25 June 2020

Coping in a crisis: funeral director helps mourners to sympathise online.
BY Three Business Customer

Serving the South East of Ireland from its base in Waterford, Robert Thompson Funeral Directors can trace its roots all the way back to 1786. The same family has been custodians of the business in all that time, and it still occupies the same premises on Barrack Street in Waterford City. Michael Thompson, who runs the business together with his father John, explains how an essential service has adapted during the Covid-19 restrictions, and how technology has helped them to manage.

When you work in a family business that has lasted through generations, there’s a pride in our efficiency and professionalism, while striking a balance with showing compassion and sensitivity for clients who are coping with the loss of a loved one. Those long-established traditions are still there today, yet we have always stayed up to date with technology. We were one of the first funeral directors in the world to launch a smartphone app in 2011 and we keep our website updated regularly.

In the current climate, we were designated as a frontline essential service, so we never stopped working as the restrictions came into force. It made communication even more essential. The nature of funeral services means that the first phone call from a family member to arrange services can come at any hour of the day or night, so we have to be available able 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Personal contact and a sympathetic ear.

People don’t email to make funeral arrangements; everything is still about the personal contact. We still conduct a huge part of our work over the phone, whether that is speaking with the close family or making arrangements with the clergy for funeral services.

In the earliest stage of the Government restrictions, the numbers of people who could attend funerals or removals in person had to be cut back drastically. Before Covid-19, you would see very few messages of condolences left online, but that’s all changed; recently, we have noticed a huge increase in the number of messages of sympathy that people leave on the website.

Another big change we have seen is a move to streaming funerals live. That used to be mainly for the benefit of relatives who live abroad and who weren’t able to travel for the funeral, but now they’re able to see the arrival in church, the mass and sometimes the burial, either live or by watching the saved feed. It’s something we rarely did before in Waterford, but I know from speaking with other funeral directors that it’s happening all over Ireland.

Paying respects online.

Another nice touch about moving online is that we now announce the time and route of the hearse, so people know when it’s passing the deceased’s home or workplace. This has led to some very touching tributes where friends and neighbours line the streets to show their sympathies. People will always find a way to pay their respects, and we are fortunate to have the tools in place to allow us to help them do that.

A big part of a funeral director’s service is handling calls from friends and relatives of the bereaved enquiring about funeral arrangements, or florists asking about where and when to send wreaths. For us, these requests made up nearly 60% of all inbound calls. We used to handle them with a switchboard service which read out a recorded message with information about funeral services that day. However, it was a cumbersome process to keep that automated message up to date with new, changing information throughout the course of the day.

Keeping communication lines open at all times.

We also used to have four fixed-line phone connections in the office, which forwarded calls to staff mobile phones outside of business hours. Aside from the extra expense this caused, it also led to some logistical difficulties. The old system didn’t display the caller’s number, so if anyone called outside of normal working hours and didn’t leave a message, we had no way of calling them back.

Fortunately, before Covid-19 struck we had implemented 3Connect, which is a cloud-based voice telephony system that routes calls over the internet. We’ve set up the system so that outbound calls display our main office number at all times, even if the call is coming from a company mobile. This way, our clients can see that the call is from Thompsons, rather than an unfamiliar number. It’s a small touch, but it’s about being sensitive too.

Having this system also meant that when the administrative side of the business had to move to flexible working after the Government guidelines were announced in March, we were able to do this very easily and run the business ‘virtually’.

For out of hours work, it’s easy to set up a member of staff with a ‘soft client’ app so any call to the office automatically forwards to their mobile. The system captures the details of every call and sends us an email, so we always have the caller’s details ready to hand.

Technology has helped us to maintain our long-standing tradition of delivering attentive service, at a time when people need assurance and consolation most. They can take comfort in knowing that their initial call is important to you, that you can answer at any time, or that they’re called back promptly. Even as close personal contact is restricted in these times, it’s made personal communication matter more than ever.