Alumna Nikki McQueen’88 is a professional powerhouse. You might have seen the article we wrote about her in this summer’s Soundings magazine, which discusses her career path and how she has recently returned to Endicott to obtain her bachelor’s degree—after receiving her associate degree with us more than 30 years ago.
McQueen has spent most of her career in sales and marketing for Fortune 500 companies and enjoyed nearly 10 years as the Vice President of the largest family-owned funeral company in the state of Florida. Over the course of their careers, she and her husband John have developed an immense passion for customer service, and have recently published a book—Lessons from the Dead: Breathing Life into Customer Service—which draws on their 60-plus years of combined experience leading teams and considerately serving customers.
We’ve asked McQueen to weigh in on the topics of customer service and how vital it is to running a successful business, as well as the process of writing and publishing a book.
Your book is about customer service—what is your experience in that field and what shortcomings did you see that prompted writing a book about it?
My husband and I have both spent a lifetime in sales and marketing, but more importantly, we are active consumers. Whether it is a power or a curse, we both actively engage in our purchasing experiences, from the local grocery store to a cruise vacation, and try to learn from both things that appeal to customers and the things that detract. We have incorporated many concepts into our business that aided in the success of our company and felt it was important to share those concepts with others.
Please tell us how you came to write your book—when was it that you started, where did the idea come from, what did the process look like?
Writing a book is something my husband and I talked about quite often over the years. Customer service has always been our hot button and we found it discouraging that so many companies overlook this important aspect of business. Once we sold our company in 2017, we decided it was time to sit down and write it. When you think about our profession—funeral service—it is not a business that people typically want to frequent. If we could find a way to make our business, a business people prefer to avoid, an overall pleasant experience for them, any business would prosper by maximizing their delivery of the customer’s experience through the principles we taught our team.
What is your best advice for any business looking to win over customers—why is customer service so important?
In four words: under promise/over deliver. Too often businesses promise a potential customer the stars and can’t even deliver the moon. Make sure everything you promise your customer is something you can deliver, then make it even a little more than expected. Also, live up to your commitments. If you promised to get back to them with an answer by the end of the day and you don’t have the answer from the individual you needed it from, call you customer and let them know. You can say to them, “I promised to call you by the end of the day with an answer. Unfortunately, I do not have the answer from my source/supplier, as of yet, however I wanted to keep you in the loop. I will check on this once my (supplier/source) is back in the office in the morning and call you with what I learn,” then do just that. Your customer understands that you may need to rely upon others to obtain the information they need. They just want to know you are working on it, and you haven’t forgotten them. After all, how many times have you dealt with someone who didn’t keep the promises they made, no matter how big or small the promise?
Your book introduces the SOAR principles—what are those?
S: Sincere Greeting and Goodbyes. How are your customers greeted on their first contact with your company, whether through the telephone or in person? Is it a warm welcome or a cold reception? Do you realize that if your customer is coming to your place of business, your greeting actually begins with your grounds and exterior facility? What message do they send and is it one you want to send? Also, remember to smile. Nothing is more inviting to a customer or guest than a friendly smile. First impressions are crucial and can influence buying decisions more than the next thirty minutes you spend with a customer. But it doesn’t end there. Acquiring new customers is more costly to companies than maintaining existing customers. Be sure to thank the customer for coming and let them know you appreciate their business. Studies have shown that the final memory the customer has of the experience will determine whether or not they will become a loyal customer.
O: Own the Guest’s Experience. Whether your customer has an amazing, good, or terrible experience with your company is all up to you. In funeral service we are always working with families on a terrible day, having lost their loved one. Often a family can direct misplaced anger at our team. It is our job to remember that how we react to this misplaced anger is going to determine their experience with our firm. It’s our job to own the experience for this customer and not react to the anger. Typically, they are not mad at us. They are angry, sad, and hurt about what they are experiencing. When we look at it that way, we can continue to behave professionally to best serve the family and meet all of their expectations. Many times the family comes back and apologizes for their behavior, and explains it was not anything we did. By owning the guest’s experience you also have to follow through if something does go wrong by seeing the issue through to the end and keeping the customer updated all along the way.
A: Appearance Matters. Appearance matters now more than ever with many companies switching to casual Fridays or business casual attire, which often times slips into plain old casual attire. At our firm, we had a list of non-negotiables similar to Disney’s, and prospective new hires were advised of these at their first interview. One thing we always said to our team was to never let their personal style affect their professional image. While on the clock it is important to represent your company properly, so for funeral service that meant suits and ties, polished shoes, neat hair, trimmed beard (if applicable), as well as no visible tattoos or face piercings. If an individual had tattoos, and many of our employees did, they would have to cover them while at work. Appearance standards can vary from company to company and industry to industry, but whatever the standard is that you set for yourself and your team, you must ensure that it is followed by all, as each of you are your brand’s ambassador.
R: Remember the WOW! During the interview process with perspective employees, I felt that this part of our SOAR principle was so important that, while explaining it to them, I would throw my arms in the air and shout: “Remember the WOW!” If nothing else, when they left the interview, I wanted them to remember the importance of this step. I believe in full disclosure, so in interviews we shared quite a bit about our company, culture, and expectations. If our commitment to our customers was too much for them, I wanted them to figure that out before they came to work for us. What does remember the wow mean? It meant every family needed a little unexpected wow from us that would leave them with a favorable impression. It could be a little something like printing extra memorial cards at no extra charge because they had run out at the visitation, to visiting a salvage yard to recover the hubcap of a car that the deceased had designed 40 years ago and laser engraving it with their name, dates, and epitaph. We had a local barbeque restaurateur who passed away, and for his service we laser engraved a set of BBQ grill accessories for the family; when our aftercare coordinator visited the family’s home a week after the service it was proudly mounted above the fireplace mantle. Over the years, our team has found unique ways to “WOW” our customers, which helped build our company into the largest family-owned funeral home business in the state of Florida. However, we always cautioned our team to never let your WOW turn into an OWW. Make sure the delivery of your wow is appropriate and done properly, or you may upset a happy family.
What business tactics have you learned about the funeral home industry that can be applied to other industries?
One tactic I brought with me, but also expanded upon in funeral service, is to listen. Listen fully, not only with your head, but also with your heart. Too often we listen to respond rather than to understand. In funeral service we are working with people on what may be the worst day of their life, dealing with the death of a loved one. It is important to show empathy for what they are going through in that moment and listen with your head and your heart to find the best way to help them on their grief journey while assisting them with the funeral plans. The same applies to other businesses. All too often, an upset customer complaint comes down to a misunderstanding between what a customer wants and what the salesperson hears. Learn to be an active listener.
What do you love or find interesting about the funeral home business?
Funeral service is more than a profession, it is a ministry. If you do not have a sincere longing to care for others then it is not the career for you. Working with and caring for fellow human beings is so very rewarding and one of the things I love most about the funeral home business. You never really finish serving a family because, if you have done your job properly, they consider you a friend for life.
Do you have advice for anyone looking to write a book, or for people with business plans who are trying to launch a company?
The publishing world has changed over the years and many authors self publish these days. When it comes to writing your book—start typing! Many times we want everything to be just perfect, yet we end up paralyzing ourselves. Start typing your thoughts and let them flow; you can go back and edit later. Also, don’t try to finish it all in one big chunk. We would work on our book and then we would take a break from it. In regards to starting a company, we believe it comes down to the four P’s – Purpose, Plan, Passion, and Persistence. It is important to have a clear understanding of the purpose for your company, as it will be your filter going forward. Develop your plan, as it will be your GPS to success. Serve your customers with passion. Be persistent; there will be times when you stumble, but keep pushing forward—too often people quit just before finding success.
Lessons from the Dead: Breathing Life into Customer Service is available on Amazon or direct from lessonsfromthedead.com.