I am blessed to meet, converse and especially learn from a wide swath of funeral professionals globally. Most every contact I always ask, “how did you get into the funeral business” and more often than not the answers are fascinating. Part of this blog and the Funeral Nation TV show is to provide others with different points of view, personalities and fodder for thought. Below (with permission of the author) is a story resulting from my asking “how did you get in the funeral business?” It’s a young man’s journey exemplifying perseverance, dedication to our industry as well as #FNchange and #FNhustle. From the desk of #thefuneralcommander, enjoy this story; Cheers Y’all!
The Move To Vendor Life…
“If you’ll serve a family in the way that they need to be served… and not in the way that you wish to serve them… then the sales will occur organically. At that point, you have become a true Service Professional.”
~ Dylan Stopher
I am a funeral director and embalmer. I am also a husband, father, friend, musician, teacher, author, poet, small group leader, and a myriad of other things. But I am a funeral director and embalmer.
I’m 37 years old, and I started in the funeral profession when I was 19. Like most of us, it was something that just sort of “happened,” and I couldn’t really explain to you at the time why I was okay with moving from bar-tending and restaurant management to funeral service. But I can now tell you, I am so glad that it happened… and I’d make this leap a thousand times over if I had to.
I started young, yes, and I worked in a state that allowed me to complete half of my apprenticeship before going to school. I did 4 of the 6 months, and then moved away. Once I enrolled in school, I started work for a funeral home in the city. It was an amazing time of growth and learning, both in the book smarts of the business and the common sense practical wisdom from the directors I served with. (If any of them are reading this now, they’ll know who they are… and how much they mean to me.).
After school I returned home to complete the remaining 8 months of apprenticeship, and then received my license. I worked for a couple years, and then there was a change needed… due to an immaturity and inability to deal with the death of children. This is a very, very real issue in our business, and it caught up to me quickly. But I did something unique with that opportunity… I left and expanded my skill set.
I sold cars. I know, not exactly what you’d think one would turn to, but it turned out to be phenomenally helpful for future use. I learned the ability to qualify what someone needs, rather than what they want, and the methods through which to keep them from going into financial ruin. It is vital that we, as funeral professionals, recognize that sometimes there are people who do have a champagne taste with a water budget, and we need to be able to protect them from themselves in this debt-ridden culture. Trust me, they’ll appreciate that much more than the collection notices and bills that follow the funeral.
Then a hurricane forced relocation, and I started selling homes (after a brief and uneventful return to the restaurant business). Real estate is a slower selling process, one that requires finesse and a deeper client relationship. It was in the sale of homes that I discovered how to truly build a bond with a client, asking the right questions to gain the right answers. Working through a slower process allowed me an immense amount of insight into the pre-arrangement side of our profession, working with clients all the way up to their time of need. It is a phenomenal skill to have.
Then I took a turn in retail, working for a cellular company that holds many awards for their distinguished program of coaching and developing leaders and teammates. I spent a few years with them in a leadership position, and learned how to properly coach people to greater levels of success. I also learned how to read through the numerical side of a business, and analyze patterns to forecast greater success in the future. These skills, combined with excellent practice in building relationships and rapport, would serve to be the launch pad for much greater success in my career than I could’ve hoped for.
I took a job to reciprocate my license into the state in which we were living, and that was the sole and express purpose of that role. I am grateful to that firm for allowing me the chance to do so, and we were all aware that it would be that and likely nothing more. When I was done, with a fresh license in hand, I went to work for a firm in a different part of our city, requiring my family to move… and there is where I began the greatest journey you could imagine.
I was a funeral director… an embalmer… then an assistant manager of a stand-alone… then an assistant manager and care center supervisor of the largest combo in the group… then a location manager of our newest acquisition. I served a team of wonderful directors, and we led our region in averages in almost every category (trumping our far larger competitors both in percentage and dollar amounts). I assisted our corporate trainer at times with insight, and was allowed the opportunity to train several directors in specific metrics. And in 2012, I was awarded the Funeral Director of the Year for the highest overall sales average in both burial and cremation, both pre-need and at-need in our region. It was phenomenal.
During that time, I met my current leader, owner of a vault production and sales license in our area of the US. The first time I met him in 2010, I told him that when he was ready to replace himself, I’d like to have the opportunity to interview. It took about four years, but I finally made the switch.
First, I have always wanted the opportunity to train professionals to be more successful. I’m an avid believer that our profession thrives on education to the consumer, and that directors and counselors can only educate and serve properly if they are educated and served thoroughly. I love to see people gain a higher level of success, and I find joy in that.
Second, I don’t do as well in a single office. In my favorite role in a funeral home, when I managed a team of funeral directors and ran a care center in the same building, I was always busy… always running… always having a meeting for something. I found great pleasure serving in that specific role, and it was challenging every day. However, it was not as much fun, or as exciting, as being able to visit with as many professionals as I do now. I drive… a lot. And some days are very boring, riddled with time behind a windshield only to find that my intended visit for the day has had a walk-in or a death call, and had to leave the office. But I visit with over 200 people annually, and I get to learn from their individual business models, and impart wisdom to them from a specific niche in our profession.
Third, I speak their language. I have literally sat across a table from thousands of people who have needed the service of a funeral professional, and I’ve done what my clients do. I know their stress, I know their pain, I know their love for serving others… and I know that if they say they need to meet another time, they mean it. I also know that when there is an issue that needs discussion, they don’t have a ton of time to go through every fine detail. They need answers quickly, and I can deliver them in a way that they understand (and I mean no disrespect to those who are vendors that are not also funeral directors and/or embalmers… please don’t think that).
Last, and probably most importantly, I’m crazy just like they are. Why? For the same reasons as above. I’ve seen what they’ve seen, and I’ve listened to what they’ve listened to. I know the pain of carrying the countless secrets that are shared in an arrangement office, and I know the joy of a family thanking you for a once-in-a-lifetime tribute that fits perfectly to the life of their loved one. We laugh about the same things… and we clutch our knees in a corner and cry about the same things. So when I speak to my clients, I’m one of them as much as I’m their vendor.
So given my individual path to becoming a vendor, there’s only a few things I can share with you in closing. First, vendor spots are rare, and we all know it. If this is something that calls to you as it did to me, seek it out and don’t give up until you get the position you want. Second, there’s nothing wrong with staying in a funeral home. I do miss serving families directly, and I can name some of those families and tell you exactly why I miss them… don’t feel like the only path up is the path out to vendor life and away from direct service to the families in need.
And lastly, possibly the most important thing I can share with you, never stop being a funeral service professional. That might sound silly, but let me explain. I keep my licenses current, and I’m ready to go and serve if called upon. I maintain close friendships with the directors I know, and I forge new ones with those I meet. I understand and remember what it’s like to be in the shoes of a funeral director under extreme pressure, and I will always temper myself towards that level.
I am a funeral director and embalmer. I am a vendor, yes… and I serve the larger populace by serving the funeral professionals… but I am, first and foremost, a funeral director and embalmer.
Thanks Dylan for allowing me to share your story! If you are a funeral professional and would like to share your experiences or share “how did you get into the funeral business” please call me at 540-589-7821.