Have you ever heard of “management by walking around” (MBWA)? MBWA was something popularized in the 1980s that is still practiced by many business leaders today. It helps you be more visible, connect with your staff for idea sharing and invite suggestions for doing things better in your firm. Practiced routinely, it can provide a wealth of information about morale and productivity, as well as clues to why your firm is performing better or worse than expectations. MBWA can illuminate the internal factors influencing business goal achievement — the “strengths” and “weaknesses” components of a SWOT analysis.
Substitute “marketing” for the “M” in MBWA and you have an interesting practice for understanding and making decisions about funeral home marketing. Successful funeral directors are connected to their communities through more than the work they do, the civic organizations to which they belong or the philanthropies they support. They eat in local diners and attend high school football games. They go to local art festivals and spend crisp fall days walking around revitalized downtowns. It is as important to see and be seen around your local community as it is to be visible to your staff, and much can be learned about the external factors that may influence your firm’s success — the “opportunities” and “threats” components of a SWOT analysis.
When I was attending a state convention a couple of years back, a funeral home owner I have known for years asked if I wanted to have dinner at a place near his firm. After way too much chicken parmesan and cannoli, we walked over to the funeral home and he said, “Let’s go for a ride.” He opened the garage and between two immaculately waxed funeral coaches was an immaculately waxed golf cart. “Hop in and hold on,” he said, as he slid into the driver’s seat. It was around 8 p.m.
That night we tooled around the sidewalks of his hometown, stopping to chat with everyone from a high school buddy and the owner of a local jewelry store to a homeless person. Some folks knew my host well; others acted like they were speaking with a celebrity when they learned his name was the one on the big sign outside the funeral home. We met someone who recently lost a relative and thought the “mortician” did a pretty good job. That mortician worked for a competitor, so we asked what he meant by “pretty good.” (More on that later.)
Several years ago, I visited with another funeral director who owned two firms: one in his hometown and the other a few miles away. We met in the town where he acquired the second funeral home, where less than two years prior, no one knew who he was. As we drove downtown to have dinner at one of the newer bistros in the revitalized district, I noticed folks waving at our car and shouting hello to my driver. You’d have thought this guy was a hometown hero rather than a somewhat new neighbor.
We passed a police officer parked in a convenience store parking lot, monitoring the activity of young cruisers travelling around the square. We turned into the lot and drove right up next to the squad car. “How you doin’ tonight?” he asked the officer, who I later learned was the grown son of an old high school friend. “Pretty calm night tonight,” the cop answered before making a joke about giving each of us a field sobriety test. (Neither of us had had a drop, for the record.)
This was another example of the undeniable payoff of “marketing by walking around” (or “wandering,” in this case). From the moment it was a possibility that he might acquire the funeral home, this funeral director began spending time out in the community. He “walked the beat” and leveraged introductions the former owner was willing to make. We spent less time talking to each other — even in the restaurant — than we did talking to people he most definitely treated like more than acquaintances.
In both of these cases, these casual interactions provided a wealth of information and goodwill for my hosts. Some of the folks we talked to mentioned funeral home staff members by name. I heard about a funeral that was performed a month or so prior to my visit that was “a really great service.” I also learned that “pretty good” was definitely not a positive when characterizing an experience, especially what should be a celebration of life.
The lesson? Get out there. See and be seen. Listen and be heard. Routinely and casually interacting with people in your community is a brand management activity that builds goodwill and provides important insights for decision-making for long-term success. It’s also much less expensive than media, in terms of real and opportunity costs.
Dean Lambert is the Senior VP - Marketing & Communications for Homesteaders Life Company. He is a frequent presenter at funeral association events and has published numerous articles on funeral home marketing and PR. Click here to learn more about the leadership team at Homesteaders.