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GenesisThe news broke yesterday on Connecting Directors  about Genesis Casket Company closing it’s doors.  I read comments from various people in the funeral industry touting their opinions regarding the company’s poor leadership and conjecture why the company failed.  Let’s take a different view at why a casket company going out of business at this point and time in our history is really bad news especially for the funeral industry.

Many of the funeral industry pundits, most  which are marketing “superlatives” that have never made a home removal or know the difference between a rough box and a alternative container have been leading the sheep about the oncoming huge spike in death because of Baby Boomers.  Sounds like great news from the Willie Wonka crowd, but a reality check of what’s happening is quite different.  Baby Boomers are living longer, spending more of their money to live, therefor dying with less. Guess what skippy? If your funeral home is relying on the Baby Boomers’ offspring to pay for the Disney Experience funeral from their own pockets, you’re in trouble because that age group is having difficulty paying for access to the annual county fair.  If there is money left for the next generation, they are paying for their own debt and bills (assuming they are actually living on their own and have not “boomeranged” back home). Take a moment and read an eye opening article from The Guardian about what’s going on in England and “the funeral poor.”  I know, “that’s happening over there” but the news continues:

Cremation is the fastest growing market segment and in the near future, cremation will surpass burials.  I’m not really good with math, but how many cremations must a firm perform to equal the same net revenue as a burial?  The consumer shift away from burial to cremation is not the best economic news for most funeral service providers because of the antiquated model of their operations.  No need for the big chapel, hearse, limo’s, embalming room, caskets, vaults and personnel.  In fact, no need for anything because a quick Google search and a consumer can not only order a pizza online, but also have grandma’s ashes delivered to the front door.

As usual, I’ll receive some of the snarky comments from the “establishment” about how great the orchestra on the Titanic sounds and their classy outfits make the experience so much better.   To circle back to reality; Genesis Casket Company closing is terrible news for the funeral industry.  If the market was so great, the Boomers would be dying at record pace with festivities rivaling a Super Bowl halftime and casket companies would be sprouting up all over the place.  What’s even more pathetic are those that take joy in the failure of Genesis and the people now out of work.  Well, you know what they say about Karma.  By the way, I think the orchestra is playing your tune…

From the Command Post; Cheers y’all! #thefuneracommander

Nice post by Dan Katz of LA ads.

Funeral Advertising for the Perplexed

storybookHaving minimal research on this point, I’ll still propose that just as soon as Man could communicate, he told stories.  Storytelling seems to be embedded into the human DNA.  We understand much of our world through the stories we are told because stories, not mere recitation of facts, put things into perspective.  Fables, myths, history, even the Bible, are passed along from one to another by stories that illuminate the consciousness.

Stories are also how great marketing works.  Which is why I include it as one of the Six Essential Traits of Effective Marketing: UniquenessClaritySimplicity, Surprise, Story and Experience.

So, for instance, you want people to know you have the most compassionate team in town.  You could simply say so.  Or you could relate a story about how one of your support crew noticed a family member shaking in the cold and took off his…

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Expo 14During my tenure in the military, upon completion of each mission/exercise we conducted an “After Action Review.”  Basically we what as supposed to happen, what actually happened, why was there a difference and what can we learn to train/improve upon.  I’d like to amend the process a bit and share with you my viewpoint/perspectives from the NFDA Expo 2014 in Nashville last week.

First, the venue was outstanding.  Nashville provided a perfect city that offered not only the Music City Center for the Expo and meetings, but also great accommodations along with a variety of restaurants as well as entertainment opportunities (and shopping…I saw many boot boxes while checking out of the hotel). I was able to briefly chat with Christine Pepper, the Executive Director of NFDA during the welcome reception party at the Wildhorse Saloon and congratulate her; she and her team really threw a fabulous gathering which was a prelude to what was ahead for the next few days.

As predicted and customary, the major players in the industry participated displaying their products and services along with some “new kids on the block.”  From my perspective; After Action:

In the casket display genre, Aurora Casket led the way at their booth by displaying their culture; they had a “vibe” that reflected warmth and relationships rather than antiseptic “we’re really big, look at us.”  What personally struck me was their Be Remembered website that provides us with the ability to capture our life with a “bucket list,” write our life story in our own words, and plan our desires for services at our death.  It’s a brilliant tool for anyone to use, and as a matter of fact, I’m using it myself.  Aurora also had, in my humble opinion, a fantastic new wood casket that exemplified simple, down to earth, but classic.

Life Art Caskets has broken the barrier between the cardboard cremation container and the bland products we are accustomed to offering families in lower cost cremation containers.  Their cremation containers actually provide a reason for a family to choose something better for their loved one with an array of styles/colors all the way to customized products.  I know that Life Art has excellent success internationally and I am certain that we’ll be seeing quite a bit more about them in the near future.

ASD launched their Mobile 3.0 app MobileFH™ feature while in Nashville.  Kevin Czachor and team are leading the way in the funeral home communications arena.  In particular first calls; not only making the lives of funeral directors better, but managing response and needs of families from the onset.

As you can imagine, urns were everywhere.  The standout was Foreverence Urns, a new and unique offering of custom product blended with technology.  If you can envision what you want, they can design and create an urn truly reflective in their unique art.  The Foreverence use of 3-D technology and ceramic art is a breath of fresh air in the crowded urn field of over saturation.

Speaking of getting crowded, jewelry and glass art has taken hold as a staple in many funeral home showrooms.  Pardon the pun, but the clear front-runner in glass art is Crystal Remembrance.  Perhaps I have an affinity to doing something well and sticking to it, plus their patented DNA double helix design doesn’t hurt either.  The Crystal Remembrance art is an elegant and tasteful keepsake that is a generational heirloom for any family.

I can’t say enough about the continued emergence of Disrupt Media as the leader and only full service social media company in the funeral industry.  Ryan Thogmartin (also of Connecting Directors) melds his experience, relationships and knowledge of the funeral industry to reach multiple audiences which includes engagement of funeral consumers.  I was privy to some exciting initiatives that he an other funeral industry media superlatives are launching in the near future to reach both consumers and connecting funeral directors (I could not help myself).

To complete my personal highlights and to provide a “keep your eye on” is a company called Lifescapes that offers a new and simple product which holds excellent value.  Lifescapes offers family, friends and colleagues a unique way to collectively reflect on the deceased at a visitation, funeral, memorial or celebration of life.  In a word, it’s a collection of many words.  As a side note, I found out from my youngest son over this weekend one of my word descriptors: “enigma.”  I’ll write about that one in the future.

There was lots of “new and improved” but really nothing that I believe was noteworthy.

What didn’t I see?  If you read my blog and posts I continuously have the belief that many of the funeral industry woes can be addressed with training.  Really, pick a subject where training would not solve a problem we all face.  Maybe I missed it, but I did see nor was made aware of any funeral director in-service training tools or programs.  I’m not referring to CEU’s, the “travel junket” seminars (that most funeral directors never get to attend) or Mortuary Schools.  I mean regularly scheduled and intentional training for funeral directors…but hang on friends; I have an idea!  More to come.

Wonderful to see friends like Jeff Staab (Cremation Solutions), Dan Katz &, Rolf Gutknecht (LA Ads), The Deyonne of Death, AKA Gail Rubin (A Good Goodbye), along with Allison Sullivan & Patti Bartsche (Kates-Boylston).  I met new people and had interesting conversations relevant to our continued quest to refine our approach to serving families.

Unfortunately, the Carolina Panthers have been turned into “cheese whiz” in Green Bay and my cigar is at it’s end (yep, I did take the band off).  I trust that if you were unable to attend the NFDA Expo in Nashville, this post provided some information that you may find interesting and you’ll take a little time to look at the companies/websites I think were noteworthy.  So from the Command Post, cheers y’all!  #thefuneralcommander

 

 

 

part 2The first post “Loyalty and The Funeral Industry (part 1)” has created great responses.  When I say great I mean many responses, not all them happy with me.  I was particularly pleased to find out that my readership includes some “big company executives” that I suppose perpetuated the old Southern saying “a bit dog always yelps.”  I’d like to remind readers that I am sharing my experiences and perspectives from being a funeral industry product/service provider, a funeral service provider, and from funeral consumers themselves.

When I took the leap from the field sales role into entrepreneurship of developing and owning a funeral home, I wanted to take a different approach.  First, I wanted to learn all I could about funeral home operations, processes, the consumer and the markets that I intended to operate.  Because I had no shackles of legacy keeping me bound to “we’ve always done it this way” (a phrase I abhor), I initiated what I was taught in the military called a “table top exercise.”  I went on home removals, facility removals, sat in on arrangements, studied P&L statements, etc. and basically categorized what I believed to be each step of the process on paper. Yep, I wrote down every step, one by one.  Simultaneously, I studied the principles of Six Sigma to create a template of process to overlay of my observations.

One of the most important steps during this process was listening to families during arrangements.  Obviously I could not ask families anything, however I created questions later to be asked in a focus group. The focus group study was conducted in another state with a similar demographic of the first location to be opened.  The issue of funeral home brand loyalty was important because we had no brand or name within the community and we wanted to know how to attract families to our new approach to service.

We had 2 sessions with consumers (about a dozen or so in each, multi ethnic) that had at some recent point made arrangements for a funeral of their loved one.  In a focus group study you may know that the questions sought after are not always asked “point blank,” but they are woven into the process.

One question was “if a new funeral home opened in your town, say in a former bank building in a nice area, would you use that location?” Some of the respondents raised their hand, but only a few.  For those that did not, the question was asked why? Basically, they did not know anything other than it being a new funeral home and didn’t know who was involved which would make them reluctant. The facilitator went on to other questions and then came back around asking “if that new funeral home in the bank building had licensed funeral directors, perhaps with a history of service, would you then give them a try?”  About 2/3 of the participants raised their hands indicating yes.  Again, the facilitator moved to other questions and then settled on prices that they actually paid at various local funeral homes.  We had already surmised the local average of burial and cremation costs by conducting a GPL survey.

We found it interesting that the participants responded with all sorts of dollar values.  The facilitator had to further explain that he was looking for the price of the burial services/casket or cremation services/urn only, not cemetery, outer burial container or obituaries (quite a lot of negative response on obit costs).  Finally, the question came back to “remember that new funeral home in the bank building, operated by licensed directors with experience or credibility?”  “What if that funeral home offered similar burial services and caskets for at least $2000 less, would you use the new funeral home?”  All the hands went up.  Then “if this same new funeral home offered similar cremation services and urns for at least $1,000 less, would you use the new funeral home?” Again, all hands went up responding positively. So there was one of the answers we were seeking; there is a point where loyalty has a price.  This group offered us quite a bit more from how/where they got their information (internet, newspaper, television, etc.) to importance (or lack of) having the actual product on hand or digitally presented would sit with them; all important elements of creating a new operating platform.

We have experienced success at our new brand of funeral service because of this and other “listen to the consumer” processes put into place.  Asking the consumer to provide us information prior to actually physically coming to the funeral home either on home removal or online was met with positive response.  Basically, my theory of getting all the “data collection” out of the way early and focusing in on the life lived was right.  Our proprietary TouchPoints arrangement system engages families in a co-creative process, not a “inquiry of data.”  We made tremendous strides operationally including the death certificate prepared prior to arrangements, digital presentations, consumer engagement via social media which all created a positive funeral experience…building loyalty the new way.

In development, I knew that price was not the compelling reason because other factors are even more important.  I always hear “well, you get what you pay for” in many circles when new competition starts eroding market share. Again, back to the car analogy; the next funeral you have look at the make and models of the cars on the lot (if there are a lot of Buick’s, you are in trouble). The consumer will decide the value proposition.

Frankly in my opinion (and we all know I have one) loyalty must not only be earned, but maintained.  Just because your firm has been serving since Sherman burnt down the South does not dictate loyalty.  Continuous improvement is sometimes painstaking and changes must be made.  A great example of this is a dear friend of mine that has been in the business 35 years and is an owner of a firm serving a local community, primarily Italian, since the early 1920’s (yes, he’s from “up North” and my friend).  The traditional families his firm serves for over 90 years has shifted to a nearby township leaving his location in the middle of a demographic market that has completely changed, including real estate values.  The families still come to him, but he realizes at some point they will begin to look elsewhere for many reasons.  Being proactive, he made a decision to follow the families by moving the entire operation to the township where the majority of his market has moved. His summation is that he needs to follow his market, not stubbornly resist the inevitable. Go into cities and look at boarded up churches…consumer shifts from not only location, but from traditions.  Sound familiar?  I think someone famous once said “go where they are.”

One last observation I personally experienced learning about is online funeral consumers.  By paying attention, we found that families were seeking online services from other states for their deceased loved ones right in our operational zip codes only because our locations were conducting the trade work. So what did that mean?  This particular segment of consumer had no “relationship” with a local funeral home (including ours), searched online, and made a choice based on the information found on a website.  Now I know what some of you will say (yes, I know who you are). “Well, we wouldn’t do the trade-work which is perpetuating the whole thing in the first place.”  Don’t.  The family clearly did not choose your firm in the first place for whatever reason, why not at least get some revenue from the transaction?  Being proactive, we addressed this consumer segment accordingly.  The online funeral consumer segment is growing.  If you think about it, this is the epitome of no loyalty.

So, what’s your firm doing to create and maintain brand loyalty including capturing the folks in your zip codes looking elsewhere?  Why are they seeking funeral services by some other firm that yours? Perhaps your website is not suitable with information (really, take a look at funeral home websites, I dare ya), or the prices you charge may be out of balance for the market (and the consumer has to come see you to get them at your location in a bad area of town).  “Networking” at the Lions Club is going stale, “marketing” by obituary placement in the local paper, restaurant place mat ads and printed calendars is failing.

“We’ve always done it this way” is not the answer for loyalty in the funeral business.  As usual, I am looking forward to the responses prompted by what I shared.  As always, don’t shoot the messenger (however I have been shot at before), but let’s have lively discussions.  So from the Command Post and through a blur of cigar smoke, Cheers y’all! #thefuneralcommander

 

 

part 1I have spent some time in the past years studying the shifts of “loyalty” in the funeral industry from a few different perspectives; from a funeral industry product/service provider, as a funeral service provider, and from funeral consumers themselves. My observations are from actual experiences/research including my tenure as a sales representative for a funeral products company, a funeral home owner/partner and a funeral industry entrepreneur.  There is quite a large amount to share, so this blog will have several segments over the next few weeks.

My first real loyalty (or lack thereof) experience in the funeral industry was when I worked for a big funeral products company. It was my mission to sell our provided products/services to the funeral homes in my assigned territory(s) and secure those relationships with multi-year contracts.  The contract was primarily to provide caskets, urns and some ancillary stuff at a discounted/rebated rate for 100% of the funeral home product purchases. My reality check was during my visits to the funeral homes I would notice products in the garages being stored that were not from our brand.  Additionally, you know how funeral directors love to talk, I was always made privy to why the urn sales were down by “you didn’t hear this from me, but we have whole closet full of X brand urns in the basement.”  What made these example scenarios interesting was “rebate check” time when I delivered the rebate check and it was lower than expectations.  Then it was “chickens come home to roost time” because the number of services provided and products sold were way off base. One of my favorite responses was “we are really here to assist you, but paying you a rebate for purchases from another company was not added to the contract.”

The even larger disillusionment while busting my fanny to not only sell for the company but to generate revenue for my family came when I unwittingly uncovered that I was not the only one in my territory selling my company products; so was my company.  Through local distributors under a different brand name my company was selling a “less expensive product with different features” to the same funeral homes that I supposedly had developed business relationships and even “100%” contracts.  Of course, my direct supervisor vehemently denied that any such activity was taking place until I actually showed him a price list and photos of the product.  That’s where the fun began.

During a particular company meeting I addressed this issue to the company leadership and frankly the responses were hilarious.  First starting with denial, then to “not the same products, these don’t have the same blah blah features” to “they are not manufactured with the same standards and finally “these products are not going to your customers.”  Being like the Coast Guard motto “Semper Paratus” I came with all the evidence with photos of the “non-features” and those photos taken in funeral homes within my assigned territory base.  You can imagine my popularity numbers were flying high with the company “big cheeses.”

This issue simmered for a few months and finally fully substantiated on a customer trip visit to the manufacturer.  While touring one of the plants, I noticed unfamiliar shells of caskets on the factory floor.  There was a point of manufacturing process that we prided ourselves as “unique.”  I watched one of the unfamiliar products go right through that same line and the process performed exactly like the other “core-line” products by the same personnel.  Taking the initiative, I asked the person performing the task in the factory “what type of casket it that, we don’t have those in our area?”  God bless him, he beamed “it’s a BR549 (names and brands not used here to protect the guilty).”  Basically, my suspicions confirmed that my company was manufacturing, selling and offering caskets to the customers in my territory without me receiving any of the revenue for those sales.  Some loyalty.

The influx of “foreign” caskets a few years ago was all the flurry of conversation.  Articles written, comparisons made, law suits brought about.  The “American made” label was touted by some of the companies basically offering that consumers would be totally off-put and “no one should be putting their momma in one of those.”  Hold it a second.  Remember that factory tour?  Stacks and stacks of “Made in China” boxes were abundant and in clear view for all to see.  Huh? And oh yea, how about the “we have a plant in another country, but it’s still our skill and craftsmanship that makes the difference.  I won’t even get started on urn manufacturing, just turn over the product and look for the “made in what country” label for your own answer.

There are other instances but not enough ink or finger typing endurance to share more.  My summations for the reasons for these examples of “lack of loyalty” are simple.  Although funeral homes enjoy the support provided by some of the vendors that provide their products and services, as owners we always seek better pricing.  If nothing else, the contract is supposed to be a binding “loyalty” contract, however I dare say they are pretty much nothing more but a piece of paper.  The vendors get all indignant about this issue, but as the example above with the BR549 product line, contracts really don’t mean anything to the vendor either.  It’s a vicious cycle; funeral homes vie for the best price (notwithstanding contracts) and manufactures sell however and to whomever they can find to buy their products.

I’m old enough to remember vehicles made overseas and how we viewed those vehicles.  Guess what’s at the top of the best selling cars on the road in America?  Some of those very cars we made fun of back then (see 20 Best Selling Cars July 2014).  The point here is consumers demonstrate some of the exact purchase and loyalty behaviors that we mimic but complain about in the funeral industry.

Why are we so shocked that consumers choose less expensive service/products (to some in our industry the analogy code words are “discounters,” cremation societies and online purchasing)?  Subsequent posts to this blog will address these same behaviors from consumers.  Don’t shoot the messenger, it’s an issue worth addressing;  I look forward to your responses and the discussions.  My cigar is about completed…so from the Command Post; Cheers y’all! #thefuneralcommander

 

 

 

 

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