Bill Backman III keeps Aurora Casket Co. Inc. competing Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2010

First it was the rise in cremations. Now Bill Backman III and his clients at Aurora Casket Co. Inc. are competing with mass retailers like Wal-Mart, Costco and even Amazon.com for casket sales.

You would think trends like these would be difficult to deal with for the nation’s largest, privately held casket manufacturer, but it’s all about how you approach it.

Backman has embraced the climb in cremations and spun the big-box competition to its advantage by not only supplying a product but spotlighting the additional support services it and its clients offer.

The result is an uptick in Aurora’s revenue, and casket manufacturing accounts for 20 percent of that growth.

“If you view it as a challenge, you become stale, you become stagnant and you become ineffective,” says Backman, president and one of the company’s owners. “When you view it as an opportunity, you’re thriving, you’re moving forward, you’re a winner.”

But before you can take your best shot at creating opportunities from changing trends, you have to spot them.

A family-owned company established in 1890, Aurora puts value on the fact that it doesn’t want to be a vendor — it wants to be your partner. And it’s those strongly developed customer relationships that help it identify trends.

“You have to have that partnership relationship with them,” Backman says of customers. “You have to understand where they’re going, what their goals are, what they want to accomplish, and you have to be able to execute the things that are pertinent to them. It’s a very delicate balance because you have to stay within what your strategy foundation is, what your vision and what your mission is to do that.”

If you are collecting the right data from your customers and the market, you can position your company to stay one step ahead of industry-changing trends that could threaten your company.

Do your research

Backman realized with more than 900 employees, service centers in 60 cities and sales offices in more than 80 cities that he needed a constructive system so that those in the field could relay what they’re hearing from customers back to headquarters.

Now the company uses a thorough process to gather information, sift through it and strategize on whether a new idea fits both their mission and their clients’ needs.

Aurora isn’t simply a casket manufacturer. The company provides funeral homes multiple products along with consulting services, such as marketing and business planning tools.

With a wide range of offerings, it’s important for Backman to understand each customer’s needs as well as his customers’ customers’ needs and how his company can act on those, especially the recurring themes.

“What we’ve done and what we’ll continue to do is a tremendous amount of research,” Backman says. “Our research ranges from studies internally to doing outside focus groups across the county to determine the needs and the wants that our customers will need to move their business forward as the business climate shifts.”

While technology is great for staying connected with clients, Backman finds real success from being in front of his customers, in their space, asking questions, discovering and uncovering what their needs are and what opportunities they might be exploring for the future. He directs his sales team, the link to the customer, to look for ideas that Aurora can implement to move the company and its clients forward.

“We want to know exactly what makes our clients tick,” Backman says. “We want to know what their beliefs are. We want to know what their strategies are. We may ask a question such as, ‘Can you tell me what five or six things have to go right for you in order for your business to be successful in 2010 and beyond?’ Then, we listen.

“We also want to find out exactly what our clients are hearing from their clients and what their shifts may be from an attitude standpoint or from an economical standpoint.”

You may be asking the right questions, but the second part to understanding your customers and doing solid research is really listening to what they’re saying.

“The keys to being a good listener are simply asking a question and really having the ability yourself to shut your mind down, open your ears up and listen to what that client is telling you at that point in time,” Backman says. “(Don’t) be thinking about the next question you’re going to ask them. (Don’t) be thinking about what your response is going to be in the next minute or 30 seconds. Really put yourself into the situation that you’re in in the present and listen to exactly what clients are telling you. That’s what I work on and I work on this continuously.”

Once your employees have compiled your customers’ concerns, you need a systematic approach to organize the information.

Aurora employees send their information electronically through a customized data system. The system is regularly updated to ensure it’s applicable to the company’s needs. One thing Backman has learned in order to be top in your industry is that you have to work quickly with the information that you have, and in order to do that, you have to be organized.

If you don’t have a system to gather information or your system isn’t working for you, conduct an internal assessment and consult external resources to find the best technology for your company.

“I would look at the things that best fit the culture and best fit the needs of what my organization is trying to do and trying to accomplish,” he says. “I would talk with other businesses that are in like situations, but not competitive situations with me, and see what works best for them. I would talk to professionals that are out there and utilize the skills that they have in order to be able to provide the services that I might need for my particular organization.”

Once you have a system in place for information to go in, you have to think about who looks at that information when it comes out.

Backman has put his marketing team in charge of collecting the information, organizing it, determining if there’s a need to act on it and, if so, delivering a recommendation to him in a timely manner.

If you recognize a trend, before you sit down and strategize, it’s important to clarify exactly what the customer is looking for. Backman trusts his marketing team verifies with salespeople any lingering questions and seeks more in-depth information if needed.

In the case of an accelerating number of cremations in the last decade, Aurora didn’t just rely on what it was hearing in the field — it hired a company to conduct focus groups to verify facts.

“Quite frankly, we’re not afraid to enlist the help of experts because we don’t know everything,” Backman says. “It’s a great feeling to be able to work with other professionals who are experts in what their fields are to give you ideas on what you can do to move forward.”

If you’re planning on conducting your own focus groups, Backman says you have to go in well prepared.

“The keys to pulling off a good focus group are the fact that the content of what it is that you’re going to be discussing has to be very, very relevant and very pertinent to what it i

s that those folks want to talk about,” he says. “You have to be dead on with … what it is you want to find out as an organization.”

Aurora determined cremation would continue to be an opportunity in the future. So now not only does it sell products for those who choose cremation to honor the deceased, but like its other services, Aurora has come up with techniques to educate their clients on how to deal with questions they receive about cremation from their own clients.

Review customer ideas

A customer recommendation might sound like a brilliant idea, but before you give it the green light, you have to make sure it fits your company’s foundation.

“We have a very, very detailed and a very good process, organized process, of understanding information within our organization and being able to move forward,” Backman says.

Each idea, before it becomes implementation-ready, must align with Aurora’s seven-piece strategy map. Think of it as a matchmaker game. Aurora runs the idea past the definitions of its core values and beliefs, its purpose as an organization, and its core strengths, competencies, operating model, who the company serves and its mission.

“We need to make sure that within the gathering of this information we have strategic clarity,” Backman says. If the idea passes the test of the strategic map, “that means that the strategy will have a much, much better chance of working than not.”

You have to use your best judgment on who in the organization to involve in strategizing based on the size and effect of the new focus. If the information from the marketing team affects the vision and mission, Backman has his hands on it.

“I recommend the CEO being in charge of it,” he says of creating the strategy. “It has to be a participatory process, but I believe that the vision and the mission must come from the CEO.”

The team of people helping with the strategy should involve members from departments that will be directly affected, such as sales, marketing, customer service, manufacturing and IT.

“I want to make sure that it’s an involvement of the entire organization so we all understand what it is that we’re going to do,” Backman says. “When you have the power of an entire organization moving forward and believing and having an understanding of what your core values are, what your purpose is, what your competencies are, who you serve and what your mission is, the power of that is phenomenal. The power of that is best of class.”

The more different departments of the organization are involved from the beginning, the easier it will be to circulate news and changes.

“You have to move quickly,” Backman says. “You have to be precise and you have to have a very clear understanding of what it is you do, but you have to execute and you have to move quickly.”

When implementing a new strategy, Backman reaches employees and customers through personal contact, external marketing pieces, social media and e-mail. It’s important for employees to clearly understand the message, so those who are passing the message along, probably the sales team, can communicate it to customers. After all, helping the customer was the entire point.

“We always go back to (customers) and tell them we listened because we listen to everything,” Backman says. “What we do from that point forward is we communicate again what we heard, what came out of the research and what we know to be the best practices for whatever that is for that particular situation.”

Throughout the entire process you need to be organized, but for Backman, the key is speed. He points to the fact that the company’s nimbleness comes from it being family owned. No matter what your company’s hierarchy, speed is an element you should work to perfect.

“The importance of moving quickly is getting quickly back to your client … with whatever that need may be that you need to move forward with,” Backman says. “It also shows your organization that you’re engaged, that you’re organized and that you’re truly, truly moving forward for the right reasons and that you truly, truly trust and have confidence in the things that they bring to you as a team at all levels.”

How to reach: Aurora Casket Co. Inc., (800) 457-1111 or www.auroracasket.com