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By Eric Layer

Selling isn’t easy. Selling confrontation with death decades before someone expects it to actually occur? That’s got to be one of the toughest pitches in business. But confusion over what we’re actually selling, and why we’re selling it, is making pre-need sales even harder than it has to be.

In my firm’s extensive research on death care, I’ve heard a lot of confusing—and often contradictory—reasons to preplan. Do it to keep your kids from screwing up your funeral! Do it to save money! Do it for peace of mind! Do it even though it’s scary! Do it for the free food we’ll give you to listen to our pitch!

Most of these fail the smell test. What do I care what my funeral is like? I’d rather spend that money on something I can enjoy. And I thought you just told me funerals are for the living… so shouldn’t I be okay if my kids need a different funeral than what I would have planned?

More importantly, most pre-need sales pitches fail what my firm nicknamed “the coffee can test.” In our marketing efforts, we automatically leave on the cutting room floor any pre-need promotion that can be answered with the statement, “Oh, I don’t have to worry about that. I told my kids to just cremate me and stick my ashes in a coffee can.” It’s amazing to realize that our appeals to frugality, clarity, or peace of mind all fall apart in the face of an empty can of Folger’s.

The only thing that survives the coffee can test is probably the reason you got into death care in the first place: people need funerals. You understand the immense value of saying goodbye. Ceremony and memorial are important psychological tools – that’s why they transcend culture and time. And even though they cost a lot of money, and time, and awkwardness, we know that they’re worth it, and we shouldn’t be afraid to say so.

It takes a lot of courage to say, “Mrs. Smith, I’m glad you’ve thought about what happens after you die. But have you considered that putting you in a coffee can might not be the goodbye that your kids need to mourn in a healthy way? Or that your grandkids might benefit from having a permanent place to visit where they can remember you? I know this is a tough conversation, but why don’t you let me share with you a few of the ways I think we could help ensure their needs are met after you’re gone?”

Selling isn’t easy, because nobody likes being sold to. But if your sales team is instead equipped as counselors, able to wisely and winsomely guide individuals on how to best protect their loved ones from the pain of a truncated or inadequate grief process, you might see some surprising results.

And you just might sell something.


Eric Layer

Eric is the oldest millennial you’ll ever meet.

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For over a decade, McKee Wallwork and Company has been a leader and innovator in death care. The firm’s groundbreaking national market research is to this day the definitive consumer segmentation study on funeral care. On the creative front, MW+C was behind breakthrough work including the inception of Passare, “Scatter Day,” YODO, and the documentary The Empty Chair. MW+C has served as the agency of record for leading funeral homes, cemeteries, and death care brands from coast to coast. In addition, the firm’s robust research arm is responsible for developing the Death Care Disruption Index in partnership with Selected Independent Funeral Homes, and the Death Care Genogram in partnership with Passare. This fall, MW+C  will release its first book on the future of funeral service, The Right Way of Death, authored by partner Eric Layer.

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