Profile in Innovative Thinking or Death Takes a Holiday

During two decades as a professional keynote speaker, I have spoken before an amazing number of industries. One of the arenas in which I enjoy a significant amount of popularity is the “death-care” world. Joe Dispenza, Vice President and Director of Sales and Marketing for Forest Lawn Cemetery and Garden Mausoleums of Buffalo, New York, is perhaps one of the most dynamic and resourceful individuals I’ve had the pleasure to know. Joe embodies the kind of thinking we all need to do to excel in sales and marketing.

The cemetery business, (death care), focuses on pre-need sales-making burial arrangements, and selling plots today instead of trying to make decisions during a sorrowful time. Today, 92% of Forest Lawn’s business is pre-need sales. This high percentage is unheard of in the cemetery business. In fact, I’m certain many in that industry would say it’s impossible to achieve such a high level. But Joe Dispenza is largely responsible for Forest Lawn’s success.

Straight out of college, Joe read an ad in the classifieds for a commissioned salesman at a local cemetery. He interviewed with them three times, but they didn’t want to hire him because he lacked experience, he had no car, and he hadn’t been in the area.

“Let me get this right,” Joe said. “You are giving me absolutely no money, just commission, and you don’t want to give me a chance? Let me try for a month. What do you have to lose? If I’m not your top salesperson by then, I’ll happily leave.” Joe kept his promise, and Forest Lawn has him to thank for helping to create their unprecedented level of pre-need sales.

“Summer in the Cemetery”

In the summer of 1995, Joe heard me speak. I said what I know from experience: “People do business with people they know, with people their friends talk about, with people who do business with them, or with people they read about.” I also talked about using “event strategy,” doing something that brings potential clients to you and builds word-of-mouth advertising. My comments made an impression on Joe, and, the following summer, he put my philosophy to work.

At that time, Forest Lawn was spending $120,000 a year on direct mail, radio, and print, but sales were static. Business remained the same year after year. Joe already knew that potential customers shared three misconceptions about Forest Lawn. First, they thought it was only for rich Protestants. Second, they thought was in an unsafe part of town. Third, they assumed it was full, with no room for new plots. Joe wanted to dispel these inaccuracies and personally acquaint potential customers with Forest Lawn because “people do business with people they know. . .”

Hold on to your hats. Joe organized trolley car tours of Forest Lawn, running every Sunday from June through August. He rented a cable car to bring customers to see and walk around Forest Lawn. He hired actors to impersonate famous dead residents. The trolley held thirty people, and the tours were scheduled for noon, 1 PM and 2 PM. “The first Sunday,” Joe says, “there were five people on the first tour, seven on the second, and four on the last trolley.”

Don’t worry. Joe is no novice. He invited a reporter from a local newspaper to cover “Summer in the Cemetery.” The reporter wrote a small piece about the event and, the following Sunday, more than 300 were waiting in line for the first trolley car tour.

“By the end of June I had six trolley tours with two trolley cars running on the hour,” Joe says. “We also added three nature walking tours and one two- hour historical walking tour. And they kept coming!”

Potential customers saw for themselves that Forest Lawn had plenty of room for new plots, that it was in a beautiful part of town, and that it was not at all scary. The actors portrayed current “residents” from all walks of life and from varied religions, proving that burial was not limited to rich Protestants. And Joe’s brief sales presentation showed prospective customers that costs were not prohibitive.

Joe’s twelve-week promotion was extended through October. The cost of the entire promotion-actors, extra staff for crowd control, trolley cars and sales materials- was $48,000. “Total direct pre-need sales from people on the tours who asked to buy was $80,000-plus,” says Joe. There was another $20,000 in sales from people who initially said that Forest Lawn was not the most convenient to them. After taking the “love” tour, they changed their minds and wanted their loved ones there. By the end of October, 4,222 people had toured the cemetery.

It was Joe’s innovative thinking that took Forest Lawn to the rarefied air of 92% pre-need sales. “This program did more than I could have ever hoped for,” says Joe. “It put this big old cemetery in the minds of the community. It gave us synergy with our other advertising efforts, and, most important, it got the people talking and thinking about us. . . and it’s working!”

I always suggest doing an “After-action Analysis” after any promotion or event. Go over each area, and, while recent experiences are fresh in your mind, ask yourself if you could do it bigger or better or have more impact. The next summer, Joe’s fertile mind created even more success. The tours were still free, but you needed a ticket in advance. To apply for the ticket, people filled in a questionnaire providing contact information and indicating whether a cemetery plot had already been purchased. Joe then knew his hottest prospects.

Is what you’re selling any tougher than pre-need cemetery plots? Put your brain in its creative mode. Study what your competition is doing, and come up with an innovative way to reach your target markets, to demystify your product or service, to educate potential customers about your business, and to make a sale as you opening a long-term relationship with a new customer.