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Will tech trump traditional in the modern funeral parlour?

Matthew Barber, chief operating officer at Funeral Partners, shares how the integration of tech-based services helped the firm operate during the pandemic

As business owners settle into 2021, many of the tactics they had to implement in order to function during the pandemic are quickly growing to become second nature. For those who work within the comfortable confines of an office job these changes arguably have not been too difficult: with many simply having to become equipped with video call etiquette and finding the right space to set up a home office. However, in more customer-facing roles such as the funeral sector adapting to this ‘new normal’ has been more challenging with many forced to introduce new practices to survive. 

One of these practices has been the increased use of technology, however, in the funeral industry, it has not always been a necessary component to ensure clients receive the best experience. “Before the pandemic, technology in the funeral business was mostly behind the scenes. So accounting and invoicing was heavily computerised, but the client-facing experience was all face to face,” says Matthew Barber, chief operating officer at Funeral Partners, the third-largest funeral services provider in the UK. Barber believes the company has undergone a “tech revolution” over the past year, trialling tablets and HD webcams in six funeral homes across the North East, South East and Scotland to improve virtual funeral arrangements – before rolling it out across all 200 of its sites. 

The price to pay 

With most businesses feeling the financial strain of Covid-19, Barber admits that this tech integration has not been cheap. However, it has allowed the company to meet customer demand with traditional arrangements no longer possible. “Purchasing the tablets and webcams was expensive but we felt the value outweighed the cost – we really value the relationship with the customer and interacting with them over video call when discussing arrangements as opposed to over telephone really helped their experience”. 

At Funeral Partners the company has also set up a live streaming option for some bereaved family members who are unable to travel to the service due to ongoing restrictions. For example, one of Funeral Partners parlours in Washington, England arranged a video call on WhatsApp with a loved one’s daughter in Australia so she could watch her father’s funeral over the phone. In addition, increased digital traffic during the pandemic saw Funeral Partners release an online quote builder for its branches’ websites so families can easily find and compare what their local funeral directors offer.

Convincing customers

Barber explains that one of his concerns surrounding the company’s move towards more technology was convincing customers that this would be a method that works. “When restrictions began about a year ago part of my worry was that clients would become frustrated that they can’t have everything they would have liked, and inevitably we might have been seen as a reason for that even though we were just following government rules”. Despite these worries, he shares that clients have been incredibly understanding and have coped with the challenges brilliantly. He even boasts that Funeral Partners has not received a complaint in the entire 12 months it has been conducting these modified servies.

So what exactly is his secret for success? “One of the things we did with the technology was show clients options on a shared screen via video chat instead of by phone conversations or a catalogue,” he explains. According to Barber, this approach is an easier way to show customers different options on items such as coffins when clients are planning a service remotely. 

Furthermore, each funeral home’s website also received visual upgrades with historical brand colours and pictures to give a personalised feel, and a live chatbox that directly links visitors to a bereavement support advisor from The National Bereavement Service has also been created. In addition, a separate 24/7 live chat facility that connects prospective or existing clients with one of the Funeral Partners contact team is currently being trialled across five brand websites, which aims to provide accessibility to the funeral teams via a new channel.

Does tech trump traditional? 

Some will argue that part of running a successful business in the 21st Century is finding a balance between old and new practices – however, should clients at Funeral Partners expect a tech-heavy experience even after restrictions have lifted? “I think it’s important to have these things set up even if fewer clients will use this method in the future. Even before Covid, we always had customers who lived outside of the UK or were unable to travel to a parlour, so for those clients in the future making arrangements, it will be by video call and not by telephone – as it builds a relationship with a client much easier”. 

Lessons from a larger firm

So what about smaller funeral firms eager to introduce more technology into the workplace what do they need to know? “First thing you need to do is test, we went through various different trials before we decided what tech and software we would use and also make sure your employees are happy with using these devices”. It is clear from speaking to Barber that he is hopeful once restrictions lift, Funeral Partners will return to operating on a more traditional level. Such as encouraging bereaved families to visit the parlour in person more than once or twice before the funeral and permitting larger gatherings to attend the service.

He concludes: “I think we want to get back to as close to traditional as possible but still offer technology services to the client. What we want to be led by is what the family wants and needs more so than what we as workers need, we now have these services available so clients can make the decision which is right for them.”

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