such, are embedded in local communities and highly sensitive to word-of-mouth. A shabby experience at a time of sorrow is unlikely to be forgiven, forgotten or kept to oneself.

Undertakers know one thing with absolute certainty: Every customer that calls is in a state of distress. And so they calibrate their demeanor and intonation accordingly. If there is a tone of voice common to funeral homes, it’s surely no more surprising than the rational and reassuring “Chuck Yeager” cadence still routinely mimicked by airline pilots around the world. In critical and emotional situations, tone counts; but why wait for circumstances to reach this pitch?

The past year has reframed for many the experience of grief – as the shock of so many untimely and “excess” deaths was compounded by the impossibility of maintaining traditional rites of comfort and mourning. Indeed it may seem luxurious to discuss “tone of voice” at a time when, for example, India is suffering catastrophic shortages of oxygen to breathe and firewood to cremate. But words are all most of us have, and words have a disturbing power to linger in the memory long after actions have faded.

Given the stress of life even before COVID, and the increasing complexity of navigating even the most basic services, every consumer-facing company could do worse than take a leaf from the book of condolence, and muster if not sympathy for their customers, then something approaching empathy.