Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Tombstone telemarketing

A delicate business: tombstone telemarketing

By SAM KENNEDY, The (Allentown) Morning Call

BETHLEHEM Pa. - Their lives intersected with a telephone message one of them would resent and the other would come to regret.

Joanne Creazzo, whose premature baby had died two weeks earlier, got the message one day in June. Jason Mueller, a tombstone telemarketer for New Britain Granite and Bronze, left it.

"I'm calling hoping to get in contact with the family of the late Anthony J. Creazzo," the 26-year-old Bethlehem Township woman heard him say after she pressed a button on her answering machine. "If I've reached this number in error, please give me a call. ... I'd be able to take your name and number off of our list. "

New Britain Granite, a lower Bucks County business, has been cold-calling potential customers since it was acquired by a regional chain several years ago.

Tombstone telemarketing might be as old as the telephone; nobody keeps track of such things in a niche business long dominated by mom-and-pop shops. But evidence suggests the practice has become more prevalent in recent years, the consequence of Wall Street-style corporatization and changing consumer habits.

These developments have intensified competition among the country's roughly 3,000 tombstone outlets. Today, the billion-dollar industry's biggest players locally and nationally are working the phones -- reflecting a general shift in the culture of death care.

In the 1980s and 1990s, marketing-savvy conglomerates swallowed up thousands of funeral homes and cemeteries, including some in the Lehigh Valley.

"When you have a publicly traded company, there's profit pressure from shareholders that affects the way the business is run at the local level," said Joshua Slocum, director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a national watchdog group based in South Burlington, Vt. "That can bring hard-sell sales tactics. "

Anthony was Creazzo's son's name, but she had rarely heard it spoken. His tiny heart stopped beating just moments after being born midway through the second trimester of pregnancy. To her and her family, he was simply "the baby."

The day of the phone call, Creazzo, a stay-at-home mother, had gone to Dorney Park with her husband and two sons, ages 7 and 3. She rode the carousel, ate cotton candy. It had been her first good day since she lost the baby.

Until she came home and heard her baby's name from the mouth of an unseen stranger. At that moment, her loss rushed back in all its intensity.

"As soon as I heard Anthony's name, I started bawling," Creazzo recalled. "And then I got really mad. ... "What are you trying to sell me?"'

Most people never hear about tombstone telemarketing before the death of a loved one which can be an especially sensitive time when the loss is unexpected.

In a 2003 letter to a Salt Lake City newspaper, a woman whose 3-month-old son died of sudden infant death syndrome described such a call as "tasteless and just plain cruel."

"I said, "No, thank you' and hung up the phone and cried," she wrote.

A Web search turned up similar accounts from people in New Jersey, North Carolina and Tennessee.

The telemarketers find their leads in the newspaper. They comb through the obituaries for the names of potential customers.

For both parties, the stakes are high. Tombstones also called gravestones, headstones or monuments typically sell for about $1,300. More ornate stones can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

"The business is not as nice as it used to be," said Dan Kainz, manager of one of the Lehigh Valley's biggest tombstone companies, Wenz Co. "People are more aggressive."

On the main thoroughfare in the small Slate Belt town of Bangor, tombstones are on display on the lawn next to Owens Monumental. Inside, a calico cat is sprawled atop a desk. Owens does business today much as it did a century ago.

Founded in 1896, it is owned by Keith Jones who, at 68, works side-by-side with his wife, son and son-in-law, still sketching monument designs by hand. He said Owens has served generations of the same families and gets new customers mostly through word-of-mouth referrals; he used to send out brochures in the mail but has never tried telemarketing.

"I just don't think a passing is something to hound people on," Jones said.

The company that contacted the Creazzo family, by comparison, is an example of the changing nature of the tombstone industry.

New Britain Granite, too, was once a mom-and-pop shop. But today it is part of The Stefan Memorial Group, a private company that has grown through acquisitions and mergers to a total of nine outlets in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Many more former independents have been swallowed up by Rock of Ages of Graniteville, Vt., whose spokesman described telemarketing as a "normal course of business. "

Vertically integrated, Rock of Ages owns quarries, tombstone factories and outlets that brought in revenues of $90 million last year. The retail side of its business includes 78 shops, including dozens bought in a spending spree after the company went public in 1997.

The industry, swept by a wave of consolidation, also has been roiled by changing consumer habits.

Some people are buying tombstones over the Internet, which has made easy comparison-shopping possible for the first time.

Through its online sales, Wenz Co., which occupies a city block on Hamilton Street in Allentown, has been able to expand its reach throughout eastern Pennsylvania and as far away as Texas.

Other people are sidestepping traditional tombstone outlets altogether a trend that has been encouraged by Rock of Ages, which has established distribution agreements with 450 funeral homes and cemeteries.

"Families want to take care of everything at one stop," said Gregory Havrilla, past president of the Pennsylvania Monument Builders Association. "It's the Wal-Mart concept. "

And, at the very moment all this is happening, the pool of potential customers is shrinking because of cremation. Cremated remains are not normally memorialized with tombstones.

Since 2000, the cremation rate in this country jumped 6 percentage points, to 32 percent of all deaths, according to the Cremation Association of North America. That's more than four times the rate 30 years ago.

The telemarketing techniques that Stefan Memorial brought to its New Britain location were honed in the Philadelphia area, where the company has been calling survivors for at least 25 years, according to Chief Operating Officer Larry Conroy. He characterized the pitch as a soft sell.

"We're just trying to introduce ourselves and then we simply wait for an OK to proceed," he said. Conroy said people rarely take offense to the calls: "It's very minimal. "

Yet, clearly, some people do. Joanne Creazzo was one.

After the day at the amusement park with her family, the telephone message bearing her son's rarely spoken name came as a shock. Grief followed. Then anger, directed toward the young man whose voice had entered her house uninvited.

Jason Mueller, 22, of Chalfont, Bucks County, hadn't set out to be a tombstone telemarketer. He stumbled upon the job in April in the help-wanted section of the newspaper. The ad was for the position of "appointment setter. "

A 2003 graduate of Central Bucks High School, where he played in the band, he dreams of becoming a music professor. His true passion is the trombone, not tombstones. He took the job because he needed money to pay for his online classes with Western International University, an Internet school.

After trying his hand at various kinds of other work such as data entry and, most recently, as a waiter Mueller said his current occupation compares favorably.

"I've been able to help more people than I've offended," he said. "I like being able to help people in a true time of need. "

But Creazzo did not want that kind of help. After her sisters complained to New Britain Granite, Mueller sent a handwritten note on company stationery.

He wrote, "I wish to extend my deepest apologies. ... This is not an attempt to sell you something. "The sentiment, however, seemed to be contradicted by the stationery's printed message: "When you are ready to make your selection for a memorial, I shall be most pleased to serve you. "

Creazzo's sisters called New Britain Granite with a terse response: If you contact our sister again, you will hear from a lawyer.

Most people don't decide on buying a tombstone until well after the death of a loved one, according to Monument Builders of North America, a trade group based in Chicago. A wait of three months to a year is normal.

It didn't take that long for Creazzo to make up her mind. For her, a tombstone wasn't even an option.

Her son's body was cremated.

LOAD-DATE: October 11, 2006


Alana Baranick said...

My comment isn't about tombstones or telemarketing, but this article reminds me of business operations that clip obits from newspapers and make laminated bookmarks out of them.

They mail one to bereaved relatives with a "Here's how to order more" pitch and "You can also get the obit plastered on a coffee mug."

Even though it was clear that an out-of-state company was behind the sales pitch, folks in my area, who were annoyed by this, complained to me, associating the merchandise with the obit writer, as if I was in kahoots with these merchants.

I've also heard from many widows seeking obit-laminating services, which my newspaper apparently offered many moons ago.

I don't think you can paint the bereaved-targeting opportunists with one broad stroke, though. Some bereaved families want these services.

Alana Baranick said...

Oops. Make that "in cahoots." I need spellcheck or a good dictionary.

Unknown said...

Whatever telemarketing it is, it would still be the factor that made a progress to a business. By the way, I want to thank you for sharing this post to us. It was indeed worth reading for. Keep it up!


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