Reaching out to your local community can be challenging at the best of times, and COVID-19 brings further questions about what is right to do. Charlotte Wathall from funeral director G Wathall & Son describes how her family's business has responded, focusing on helpfulness and digital marketing.
Malcolm Flanders [00:00:04] The long expected second wave of COVID-19 has very much arrived, and I've heard from many of you that some of its challenges are tougher than last spring's initial peak. Between restrictions, vaccinations and the unique difficulties that winter brings, we know that Independents are dealing with a huge range of difficult circumstances.
Malcolm Flanders [00:00:24] We're here to support wherever we can, and one of the points we've heard from several Independents is that it's difficult to know how and when to raise awareness of your services to families in the middle of such an extreme situation. This won't be at the front of everyone's mind, of course, but on the pre-need side, we know the demand is there and is even strengthened by the pandemic. So I wanted to speak to one funeral director about what meeting that demand looks like during the pandemic and how marketing fits into the picture, and the online tools that made all possible.
Malcolm Flanders [00:01:04] So I'd like to welcome Charlotte Wathall from Derby's G Wathall & Son. Charlotte, delighted to see you today and thank you for joining me. Really appreciate it. How are you?
Charlotte Wathall [00:01:15] I'm good, thank you. Yes, thank you for having me join in in the podcast.
Malcolm Flanders [00:01:20] Not at all, all right, this will be fun, but it will also be interesting. All right, so just for the benefit of other funeral director listeners, can you just tell us a little about the business and your role within it today?
Charlotte Wathall [00:01:32] Yeah, so Wathall's is a family business. We're in our sixth generation now. I think we've been going for 162 years. So we have a bit of history behind us. But yes, my mum is the fifth generation. She's our managing director. And then I also work alongside my sister, as part of the sixth generation, who's just come back from maternity leave.
Malcolm Flanders [00:02:01] And how is she doing, she all right?
Charlotte Wathall [00:02:03] Yes, she's all okay. It's difficult to juggle working from home with a seven month old baby, but she's getting there.
Malcolm Flanders [00:02:11] And I gather congratulations are in order for you, too.
Charlotte Wathall [00:02:14] Yes. Yes. Very well timed.
Malcolm Flanders [00:02:18] It is, isn't it? Well done. And I think that just illustrates some of the challenges of running a family business, doesn't it?
Charlotte Wathall [00:02:23] That's it, yes. So Bec has come back in this month and I'll probably be going off sometime in May to have my baby. So the family's growing.
Malcolm Flanders [00:02:38] Good, okay, it'll be really interesting just to hear, I suppose, the approach generally to marketing within Wathall's, as much sort of at-need, the brand, as well as pre-need.
Charlotte Wathall [00:02:50] Yeah, so, with marketing it's obviously quite difficult to market a funeral director’s. We sort of rely quite a bit on our funerals that people attend. That's our biggest word of mouth marketing tool. If we do a good job, people will keep coming back. But we make sure we're sort of out there in the community, speaking with different charities and seeing where we can help out, so our name's out there and people know where we are when when they need us.
Charlotte Wathall [00:03:30] And then it's, yeah, generally speaking to people through online means such as social media and just trying to keep people up to date with what we're doing with all our different services. So it's a bit difficult this year, but we think we're still doing a good job.
Malcolm Flanders [00:03:50] No look I'm sure you have. And I suppose one of the particular challenges this year in the pandemic, going back to your point around attendance at funerals, is of course, the restrictions in terms of the number of mourners. Has that impacted your ability to market?
Charlotte Wathall [00:04:09] I would say it will have done, because with the people attending being limited, our reach has been limited as well, of how people we could sort of show that we are here for them and we can do a good job, sort of thing. And also at the end of our funerals, and we used to offer a card at the end that just says about our online donations and our other services that we have, such as bereavement and our pre-paid. And we've not been able to put those out.
Malcolm Flanders [00:04:43] I'm interested in your sort of family approach whilst we're in this pandemic, to your philosophy of marketing and how you get the balance right, in what is a very difficult time for families without appearing too aggressive, I guess.
Charlotte Wathall [00:04:59] Yeah, it's always difficult to market a funeral directors, and then with the added pressure of a pandemic and death figures being announced on the news every day, people don't want to think about it. So we tend to try and go down the route of our other services that we offer. So our bereavement services, our bereavement counselling and things like that. And then also our pre-need. So it's easier to market pre-paid, or pre-planning, than it is to market an actual funeral.
Charlotte Wathall [00:05:38] So we're just reaffirming people that we're here for them, to talk through their options, angling the marketing so you still talking about funerals, but not about somebody actually passing away. We did a lot of work on our tone last year. We did a rebrand and we focused a lot on how we were saying things, to make sure it was still getting to the point, but in a nice way.
Malcolm Flanders [00:06:10] So here we are then, at the height of the pandemic, I know Derby has got some quite severe issues right now with that, but what is happening with plan enquiries as such? Are you still seeing customer demand for plans coming through?
Charlotte Wathall [00:06:27] Yes. So people are still enquiring. The pandemic has sort of done two things to people's mindset; it's either made them think, "right, I need to do this now," or made them not want to think about it at all. So we're still getting those people that want to get things sorted.
Malcolm Flanders [00:06:48] OK, that's reassuring. And actually, that bears out what we see with some of the customer research we've undertaken during the last 12 months. Right, so as a business, particularly when you're very busy and stretched as you are now, how do you organise yourselves to follow up those enquiries that customers make either by telephone or in the post?
Charlotte Wathall [00:07:08] Yes. So we're quite lucky, actually, because I look after the pre-paid side of things, it's my sole job. So this year I have been pulled away from it a bit to look after at-need funerals but at the moment I'm still full-time on the pre-paid side of things. So that does make it a lot easier for us. But generally, when somebody does enquire, we get back to them as soon as possible, if not the same day.
Charlotte Wathall [00:07:42] I always call people if they've left a number, just to find out where they are, if they're somebody who wants to get things sorted quickly, or if they just want information. Always offered an appointment at that point, obviously over the phone or on face video. And then usually I would follow them up, either suggest to them a good time to give them a call, usually a week afterwards, and then if they're still not ready, then it's usually three weeks afterwards that I'll give them another call, and if they're still not ready, leave them a bit longer to think about it, it's usually about two months after that, that I follow up. Just so you're not hassling them. So they have time to think about things.
Malcolm Flanders [00:08:34] Yeah, you can imagine, this is quite a big decision and people wanting to reflect on it. When you've telephoned to follow up an enquiry, have you ever felt, "oh, maybe I am intruding or pushing too hard?"
Charlotte Wathall [00:08:47] No, I think with this system, we had it set up I think at the start of 2019, so we have been running with this system for quite a while, and with it being me that makes all the phone calls, I don't think I've ever had anybody that's been upset that I've rang them.
Charlotte Wathall [00:09:11] When I follow people up, I always do it in a way where I'm sort of just checking in on them and making sure they've got all the information they need. I don't want to sort of make it pushy sales, and it's a big decision to make, it's a big purchase at the end of the day, and I don't want anyone to rush into making the decision if they don't feel like they already.
Malcolm Flanders [00:09:36] No, quite right. And I guess in so doing, because it's you making the calls, you've probably got used to the right word patterns that are appropriate for that kind of call.
Charlotte Wathall [00:09:46] Yes, and as well when we were designing this system, I did go up to Golden Charter and sit in the contact centre and listen to how Golden Charter deal with the calls, and things, which really helped me build my own sort of vocabulary of what words to use, and how to phrase things. So that really helped me.
Malcolm Flanders [00:10:17] Right. Now, let's just turn to digital for a moment. At what point did you realise that a digital marketing approach, and particularly Facebook, might actually prove beneficial to the business?
Charlotte Wathall [00:10:32] Yeah, so, I mean, we've always been quite active on our social media, sort of updating people, and it sort of never really occurred to us that we could also use it as a marketing tool. And it was actually after and a meeting with Nick from Golden Charter, he mentioned there was different tools you could use within Facebook to actually market to certain locations, and ages, and things like that. So we started trialling running it alongside leaflet drops and it worked quite well.
Charlotte Wathall [00:11:15] And then obviously during the pandemic, we didn't want to be as intrusive as to send out a leaflet, and so we used just the Facebook marketing and it still worked as well. And obviously, it's because a lot of people were at home a bit more, maybe spending a bit more time on social media.
Charlotte Wathall [00:11:37] When we decided we wanted to do some Facebook marketing this year, it was just a quick get in contact to say I wanted to do something, and then Ross at Golden Charter just sorted everything out, and set it all up on the Facebook page, and I reviewed it, and then we pressed the go button. And the enquiries come straight through to our own Facebook page, so I can see them.
Charlotte Wathall [00:12:07] Ross would send me a message as well to say we'd got an enquiry in case I didn't spot it. So, yeah, it worked really well. There was no sort of big task in getting it set up. I think Ross really did most of the work, and I just said I wanted to do something.
Malcolm Flanders [00:12:26] All right, don't worry, I think you're being modest there. But I'm sure there's an element of monitoring now and sort of just daily observing of what's happened. So to that point, how would you describe the success, or otherwise, of your Facebook campaign and how do you sort of follow those up?
Charlotte Wathall [00:12:47] Yeah, so the first one that we ran was actually in the middle of the summer this year, and it worked better than I thought it was going to. Within the sort of timeframe that we'd set it up to go from, we ended up with over 20, 25 enquiries, I think it was. Some rang instead of filling out the form and said that they'd seen it on social media.
Charlotte Wathall [00:13:16] So yeah, we were really pleased with how it worked and the customers obviously were as well, because, I think when you receive an advert on social media rather than a physical leaflet through the door, you can take your own time in replying to it. And definitely in this day and age, people are a bit more comfortable with replying to things on social media as well.
Charlotte Wathall [00:13:43] It's one of our biggest links between us and our community, definitely at the moment as well. So I think it would definitely add value to your business just to be able to communicate with your local area. It's not all funerals, funerals, funerals. We talk about our staff and what they've been up to in our community, charity work and everything like that. So people tend to follow for those updates. And we just add in bits about what services we offer, so our pre-paid and our bereavement counselling.
Charlotte Wathall [00:14:25] And I think it just works really well. People follow the page and they then learn about what else we do. It's the only place that we are able to put it across to our customers and our community that we are here and we do other things.
Malcolm Flanders [00:14:47] I absolutely get that. All right, final question. And I'm conscious that you'll be handing over some of the reins, I guess, to Bec when you go off on maternity leave, so what would you say to in terms of what you've learnt most from these initiatives over the last six months, that she carries on the work that you're doing?
Charlotte Wathall [00:15:05] Marketing is a scary thing to start off with. But marketing during a pandemic added to the difficulty. But I think, yeah, definitely not to be afraid to try something. And the beauty with Facebook and online marketing is, if it doesn't work, you can just remove it and it's gone then and you can just – that's it. So, yeah, it'd definitely be to try things before saying, "oh, it's not going to work anyway. There's no point in even bothering," because I was pleasantly surprised with how ours worked.
Malcolm Flanders [00:15:47] Excellent. Thank you. So if I summarise that it's be brave.
Charlotte Wathall [00:15:51] Yes.
Malcolm Flanders [00:15:52] Right, yeah, lovely. Alright Charlotte thank you ever so much. Really appreciate your time, and that was really interesting.Malcolm Flanders [00:16:04] Thank you for taking the time to listen to the Partnership Podcast, and I hope it's helped during this tough time. We'll continue to look at issues that are important to you as the pandemic continues, and if there's anything you want to hear about, please contact me on [email protected] Partnership Podcast is more than a year old now, and you can find our full archive on goldencharter.buzzsprout.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. Our episodes have covered COVID-19, regulation, marketing and many other issues that remain as relevant as ever. Thanks again and I'll talk to you again on the Partnership Podcast.