By: Marty and Kara Ludlum
Having a feedback loop is an essential part of your funeral home planning. Do you have one? You probably just thought of your bulletin board covered with letters from the families you serve. That’s a feedback loop, right?
That’s a common misperception about feedback. The goal is not praise. The bulletin board covered with cards is really not a feedback loop, even if all the praise is deserved. The feedback loop should contain complaints. These are probably the letters that you hid once they arrived. They are actually a gold mine of valuable information, not criticisms to be hidden.
So, what is feedback? The Oxford Dictionary (online) defines “feedback” as: “Information about reactions of a product, a person’s performance of a task, etc., used as a basis for improvement.” Merriam-Webster (online) defines “feedback” as: “Helpful information or criticism that is given to someone to say what can be done to improve a performance, product, etc.”
The key is to use the information for improvement, not just self-congratulations. In other words, bad news can help you improve.
In my job as professor of legal studies at the University of Central Oklahoma, we have an active feedback program every single semester. All students get to critique their professor(s) on some specific questions and are given an open area to make comments.
Some students also do not understand the process. They think the feedback is ignored or is used for vindictive retribution by the professor on any student who is critical. Neither belief is true. The feedback is read, every semester, from every student. The professor is not given the information until after the grades are turned in for that semester, so retribution is not possible.
Some professors ignore the comments to their detriment. I enjoy reading my comments because I see them as a chance to improve. In 2011, I celebrated 20 years of college teaching and I still feel there is always a way to improve.
Is all the feedback useful? Not really. There are two typical kinds of feedback. One comment is “I loved this class,” which translated means “I got an A.” The opposite comment is also common. Some students write “I hated this class,” which translated means “I got an F.”
None of these comments are truly helpful. But their other comments are extremely useful. A comment that a professor is habitually late to class or unprepared is a warning that something is going wrong. I search for comments from students about what they did not enjoy or what topics were not clear. Those are my areas for improvement. I analyze these comments every semester, and ever semester I use them to (hopefully) improve my teaching.
The same is true for the funeral home. You probably already get some cards from the families you serve. Most are filled with praise but vague on details. Complaints in feedback are much rarer. People generally do not like to complain. We call this a social desirability bias. People think you should say something nice, so they say something nice even if that is not how they feel.
If you search your cards from families, you may not get any negative comments, but that does NOT mean there were not any complaints or areas to improve. This means that your feedback system did not ask specific questions so you can identify areas to improve.
For our faculty, we ask specific questions, such as:
Does the professor seem prepared?
Do the assignments relate to the course objectives?
Does the professor keep his/her posted office hours?
Are the professor’s expectations clear?
Is the amount of work for each assignment proportional to the credit given?
You need to prepare some feedback questions for your families. Praise is nice, but the goal is improvement, and for that you need guidance of where to improve. A good example of this form of feedback in a commercial setting is a restaurant. Comment cards are frequently used. Some are good, some are useless. One of the useless ones I have seen just asked one question.
How was your food on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 being terrible and 10 being great?
I suppose this feedback is better than nothing, but only slightly better. The good customer comment cards ask very specific questions.
Was the food the appropriate temperature?
Was the food prepared as the menu described?
Was the food brought to your table in a timely fashion?
Were the portion sizes too large or too small?
Was the price proportional to the portion size?
A comment card with this type of feedback is very useful, and can provide information for managers to spot problems.
If you review most of the letters you have received from families, you will notice very little detail. Most will offer thanks and praise for your services. Occasionally you will see some specific comments.
Jane was very caring.
We really appreciated Jim.
But these comments are too vague to find any real areas for improvement.
Reading feedback is like searching for diamonds. You have to examine a lot of rocks to find the diamonds, so the same is true of feedback. Ways to increase the diamonds you find is to ask specific questions. Don’t wait for the customers to provide some feedback. They need guidance. Help the customer by providing the suggestions for what to talk about.
Was the funeral home chapel clean?
Was the background music too soft or too loud?
Were you greeted upon entering the funeral home?
Did any person go above and beyond their duties?
Did any person not offer his/her best service?
How can we improve our service to you?
Don’t over react to what you hear/read. One instance may not tell you anything. Adjust your reaction based on the severity of the problem (customer commented that the hearse driver was intoxicated) and the frequency of the problem (ten comments this month that the funeral cars were dirty).
Remember, no one responds to questions they are not asked. Ask specific questions of the families you serve to get the information of where improvements are needed.
Getting the feedback is the first step. The next step is also important, using that information to change your processes in a better way. We call this “closing the loop.” Your business changes (improves) because of the feedback.
The customer identifies a problem. You fix the problem (or try). You ask the next set of customers about the changes you made. The next customer identifies another possible change. You change again, and the process keeps repeating itself. Each time you get closer to perfection.
Consider this scenario: after an evening visitation, the family told the person watching the phone/door that they did not like the music. The person wrote this down and gave it to the manager the next morning: “Family not like music.” Some managers would ignore this comment, and say “not everybody likes music.”
A good reaction to this kind of feedback should be to ask more questions.
Was the music too loud or too soft?
Was the music the same volume in every room or loud in some rooms and soft in others?
Was the music too contemporary or too old-fashioned?
Upon asking questions you learned that while the family was here for three hours of visitation, they heard the same two songs over and over and over again. That is helpful information, which you can use to improve. Without searching for those details, you would likely never have stumbled upon the problem or a solution.
You want to learn from feedback on how to improve in a constant process, not just waiting for complaints and fixing them. You want to prevent complaints from happening! Imagine how much better managing your firm would be if complaints dropped 75%? Feedback is the best management tool for addressing problems with customers. Hopefully you can see why feedback, once directed, can be valuable information.
We want to address some issues related to feedback. Most people have these questions or concerns when starting a feedback program.
How many people will respond to your request? Not many, I’m afraid. Don’t worry that not everyone responds, they never will. Restaurant comment cards never account for 100% of customers, unless the restaurant employees are filling them out! Ten percent (10%) response rate is excellent.
When should I send out a request for feedback? Timing of when to ask for feedback will be an experiment. Obviously do not hand the family a survey at the cemetery. Also do not wait six months before sending feedback. Something in between, perhaps one week after the services should be right. You can adjust the timing based on when you get the most responses.
What if my feedback mentions problems I cannot control? Remember, many of the complaints will be outside of your control. Someone may be mad that an outcast family member showed up at the service. That cannot be fixed, at least not by you. To see this problem in another setting, look at the reviews in Hotels.com. Some of the complaints have nothing to do with the hotel itself (traffic was terrible on the way to the hotel, or noisy neighbor in next room). Other comments are within the control of the hotel (parking shortage, check-in process was slow, room was dirty, etc.). By asking questions, you can get specific feedback about the areas which are under your control.
Who should I send a feedback request? There is no certain answer. You will need to send more than one feedback request per family. Some family members will not respond for a variety of reasons. Not everyone would have noticed any problems. The quantity would be adapted for each family.
Should the feedback survey be included in aftercare mailings? This would also be an experiment. Including the survey in your aftercare materials would reduce the postage costs, which would be an advantage. However, enclosing both in the same package might be an overload for the family member, causing them to ignore the entire packet.
Ironic as it seems, a good feedback system is filled with bad news. Negative feedback is more helpful than insincere praise. The goal is improvement of your service, not patting yourself on back a job well done. Do not be discouraged when you get bad news, as these are your opportunities to improve your services for all the families you serve, including those who never complained but probably noticed these problems.
Additionally, feedback further ties a relationship between the family and your funeral home. The more interactions you have with each family, the more of a relationship you will build, and the stronger the bond will be for the future.
Feedback from your customers is invaluable information about your business you can get for the price of a stamp. It is one of the best investments you can make. FBA
Dr. Marty Ludlum has written articles for the NFDA magazine and the state association magazines in Oklahoma and Texas. He is a featured speaker at the 2013 NFDA convention in Austin, TX. He has been a speaker for ICCFA, OFDA and TFDA conventions. He is an assistant professor at the University of Central Oklahoma where he teaches legal studies. Kara Gray Ludlum is a Certified Public Accountant and licensed Oklahoma funeral director. She has owned funeral homes and is currently the owner of Funeral Director’s Resource, Inc., a firm that provides accounting services, management software and websites to over 250 funeral homes in the United States Marty and Kara have been married for 27 years and have three children.