Who says great customer service is dead? Nikki and John McQueen believe they have the clues to help others.
John McQueen was in the funeral business in St. Petersburg so long, he likes to say, he goes back to when the town was known for weddings and funerals — the newlywed and the newly dead.
That’s some 40 years. He started at 15 years old, when he dug graves for the funeral home his dad, William McQueen, co-owned with a business partner, John Anderson. The even let him drive the hearse to funerals. “They stuck me between the lead car and the limo,” says McQueen, “so I couldn’t get lost.”
When the younger McQueen was 22, his dad died unexpectedly. The son soon took over the business, Anderson-McQueen Funeral Homes.
By 2017, the business had expanded to other parts of the Tampa region and was doing $7 million a year in sales with some 75 employees. It served 3,300 families and 2,800 pet families, and also introduced several customer-first services. That includes being one of the first to offer pet services; providing Starbucks through a Legacy Café to families and guests; and offering bio-cremation, an eco-friendly alternative to flame-based cremation that uses water and potassium hydroxide, reducing the body to bone ash. “We were one of the most innovative funeral homes in the country,” says John McQueen, 54, who ran the business with his wife, Nikki McQueen, 51.
The couple sold the business in 2017 and has since embarked on a new mission: to help other businesses grow and thrive, starting with a new book they published, “Lessons from the Dead: Breathing Life into Customer Service.” They parlayed the book into a business consulting company — despite the seemingly unlikely pairing: delivering a world-class customer experience to a family in a world of emotional pain.
“A lot of times you go places and customer service isn’t what it’s supposed to be,” says Nikki McQueen. “We help people to improve their customer service in easy steps. It’s what we did every day at the funeral home.”
From the book and in an interview, some of the couple’s advice for breathing customer service into any business includes:
• Surprise and delight: Delight isn’t normally connected to a funeral home, but the McQueens attribute much of their business success to the concept. One example: John McQueen knew a recently deceased person they were preparing a funeral for loved to go fishing in Tampa Bay. McQueen bought a paddle from WalMart and had the person’s name and the phrase “Gone Fishing” laser-engraved on it. “We didn’t tell the family we were going to do that,” says McQueen, “but it meant so much to them.”
• Listen up: To get to delight, the McQueens say it’s essential to train all employees to be excellent listeners. They often told employees and managers to have conversations and make decisions with clients with the company’s why front of mind: does it help families heal? Only strong listeners — who don’t assume — can do that consistently.
• Details matter: The McQueens are sticklers for the little things, from where to place your nametag to landscaping at the front entrance. The correct side for the nametag, says John McQueen, is the right side, so it doesn’t shift when you shake someone’s hand.
Pull Quote: ‘We tell all our associates, the experience the customer has is up to you.’ John McQueen
• On the train: Of course, getting to surprise and delight, and noticing details, requires strong training. The McQueens spent a lot of time on training and re-training at Anderson-McQueen. “These are really just basic things, but people have to remember them,” John McQueen says. “We tell all our associates, the experience the customer has is up to you. There’s nothing friendlier, than a warm smile.”
• Be the best: The cousin to an emphasis on training is a concentration on employee rewards. At Anderson-McQueen, that included giving away some 15 cruises to employees and their families after a year of competing for monthly top employee awards. One employee, at his 40-year anniversary, was given a new Ford-150 Truck. “You need to recognize and praise employees,” says John McQueen. “They need to know they are doing a good job.”