Shann Longley – Terry Longley & Son – CEO Business Marketing Interview 35

Shann gives us a unique insight into what goes into delivering a funeral service at Terry Longley & Son, how they’ve evolved their service to enable more tailoring, the importance of listening and the growing demand for recording wishes in advance to take pressure off family.

Shann also talks about how having three generations of family involved in the business gives them a unique set of capabilities, including the services his son has introduced including live streaming & recording as well as seamlessly managing photos for the service that highlight the special moments in life.

PLUS Why Shann recommends to the recently bereaved ‘do the things that you feel are important to do’ as well as how we can all live our lives to the fullest today.

Give us your feedback in the comments below!

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This is the Ryan Marketing Show (RMS) and you’re listening to episode 35 of 100.Today on the show, I have Shann Longley from Terry Longley and Son Funeral Services in Havlock North, Hawks Bay. Great to have you on the show, Shann. To understand a little bit more about something not a lot of people spend a lot of time thinking about, which is the latter part of our lives. And you experience that through other people every day. How do you go about managing te business of running a funeral service?

Shann: Yeah, hi Ryan and listeners. Thanks very much for the opportunity to be on here today. Look, it is an interesting topic, and one that not a lot of people speak about or talk about, or even really think about until they have to. And…but, you know what, there comes a time when we all have to think about this at some stage. How do we run our business? Well if you go back 55 years when my father Terry started it, it was considered very different to it is now. We have a staff of 14 in order to run our two businesses, Terry Longley & Son and Tong & Peryer. We have to manage that very carefully. The expectations on us nowadays mean that we actually have to produce a product, if you like, or a service to people that is of a high standard. But then, having said that, there could be some people that don’t require that high standard, either. When I say that, high standard, we always deliver the high standard but they might want a service that is much less and more simple, and so we actually have to be able to offer a wide variety of services for folks, and listen to what their wants and needs are, because they’re all different and individual. The amazing thing about families now is, perhaps compared to when my father, Terry, started 55 years ago, that, I guess there was a little bit of a formula that happened then. It might be a church service or a burial or a cremation, and families didn’t really have a lot of input into that. Now families want to have a lot of input, and of course I welcome they have that as well. And so we’re tailoring things to individual’s needs and family’s needs as well. So, that’s a major change in what we do.

RMS: So having been in it for that long, you obviously have seen a lot of changes in what people want from that service, and it sounds like 50 years ago it was very much a practicality of a service with some potential religion involved there, whereas now it can reflect any of the wants and needs based on religion or belief or just preference for a bit memorial or simple one or anything inbetween. How do you as a person when you’re going through that, because it raises a lot of issues for families, how do you try and discover than when in fact they might even know themselves what they want or what the person wanted?

Shann: That’s a good point. Firstly we actually have to listen, and all our funeral directors are trained to do that, and that sounds like a really strange thing to train people in but it’s really important that we listen, even from the first phone call we get, first messages we get from people, as to what actually they want, what it is that is important to them. It’s amazing that even in those first few conversations that we can have with people, either by email or on the phone, if you do get some indication as to what they’ll like. People, I guess now, have some perceptions of funeral directing. Not all of it is correct. But there’s a lot that there’s influences that are changing. It might be to do with the types of caskets they want and the selection that they want or the type of service, whether or not they want a religious service or a nonreligious service. Whether or not the religions that are playing a part in that as well. Often people will tell us pretty early in the piece what their expectations are, and then we listen and it’s up to us to put things in place for them as they’re needed. So it’s really the listening and being prepared to be able to do that, and being trained to be able to do that as well, because you don’t want to be making mistakes in there. It’s important that we are able to fulfill what people’s expectations are.

RMS: So for example, when you’re in that situation I guess the ideal is to be able to ask the person-the only way of doing that is if they have planned their funeral in advance. How often is that the case?

Shann: It’s becoming increasingly popular. It has been for a number of years but I think it’s certainly becoming more and moreso. And you’re right. If we have people’s wishes recorded, then the process of sitting down with family and knowing what mom or dad would want just becomes that little bit easier, and a little bit clearer, and takes a lot of the pressure off things as well. So it’s so beneficial for families. But you know, some people, families will change those as well? And sometimes people that make pre-arrangements with us five years later will give us a call and say “Listen, I’ve changed my mind. I want to do this or this now.” So it’s important that we’re flexible as well and allow them to do those things. But certainly, making the pre-arrangements is very, very important. And it allows us just to gauge what people want out there and if there’s any changes that are happening. And there certainly are a few changes happening out there. Sometimes people are moving away from religious service and having more personal services, you know, that might be in a chapel but might be at home. It might be in a favorite spot out in the community. And so it allows us to gauge those changes that are happening out there as well, which is pretty important. And special, too.

RMS: So do you notice anything in particular that’s evolved, like over the last ten or fifteen years around what’s become a general trend for some of the things that makes that day special?

Shann: Yeah, there’s lots of trends. There’s not just one. Making it special is having – we often say, I often say to people, “Do the things that you feel are important to do in these next few days, and particularly in the funeral service, do and say and express the things that are special to you as a family and that would have been special to your loved one.” You don’t want to look back and say “I wish I had of done this, or I wish we had of done that, or we should have said that.” Those are the important things. Those are the things that help you through grief. Those are the things that honor the person that’s died. And so, I think we’re seeing more of that. I think we’re seeing more people wanting to become more involved in all aspects of funeral service, which is a great thing and we embrace that. The more individual it can be the more meaningful I think it is, as well. But there’s lots of changes. There’s change between a thing called direct cremation. I don’t think people fully understand what direct cremation is, I think it’s come about because people perceive it to be a less expensive option, but direct cremation where someone is cremated straight away and there’s no service, there’s actually no viewing of the deceased, there’s no family gathering, those things are becoming more popular, and then for some people they’ll have a memorial service later. Which I understand. And that can be nice too. But I always think that it’s important to celebrate someone’s life and mark it and just take time, as well, to recognize a life. So those are some of the changes that are happening. They certainly, when it comes down to selecting caskets and things like-we have a large range of caskets here, and we do that because people are just so individual. They’ll come in and see something in a color or a pattern or a style and they’ll want to have a choice over that, as well. So all the way through the service, whether it be poems and reading or songs and music, it’s not always about having a hymn now. If you don’t want a hymn, then why not have a favorite tune. Or have some jazz playing beforehand. All of those things that make it an individual experience. And those things are the changes we’re seeing. And I think that will just continue and continue. I can’t see that changing. I think people are becoming more involved.

RMS: That’s great insight, in that it’s not just about what you should be choosing for the service, it’s about the meaning and the purpose and the celebration of the life that’s being…

Shann: Absolutely.

RMS:…so you can look back and have happy times thinking about that day, despite whatever the circumstances were. So as families and people are now spread more around the globe rather than just living in one place, I guess that makes it harder sometimes for everyone to be back and make that day as meaningful. What’s available to help family and friends further afield be part of the event.

Shann: That’s part of to now, is that we’ve had to step up. I’m lucky to have had the services of my son, who’s actually now in the business known as Terry Longley and I’m the Son and now there’s another Terry and he’s my son. But Terry’s come in and he’ll do the whole funeral directing side as well and he actually conducts funerals, but what he’s actually done is bring our business actually IT-wise, right up to date. We can connect with people around the world and bring them into as well. It’s a really straightforward thing now, although it does come with its challenges when you’re down a country road or not getting very good WiFi reception or whatnot, but we can stream services so that people are involved in that, and we do that, quite a few times a week. I’ve known-I’ve been to services, there was one, a friend of mine whose mother died, and he was in Germany, but he was in the service so they had him on iPad and Skype and he was actually sitting there and everyone was able to say “Hello” to him and he was able to take part in the service as well. Those things are really special for someone who just, for whatever reason, can’t make it back from overseas. They can feel like they’re involved in some ways. We’ve often had sad stories of people who felt really really left out because they’re really close to Nanna or Grandad and they weren’t able to be part of it. But you know, we can also record video services as well. So anything we can do just to bring those people in is really really important. We also are producing photo shows and audio sheets right now order of sib sheets now of quite a high quality as well, so , and we have all the gear to do that here, good quality machines for printing, and also for [inaudible 12:30], yeah, so allow people to be part of it, and have things like photo work and photo shows, so we can often send those away to people and they can feel like they were part of that as well. You know, a daughter in London can-I’ll get a photo of Nanna and they can get that and send it through. It just makes people feel involved and part of it, which is really really important.

RMS: It’s great to hear you have moved in that direction because we all share so much of our lives via digital media now, it’s only natural to, if you want to celebrate a life, to actually look back on some of those moments that were those milestones of happiness.

Shann: And we’ve got two-people have a perception of us, I guess it’s not too far long ago that people used to think of funeral directors in top hats and big long coats and kind of hunched over, it’s not like that. We actually have to be pretty on to it. But, we actually have to move with the times. The people we’re dealing with now are often into arranged services can be from generation X and Y and even millennials, who have been part of that funeral process. And if we aren’t able to connect to them digitally, then we can’t provide the whole service. They can be sending us photos and wanting to plug things in and do things instantly, and our work with photo shop has to be as good as they can do it at home etc, etc. We actually have to connect with them, and if we don’t then we open ourselves up to not doing the job properly and not up to their expectations as well.
RMS: Which segueways nicely actually, onto the notification side of the business. There was a time where media was just newspaper, radio and TV and the notifications for services were in the newspaper and that was the only place and the one source of truth. Now audiences are fragmented across lots of different channels, so how do you make sure that a family can get the message out on all the channels to make sure that if anyone wants to participate in that day they know in advance what’s happening?

Shann: You know, you’re absolutely right. It used to be newspaper used to be the only way but really even it’s before that. The best way and always has been, I don’t actually see it changing, is when you’re close to someone, when a family’s close to someone they have a thing called Ye Olde Grapevine. The Grapevine starts working, and through family and through friends, and that happens really really quickly. That’s the number 1 best way, and always will be. But there’s always the friends, there’s always the people that you want to be able to notify and you don’t want to miss them out, so the newspaper used to be, and still is to some degree, the main way of doing that. But, we all say now, on our website, we place notices in there, and we’ve actually found that a lot of people now that don’t get newspapers actually go to our website for notification. We’ve also just recently joined forces with a website that is called Heaven’s Address and that works globally, and you can actually put someone’s name in it, and put a funeral in there, and it will come up and right into Heaven’s Address which will tell you where the service is, when the service is, and allow you to leave a memorial, or some words, or something like that. Which I foresee-memorialization or people keeping those memories alive, is really really important, and we found with this Heaven’s Address that three months later or six months later or on a birthday or Christmas time or an anniversary, people are leaving wonderful messages thre. And of course the family get all those directly, so that’s really nice thing for families to receive, at those signs as people caring. So that’s become part of the notification process as well. Newspaper notices are expensive. People wouldn’t believe quite how expensive it is. Like the paper here for a standard notice could be $250 so that means that things are going to change. Yeah, there’s lots happening there.

RMS: One thing we haven’t covered is the pricing side of services. And it’s not something you necessarily shop around for.

Shann: Oh no, it can be. And people do. And that’s okay, they can. And they should. Not all funeral directors are going to be the same. Some will vary, but there is a big move toward funeral directors being open and transparent with their pricing. We provide estimates and quotes as early as we possibly can for folks so that they know exactly what’s happening and so that side we’re all on the same page. So that’s important for us to be able to that. You know, advertising is an interesting thing and the likes of some various insurance companies have spent so many millions of dollars advertising pre-paid funeral services which are actually insurance policies. And they’ve done a very big job of saying that funerals are very expensive. So of course they want to sell insurance so they’re going to do that. And they say “look, funerals can be $10,000 or $14,000, come and get your insurance with us and it’s going to be much easier”. Well, the fact is, here, with us, an average price for a funeral service is probably closer to $6500 to $7500 depending on some of the choices you make. We have options here from under $3000 and you know, sometimes we can do funeral services for $15,000 when people are wanting other things. And a funeral service is kind of made up of three parts and this is the important thing that people should know, is your funeral director’s fee, which can vary. Ours varies depending on the amount that we put into that funeral service or the amount that people want us to put into it-some people are doing several things themselves; the second part is the cost of that casket, the cost of that coffin, adn that can vary. We’ve got them here from $500 and we’ve got them to go up to $3,000. Some people will tell you that funeral director’s caskets start at $3,000, well that’s not true. So that’s the second part. The third part is disbursements. Those are the things the funeral director will pay on your behalf. It might be crematorium fees, cremation fees, it might be burial fees. It might be flowers and newspaper notices, or catering. Or paying a minister or paying an organist or a piper. So that makes up the third part. Having said that, it’s people and family’s choices what they want, and so with good guidance they can reduce the cost of the funeral service substantially, and there’s lots of options that will do that. So, you know, don’t believe the insurance companies all the time.

RMS: That’s interesting because my preconception was that it was around that $10K figure, so I obviously been marketed to very well. To balance out that the pricing side, I’m sure the-for a lot of people, the decision making’s going to come down to their confidence in their funeral director and the funeral services, and much of that choice may come from previous generations and who they have chosen. How important is doing a great job to ensuring that your business continues to grow.

Shann: I think you’re right, exactly right. Part of my father’s legacy is that he was there for just everybody over so many years. And worked so many hours. And he really is the cornerstone or the foundation really of Terry Longley & Son. And to carry on that good work, that’s what we have to do and if we can do that properly then here we say “You’re only as good as the last funeral service that you did.” And you’d never to score our role in the funeral service 10 out of 10 because there’s always something you can do better. We’re human. Sometimes, under difficult pressure situations, we’ll make mistakes as well. But it’s how we react to some of those, it shows them, and how we deal with them, how we move on and how we make good with them that allow us to have return business from those families. And that sounds horrible, doesn’t it, sometimes return business, but that is the reality of it. Often, people will think, many years later, “who should we use as funeral director? Ah, they looked after Uncle Joe 20 years ago”, and that’s what they’ll do is they’ll come back. But you know, we can’t actually rely on that, either, because our society community is changing. We have gobs of people coming into our community. There’s different pressures within our community whether they be financial or not, that we have to be aware of as well, and react to. I think you said it on there too that people actually have to have confidence, and I think that is one of the big things that we can deliver and that’s that we can deliver the type of service that they want. When I say service, I always mean-and people like to connect service now with funeral service-it might just be a gathering of people now, which is just as important. They have to be confident that we can do all those things for them.
RMS: Interesting insight. It sounds like the process of burial and the funeral service, that process you have gained immeasurable experience over the decades, yet how that is arranged is now completely in the hands of the people organizing it, or wanting to have-needing to have the service. You can do all of it or you can take your own part or it can be the complete and the key there is listening to their needs.

Shann: Yeah, you know a lot of people look at traditional businesses, particularly funeral directing businesses, and when there’s change happening and they can see opportunity for themselves, they’ll come and sometimes exaggerate or what we do in order to promote themselves. There’s a few examples of that out in the community where people have wanted to be part of, a little part of the funeral industry, and so they’ve gone do a few things and they think “oh, we do these things very well, but those other funeral directors, they ain’t do that, they’re trying to sell you expensive caskets or they’re trying to sell you expensive services” when in actual truth that’s not true. We’ve been here for 55 years because we have listened and because we can adapt because it’s important to us that people have an experience that is important to them and their family and to their loved one. I think if we don’t have that sort of attitude, then we probably shouldn’t be here as a company, because that actually has to be why we’re here first. If we can do those things well, then I guess our company will do well. So that’s part of the philosophy, that’s part of what my father Terry has drummed into me over the years. And I guess what I kind of say to young Terry now as our training. Hopefully we do that, John.
RMS: I think that’s one of the unique things about being a multigenerational family business. Is you get the best experience from the history as well as the ability to bring in new ideas into that family-run business. One last question before we finish up here.

RMS: So, Shann you’ve seen more than most people at the end of lives, and we’ve talked a lot about that today. We’re obviously living right now, listening to this. What advice do you have for all about us about life. What have you seen, listened, learnt that everyone could benefit from right now?

Shann: Look, it’s an interesting question to ask for a funeral director, but you’re right. We do spend a lot of time with people that grieving, but often we are sitting listening to people that are not close from dying as well. As we listen to them…It’s one of the most special things is that we can actually get close to those people and to grieving people as well. And when you break away all the barriers and all the stresses of life and you come down to just one of the essences of it, which is the end of life, it can be very very very special to be that close to people. Often people at their-what you would think at their very worst are actually at their very best. I think in there is the lesson in that one thing this job has shown me is that sometimes we think we have dramas in our lives, they’re just small, and sometimes we tend to get hung up on some of those smaller things, they’re just small. There are so many big issues out there with people, and when you see how they deal and cope with them it leaves you in awe, quite frankly. So, live your life, enjoy it. And instead of worrying about maybe what’s going to happen at the end, if you’re a spiritual person then I guess you’ll know what to do, if you’re a practical person and it’s worrying you, then make some pre-arrangements. Actually write them down, and you’ll be surprised as to-just by doing that-how much it actually frees and just lets you get on with them.