Years ago one of my business mentors taught me this rule…

If an industry is rapidly expanding, an easy strategy is to copy the leaders and grow with the industry. For example, back in the 1990’s Dell copied IBM’s personal computer and grew into a huge corporation. They eventually overtook IBM and became the leader in the pc market. But if an industry is not expanding or if it is contracting, you have to stand out in the crowd in order to grow…and copies never stand out in the crowd!

I believe it is going to be extremely important for you to stand out by becoming unique in 2011.

The funeral home market is getting more and more crowded; there are more discount service providers popping up all over the place, the cremation societies are spreading across the country. Families who used to go to your funeral home are now holding a memorial gathering at the country club (without your help). If you do not have a way to establish yourself in the market, and to truly be unique, you will only be headed for more and more price problems this year.

One of the basic elements of marketing is that when all things are equal, the deciding criteria will always be price.

Consider this, when you buy a new car, if you could buy the exact same car from two different dealerships – they’re both the same distance from you, you have no previous relationship with either of them, and it’s the exact same car. Which one would you buy it from? I would wager that you would buy it from the one who gave you the best price, because the product is the exact same. So when all things are equal, the deciding criteria is always price. That is basic human nature, so you can’t fight it!

Becoming unique is really essential – it’s the critical element of your overall marketing strategy. It answers the question: “Why should I choose you?” If somebody approached you at your local Rotary club and said “Why should choose your funeral home?”, what would you say? And if what you said is really the same thing that your competitor would say as well…then it’s not unique. If what you say is something that your customer expects from any funeral home…then it’s not unique.

This is called a unique selling proposition in the sales and marketing world. It involves coming up with a brief statement that is true – and that you can prove.

The statement must be clear, and concise, and one that you can say consistently, over and over and over again, so that people gradually get to know,

Oh yes, you are the only funeral home that offers <insert unique element here>.”

The best example that anybody has ever come across on the power of a strong unique selling proposition is a little pizza company called Domino’s Pizza. Years ago Domino’s Pizza was just a small restaurant located near one of the local universities in a small city. Tom Monaghan, the founder of the company, came up with the concept of delivering pizzas to the hungry students late at night, and his motto – and his unique selling proposition – was “30 minutes or less, or it’s free”.

He would have his drivers out there racing around the campus to deliver these pizzas. The hungry students late at night saw that ad and went, “That’s a great idea!”. Everyone knew that pizzas could take a long time to get delivered. But to a hungry student late at night, they wanted it in 30 minutes or less.

He didn’t say that it’s extremely good pizza – he didn’t say anything about the quality of the pizza, he just said you can have it in 30 minutes or less. Off of that one statement he grew a multi-billion dollar corporation.

The unique selling proposition can do that for you, but it has to be clear and concise, and it has to be something you can truly rally around and say consistently through all of your other marketing materials. Sadly, very few funeral homes have established a unique selling proposition. That’s the opportunity for you. If you can create your unique selling proposition this year, you’ve got something that truly separates you from the other traditional firms in your area, and from the discount service providers in your area.

WARNING!…You absolutely cannot use your personal character attributes in your unique selling proposition. So you can’t say things like “we’re professional, and we’re caring, and we’re trustworthy”. These things are all expected of you.

People expect you to be professional, caring and trustworthy. Therefore, they are not unique attributes – they expect that of anybody in the industry. It’s the equivalent of a car mechanic saying “I’m going to fix your car right the first time”.

Well, yes you should, I expect you to!

I expect a funeral home owner to be caring and trustworthy, therefore those attributes are not unique, and you can’t use them as part of your unique selling proposition.

I believe you’ve got four real options in developing your unique selling proposition.

  1. Price
  2. Convenience
  3. Your facility
  4. Your service

There’s a misconception that everyone wants the lowest price at all times, but that’s simply not true. Do you drive the cheapest car that you could possibly have afforded? No! People don’t always want the lowest price, but they always want to know that they’re getting good value for the money they spent.

So can you compete on price? Maybe…if your strategy is to become the discount service provider in your market, and undercut everybody else, then yes, you can compete on price. Just understand that this is a high risk strategy, because there is always somebody who will come along and try to underbid you. It’s a fiercely competitive position to take in the market. Some people can do it – major corporations like Wal-Mart have built vast empires off of just competing on price..

In regards to funeral homes…there are so many people out there competing on price now, I would not recommend going in that direction, unless you truly want to be the discount person in your market.

You can compete on convenience. This one’s a little risky because you’re vulnerable to new competitors coming into your market. The days of being the only funeral home in town are becoming fewer and fewer, because even though you may be the only one in town, other ones can advertise into your area, and just by opening up a small storefront (if anything at all) they are able to pull families out of your market. So convenience is probably not a good strong long-term position.

Can you compete based on your facility? Definitely…if you happen to have a brand-new facility and it has desirable features. Maybe you’ve got the only handicapped-accessible funeral home in town. If you happen to have a unique facility already you can definitely use it for your USP. You’ve already spent the money, you might as well leverage it. Just keep in mind that your competitor can wipe out that advantage pretty quickly just by renovating their facility.

The fourth area is service. What you want to have here is a particular style of service that families really enjoy. Do you have something unique about your service? Have you packaged it? By “packaging it” I mean have you put it under a service name. If so then you can honestly say, “We are the only funeral home in the area that offers <service name>”. Maybe you package up a unique service and back with a unique guarantee…that can also be a very, very strong unique selling proposition.

Many funeral home owners have asked me whether or not merchandise could be used to establish a unique selling proposition. The answer is yes, if you are the only funeral home in the area that offers that particular product. If you’ve got an exclusive agreement on a product (or created it yourself) you can safely use it for your USP. If you don’t have an exclusive product then I would recommend that you create a unique service package name and include specific merchandise in the package. That way it’s harder for your competitors to copy you.

In the past when I had time to work with one on one consulting clients I followed a five-step process to help them establish their unique position in the local market.

First, I interviewed the owners of the business. We would spend anywhere from two to six hours in telephone meetings going through their business, understanding exactly what it is that they think makes them unique, and really pulling apart the business to understand how the business operates.

Next, I would study their current materials. Sometimes there is a unique selling proposition buried inside their marketing materials. If we can find it and polish it up a bit we can create a good unique selling proposition. That doesn’t happen very often but every now and then you find a gem.

The third step involves studying their competitors. The last thing you want to do is come up with something that you think is a unique selling proposition only to find out that your competitor 20 miles down the road says the same thing. You can’t become a unique funeral home by copying your competitors. You will want to study their website and any brochures you can get your hands on. Ignore their GPL unless you want to compete on price.

After the research has been completed, I would take the time to develop a truly unique selling proposition for that particular funeral home. It needs to be something that separates them clearly from their competition, and lets them stand out in the local market.

The final step that I would go through would be to refine the unique selling proposition with the owners. This is essential because the owners of the funeral home need to be totally and completely comfortable with the unique selling proposition. It needs to be something that they can take on as their own, and really lead the charge within the funeral home and throughout the community.

The whole staff needs to know that it’s the owner’s strategic decision to position the funeral home in a particular way. If you want everyone to “get on the bus” the owner of the business must lead the way.

The outcome is a clear, concise statement that explains why a family should choose your funeral home. It forms the basis of all of your advertising; without a unique selling proposition, your investments in advertising are probably a waste of money. Always remember, when all things are equal, the deciding criteria will always be price. If you are in a competitive market and you’re struggling with price shoppers, make 2011 the year that you finally stand out of the crowd, become unique, and reap the rewards.

One issue that always makes it hard to become unique in a local market is if you have a competitor that makes it their mission in life to copy every move you make. If that’s your situation, here’s a strategy that I’ve used to exhaust even the most persistent copycat. I should warn you…this is a fairly aggressive strategy that I only use when one of my clients has a particularly annoying competitor.

First, come up with a list of 6 ways in which you can personalize a service. These should be things that your competitor doesn’t currently offer.

Next, create a series of 6 ads that each spotlight one of the 6 unique ways that you personalize a service.

For example, you might have one ad that focuses on dove releases; another that focuses on memorial blankets; another that focuses on video tributes and so on…

Next, run these ads one at a time in your local market (newspaper, radio, whatever works best in your market).

Here’s the important part…run each ad for only two weeks then switch to the next ad. You’ve got 6 ads, at two weeks each, that’s a three month campaign.

This is going to frustrate the heck out of your competitors!

The discount guy won’t even try to keep up with you. A full service competitor will see your ad and immediately start trying to copy you. They’ll find a dove supplier and they’ll just be figuring out how to do it when you’ll suddenly switch to your next ad.

Now they’ll have to start chasing you all over again!

It’s like watching a dog chase its tail. Your poor competitor will spend three months chasing you but they’ll never catch you because they won’t take the time to finish any of the innovations.

The two week part is key. You want them to start chasing you but you don’t want to give them enough time to catch you.

Three months later they’ll know that you have 6 ways to personalize a service that they don’t have. They’ve got 6 files on their desk but nothing has been implemented. That’s the type of thing that really irritates a competitive business person.

At this point most full service competitors will drop their prices and try to go after the discount service provider (because you’re too hard to catch).

If they don’t…just run the campaign again for another 3 months.

I’m not doing it to be cruel. I just want them to know that my client is the market leader and they should really spend their time trying to take calls from someone else.

It’s just like training a dog; sometimes you have to repeat the lesson a few times.

Note: I’ve updated this concept in the 2011 edition of the Strategic Marketing Plan for Funeral Service Professionals. Rather than using the term Unique Selling Proposition expanded the definition and called it the Consistent Family Message. Click here to learn more


4 thoughts on “Are you Unique?

  1. Without a selling point the bsuniess is going nowhere.I don’t think people would even start a bsuniess if what they were selling didn’t have something different.

  2. We operate the oldest funeral home in our country. Has 5 business units. In our country, there are no licensing laws and a voluntary National Standards for Funeral Homes. We adhere to this very closely. A competitor across the road with a branch 12 mile to our north does not follow the national code. Like us, they have good service, facilities, equipment. We cremate in house they do also. They hang out at the hospitals and approach bereaved persons in a very helpful manner. They copy everything we do even poaching on our staff. In 4 years we have lost 50% market share.

    Their focus is on the appearance of the deceased, their facilities, the hearse price. Their caskets are locally made.
    Our focus “Celebrating Precious Memories, the presentation of the honoree, service, facilities, our prices are higher our caskets American style, we have a full time Bereavement Counselor on staff.
    We find the canvassing at the hospital extremely effective. Families find it helpful. We find it distasteful and unprofessional to approach potential clients at the hospital mortuaries canvassing for business.

    How do we regain market share and win this game?

    1. This sounds like you have a very aggressive competitor who will not stop until you are out of business. Developing a detailed strategy would take a great deal of analysis but I can give some points to consider…

      Does the national code include anything about canvassing at the hospital? If so, you can use this against the competitor.

      If the national code does not include anything about canvasing then you should create your own code and state that you are the only funeral home complying with this new higher standard.

      If the practice of hospital canvasing represents a significant portion of the deaths in the market then you have to deal with this issue head on. If not, then you should be looking at where else they are winning calls. Are they aggressive with pre-need?

      Lastly, give some careful consideration as to why they have been able to capture 50% of the market in 4 years. Hospital canvassing will help them win a certain number of calls but they must be doing something right or their local reputation would have slowed their growth. They must be doing something that families really like. You have to make your business obviously better than your competitor if you want to win this game.

      Hope that helps. Call my office if you want to schedule a consulting session.

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