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Monthly Archives: March 2014

TAC (3) For several years of my military service, I was a TAC Officer (Training, Advising, and Counseling) at an Officers Candidate  School.  Yes, that’s me in the photo providing some advice.  The mission of the school was to train Non-Commissioned  Officers and Enlisted soldiers to become combat leaders.  Subjects from indirect fire to proper dining etiquette were trained  all while being conducted in a combat simulated environment.  Development of decision making skills under stress,  leadership, and personal accountability; OCS is considered one of the premier leadership programs in the world.

Prior to a class graduating and receiving their earned Commissions, I would always offer this advice:

  1. Always keep yourself in shape; fat and sloppy is hard to follow.
  2. Polish your boots, press your uniform and have a fresh haircut.
  3. If you follow steps 1 & 2, no one will know you are an idiot until you open your mouth.
  4. Have something relevant to say, or don’t say anything at all.

Enough said.  Cheers y’all.

bench Funeral directors daily serve families making funeral arrangements that find themselves unable to pay for a desired  funeral to honor their loved one. A fair analogy quote for this situation is “I only have bus fare, but I want to buy a Cadillac”  (this comes from my fellow funeral professional Todd Winninger).  Just yesterday I was chatting with a funeral director  about payment plans for their funeral home.  When a family does not have a pre-need trust,  but has limited life  insurance, cash or  credit card balance, my company At Need Credit offers a payment plan.

Two of the three plans require that a family make a down payment, at least half of the goods and services of the total cost.  By asking a family to meet the funeral home “halfway,” then the family is committed and the funeral home can at least recover a majority of its cost of goods.  When describing the information about how the plans work, the funeral director asked me “well, what if the family can’t come up with half of the total cost for a down payment?”

My response to the director was similar to the title of this post; “if a family cannot come up with half of the down payment for your goods and services, why are you trying to sell them a Cadillac when they only have bus fare?”  There was a silence on the other end of the phone.  I went further “what are you currently doing if a family cannot produce even half of what you are charging for goods and services?”  The standard answer was given “we reduce the casket and services” the funeral director said.  So then I went into the math mode “so lets say your least expensive service with the least expensive casket is $4995 and the family doesn’t have even $2,500…what are you reducing…are you performing a graveside service with no visitation, no embalming, and no hearse?”  Silence again…then “well no, we just try to work with the family” which in funeral director terms means that the firm takes whatever the family can pay at the time, perform basically what the family wants, and hope for the best.

Just a week ago I addressed this issue from a different perspective titled “A Real Dilemma, the Cost of Being Broke.”  The issue is not going away; I get emails, phone calls and inquiries daily from funeral homes inquiring about At Need Credit payment plans. My funeral home locations weekly face this problem. The questions I want to bring to the funeral professionals: if your family only has bus fare, why are you trying to sell them a Cadillac?  I know that there are going to be responses from some that some social or government organization will pay something…but even then, are you matching the goods and services with the amount you collect?  Meaning, if the organization pays your firm $1,000 what do you give the family in return…do you provide the absolute minimum?  I hear often, “what if the family has no money?”  I then ask. “how much is no money?”  I have personally seen a “no money family” pay $15,000 cash for a funeral.  From my own experience, I have never known a family to have absolutely $0…I am not disputing that they exist.  So another question for discussion: when a family says they have “no money,” how does your firm serve them?

Anyone with a computer, television and even those that still read newspapers (I personally dont know anyone anymore that gets the paper under 75 years old) knows that our economy is in the toilet…if not, CNN Money reports that 76% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck to bring you up to date.  For discussion sake, please share your funeral home solutions to those that “have bus fare, but want to buy a Cadillac.”           Cheers y’all.

acute_angina1 Okay, so this time last year I was recovering from a serious medical event  that should have, for all practical purposes killed me.  But as my kids say, “it’s  hard to kill ’em”  (referring to my side of the family).  I distinctly remember  being in the back of a siren blasting ambulance thinking to myself that with  all the close calls in my life including Iraq scud missiles bursting overhead  upon impact of our Patriot missiles, this little episode isn’t going get me  either.

Upon arrival a the hospital and some excellent quick work by the cardiac physician on duty, my “widow maker” was reopened and I was extended life…again.  After being moved into the ICU strapped down like a Hannibal Lecter, I then endured the barrage of family, friends and medical staff coming to see that I again cheated death, and of course to tell me that I have to “slow down.”  Yea right.

Interestingly my diet was pretty good, I exercise regularly and had a physical only 2 months prior that I did well with “no issues.”  Obviously they got this one wrong.  Thanks to modern medicine, I’m going to keep living life, but better living through chemicals…you know medicine.  I never took medicine beyond some seasonal allergy stuff and in my younger days, a bottle of Pepto Bismol after a night of alcohol buffoonery. So, one change of getting older…I now watch the drug commercials sometimes wondering if what I’m taking is going to give me bleeding eyes, itchy ears and some “seeping” issues as side effects.

After 3 days in ICU I went home and was on “house arrest” which meant I was supposed to chill. The second day I jumped in my car just to drive around for some scenery change and a cigar. During my confinement I also had to be “taken” to the hospital to meet with the rehab folks to “get me in line” so I could live longer.  When I walked in the rehab facility, I thought I was a geriatric health club.  I have never seen so many white Rockports and exercise suits in my life.  The counselor proceeded to ask me questions about family history, my eating habits, work habits, exercise routines, social habits, etc.  Upon conclusion and her review, she started right off the top with “well, you are going to have to stop eating chips, drinking any alcohol and the cigars must go.”  At that, I laughed and said “nope, I must go…now”…never to return.

Okay, so here is my theory on life and getting older.  First, either you do or you don’t.  I refuse to do anything other than to live what I have left any other way than what makes me happy…cigars and all. If eating chips sometimes is going to kill me, so what…I am going to die of something.  Medicine? Well, I have not had any notable side effects that would cause me to stop my taking prescriptions, but I still pay attention to the commercials. I’m not going to wear white Rockports for exercise, and yes golf is exercise. I currently have severe hearing loss from my military days and really is no solution for tinnitus. …so I’m the “what did they say” guy already.  I will drive until someone hides my keys.  As if this is a revelation, as I get older I will continue to speak my mind…I’m a believer of not telling you to go to hell, but the truth, and that feels like hell.  If you are a woman, I’ll call you “ma’am” no matter your age, I won’t write the response to women here that find that “offensive” .  When I think you look nice, I’m going to tell you, get over yourself, I’m not hitting on you.  I’m still too vain with my hair not being combed in public and to not dress nice. I refuse for my belt buckle to point downwards (from an oversized belly)…nor am I going to pull my pants up just below my nipples (at least not yet). Getting older also, for whatever reason (maybe from overuse when we are young) our sex life slows up a bit…oh well. On rare occasions, this subject presents tough decisions. Frankly sometimes I choose a good sandwich, chips and watching football…unlike sex, it lasts longer and I can nap along the way.

A year later, I’m still pretty much me.  I want to continue to be no one else and try to bring humor (my style) to approach life… my acuteangina and all.  If I had known I had one, I probably would had done things differently a long time ago.  Getting older is funny…Cheers y’all.

poor Saturday night I received a call from a lady that in years past I coached  her son in football.  The reason for her reaching out to me that her  niece, only 24 years old had just died at home and she wanted our  funeral home to assist their family.  Unfortunately, the young woman that  died had a debilitating disease and was released to home hospice  from a major medical center only the night before.

I know this family personally and frankly, the word pitiful comes to mind.  You know the family in your communities, truly struggling through life never seeming to get a break.  After providing me with the contact information, I forwarded the data to our on call funeral director.  Within just a few minutes, I received another call from the brother of the deceased.  He told me that he was the only one in the family with a job, almost everyone was on disability, and that finances were going to be a serious issue.  After listening, I shared with him that I understood and that our firm would certainly accommodate them to the best of our ability.  Since finances were an issue, I inquired whether he and the family would consider cremation; he said that was not an option.  They had a family farm property in another county and it was his sister’s desire to be buried there, the least that they could do.  Since this was a home hospice call, our staff was on the way as we spoke and I assured him that we would do our best and our conversation ended.

The best of our ability…this means that we (our funeral home) have to at least cover our costs; removal staff, casket and such.  Even with our offer to do this, what family wanted, they will still to struggle to cover the costs we must pay. When they came in to make arrangements, I was there simply so lend support and let them know that I truly cared for loss (I’m usually traveling all over the planet).  The funeral director conducted the arrangements as our standard; providing them information so that they could make educated decisions.

Anguishing from the experience losing their 24 year old loved one was now coupled with the living struggle of eking their way through life in financial stress…all the time.  I observed as the funeral director repeated what they were requesting from our firm, and then provided them with the cost for doing so.  We had agreed to provide what they wanted and reasonably could afford at our cost.  This family shared with the funeral director what funds they had available, and then we were able to provide them with a payment plan for the balance…still, just covering costs.

I felt compelled to share this real life event for a few reasons.  First, just plain human empathy for this family and so many others finding themselves in this very position.  Living day to day, struggling to make ends meet.  When death or another catastrophic event occurs, all of life’s regular problems are magnified for these folks.  Second, the families like this are one of the fastest growing groups in our country economically.  As a business person, whether a grocery store, shoe store, gas station, clothing store or pick a business; we have overhead costs just to keep the doors open and pay the people to provide service.  In the funeral home business, we are no different.

The difference in the funeral home business is that we are called provide service for those that have lost a loved one, regardless of their financial status.  Some states and municipalities offer indigent funds in the event of indigent death.  I have read that those offerings are “drying up” and non-existent in most areas such as our area of operations.  Many outside the funeral home business have no idea that we are not reimbursed by a government entity like Medicare of Social Security if a family has no life insurance and limited financial resources.  When a funeral home takes possession of a body, by most state statutes and regulations, we must either embalm or refrigerate within a certain time frame.  This regulation does not preclude getting paid from the family.

My heart really does go out to families that are financially suffering, God bless them.  I also understand and have concern for the gut wrenching job a funeral director does to meet their needs, both financially and their requests.  From one owner/partner of a funeral home to the others that read this, my true reason for writing this post is for more people to understand the business we run is more than just nice suits, shiny cars and transactions.  We make decisions that have profound effects on families, our employees and our business…it just isn’t what it seems.  Cheers y’all!

kiwi I want to share a few news stories profiled about the funeral industry  just last week; “FTC Undercover Inspections of Funeral Homes in Nine  States Test Compliance with Funeral Rule Disclosure Requirements,  Unlicensed Funeral Director Probed for Questionable Cremations,  Funeral Home Owner’s License Revoked After Settlement, and Family  Alleges Funeral Home Buried Wrong Baby During Service.” 

With those sorts of headlines, is it any wonder that consumers are skeptical when they walk into a funeral home?  We know that with any profession, there are bad apples and operators.  A quick internet search will reveal similar news about poor practices in financial, medical and other industries.  My point here is that the funeral industry is not leading the charge of positive news and demanding necessary change; rather we are allowing the negative news to dominate the headlines.

The FTC mandated General Price List disclosure is a fundamental regulatory tenet of our business.   Violations sit squarely in the lap of funeral home owners, period.  I have personally conducted “secret shopper” services for funeral home owners and to their dismay; some of their employees would have cost significant fines for lack of disclosure.  But why should there be surprise when funeral homes conduct no consistent training, monitoring or any regular oversight of their directors?  Our industry is predicated on people who when the proverbial “arrangement room door closes,” the funeral home owner and the family are subject to whatever information the individual funeral director provides…right or wrong.  What really fascinates me is the posture many in our industry maintain about training, “trying something new”, use of digital presentations, or changing their current operations.

There is a story I heard about the differences between a Kiwi bird and an Eagle. The Kiwi bird is short, has a long beak, and is flightless because of its lack of wing structure eating bugs, worms and such. The Eagle has large wingspans, a hard beak, with powerful talons and eats small game.  The Kiwi spends its day trying not to be eaten by predators and searching for food in fields with high grass, basically keeping their head down and only paying attention to just what they can see beyond their beak.  The Eagle takes to the sky searching for opportunity to gather its food.  So, if a field is on fire, the Kiwi keeps right on going about its business and doesn’t know the field is ablaze until its beak is on fire.  On the other hand, the Eagle circles above to prey on the food that will be running from the fire…

We have too many Kiwi’s in the funeral industry…myopic, resistant to change, apathetic and no idea that the “field is on fire.”  The FTC mandates, most States regulate, industry organizations (NFDA, ICCFA, NFDMA, etc.) offer best practices, yet the funeral industry Kiwi’s dominate the headlines.  So, how do we change this dilemma?

First, the Eagles have to clean up our own house.  The simple answer is training and behavior modification.  Create and conduct regular in-house training on relevant functions such as when to provide a family your GPL, proper body identification procedures with checks and balances, etc.  Sit in on arrangements and evaluate the information being provided to families. Of course many are afraid to do this…but who owns your business?  Even more important, who is accountable and must face public scrutiny along with paying fines for poor behavioral practices of your staff? Demand accountability, but clearly communicate through training, monitor and follow-up your concise expectations.  Training provides your team with the knowledge that as an Eagle, you set the operational tone of your firm.  Failure to do anything short, well, you’re a funeral Kiwi.

Once we have our own houses in order, let’s all engage in providing a cure for our symptoms.  How about we demand federal legislation that if a funeral home has a website, their GPL must be displayed?  By providing consumers information, they can make educated funeral decisions. The firms that fail to either have a website or comply, well too bad.  Let’s change the CEU system…attending boring classes about mundane subjects that have no teeth or relevant educational value is a waste of time and resources.  How about add exams for the CEU’s with a high proficiency rating for continued licensing?  Now, that sort of news would be much more encouraging to consumers if we are making serious efforts to “police our own.”

Okay, so there’s my two cents worth about the disturbing news last week and initiating conversation about solutions.  For what it’s worth, yes, our firm trains at least 3 times per week.  If you want to have conversation about how we accomplish this, please email me and we can chat.  As for the Kiwi’s, frankly I don’t think we’ll hear much from them…they are too busy looking for worms.  Let’s hear from you Eagles!  Cheers y’all!

arms I have had recent conversations with several young funeral directors  about their future.  These were both male and female, legacy (those that  their family owns the firm) along those that are employees.    Interestingly, the majority of their visions of the future were similar and  mostly dependent on where they are currently positioned; legacy, employee, corporate owned or family owned.

The common theme was their leaders/managers rarely solicit their ideas or viewpoints of how, if they had an opportunity, would improve upon different subjects.  I don’t think this issue is strictly a funeral home occurrence as “junior associates” in many industries such as banking, legal and such fare the same.  From my personal experiences, I am excited to listen to fresh perspectives from newly licensed or apprentice directors.  Our particular brand had greatly benefitted in such areas as use of technology, our proprietary arrangement process and other operational aspects.

The most concern I have from these conversations, even from legacy directors, was the lack of excitement for their future.  When these bright minded and aptly educated directors aren’t engaged in a culture that is propagating continuous improvement, why would they be excited?  Basically, the notion of doing their job, following the mundane routines of a funeral director and long hours should suffice.  I always ask “if you were in charge, or you could start your own firm, what would you do” and I get a litany of ideas.  These folks are thinking and have interesting perspectives. 

My favorite question is “would you like to own a funeral home” and most answer that it would be impossible…which bothers me the most.  I’m afraid we are losing the entrepreneurial spirit with our next generation of directors.  In many cases, they face an uphill battle.  Securing the capital to purchase  is difficult enough and funds for a startup funeral home stepping out on their own are even harder.

So as a matter of conversation, from “tenured” funeral directors to those at the beginning of their career, what are your thoughts?  Are we providing our next generation with enough engagement to maintain their interest or squashing their spirit? 

 

entrepenuer I recently heard a definition of an entrepreneur as one that jumps off a cliff  and builds a plane on the way down…this has a ring of truth.  We often see  news about people that have been successful bringing their ideas not only  to fruition, but made gazillions of dollars like Zuckerberg and Jobs.  But as  for the people that toil, try, fail, and start all over again, they rarely get much  press.

I personally know some in the funeral industry that daily get up and “build the plane”  with internet companies, products, processes, training modules and yes, new funeral home operating models.  I am often fascinated with how these folks envisioned their respective ideas and their take on how to penetrate the huge market.  The idea is not the hard part, it’s in the development, implementation and penetration of the market.  What many of my entrepreneur friends don’t realize early on that their product or service generally must be presented/sold/offered by funeral directors.  This particular part of the equation is frankly the most difficult to overcome and develop into a large scale.

I have a personal saying “a vision is only a dream without execution” meaning it’s not enough to dream, it’s all about making it happen.  I was part of developing a new funeral home operating model based on Six Sigma and Lean practices that opened in 2010.  The utilization of digitized arrangements for consistent messages to consumers, training of processes like home removals, all being done from computers which eliminated the need for office staff.  The service focus is providing families with a positive funeral experience, not wasting their time or money with outdated funeral processes.  Of course, the industry and competitive neigh sayers wanted to pigeon hole us that we don’t provide service, can’t this, don’t that, blah, blah. Interestingly and over 800 death calls later, our executed vision is growing with a great start to our fourth year in 2014.

The lessons learned as a funeral entrepreneur at the funeral home development level prepared me for other services and products.  I found that it was most important to listen to the consumer, not to “industry norms” or funeral directors about “what our families don’t like or we’ve tried that before.”  Funny thing when the consumer is provided with information, they make good funeral decisions.  But left up to some in our industry, the consumer would never have known nor had opportunity for selections.  The funeral consumer market is continually shifting and demand changes over time.  For instance, the current economy is significantly different than just 10 years ago, but many firms are presenting the same services and products without refreshing to current conditions.

Armed with this experience, I am involved with bringing new products and services to the funeral market.  Prior to launching with the general funeral home populace, we BETA tested.  I spent most of the effort listening to consumers and their acceptance/demand.  Along with feedback of best practices from the funeral directors that actually presented these services and products, I am certain of the success.  I sat in on arrangements simply to observe and learn.  Unfortunately, our industry does not take this same approach to new services and products. Rather, an idea is born, the product/service developed, and then the developers spend every effort trying to convince funeral directors of their particular success…without truly vetting both those that present and the end users; at need funeral consumers.

Knowing that consumers want and need a product or service, yet operating in an industry reluctant to offer anything new, the avenues of approach are significantly different than other industries.  So, for my fellow funeral industry entrepreneurs, here is some advice:

  1. Meet face to face with funeral home owners and directors or present using digital technology.
  2. Don’t waste your time trying to convince the entire industry, just find a few that are progressive enough to understand and execute.
  3. Use social media to promote your brand, services and products.
  4. Spend time with a firm and staff training them to present your service/product.
  5. Do the math…use realistic numbers for their revenue projections from sales of your service/products.  Measure the results.
  6. When funeral homes begin offering your service or product, support their efforts.  Listen to their feedback of best practices and what their families have to say.  Ask to sit in on arrangements to find out for yourself if your products or services are being presented correctly…listen to families.
  7. Provide firms with tools to inform the public of the new service or products they are offering (press releases, articles , social media avenues, and marketing techniques/tools such as information seminars to hospice or other organizations)

There is plenty of opportunity in the funeral industry for entrepreneurs, but few that make the effort and even less that succeed.  Keep building the plane…Cheers Y’all.

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