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How to Implement Change in the Funeral Home: An Interview with Jeff Harbeson, The Funeral Commander

Posted February 24, 2016

8 min read

We sat down with Jeff Harbeson, a retired military Captain and funeral home owner/partner, also known as The Funeral Commander, to get his insights on how funeral directors can follow best practices to implement change in their firm. Read on to also see what Harbeson recommends to funeral home leaders who are looking to help their staff better empathize to have greater perspective with grieving families.

Jeff Harbeson: I am a retired as Captain with 20 years of service, including deployment to Operation Desert Storm and a TAC Officer at Officers Candidate School where I taught over 400 non-commissioned and enlisted soldiers to become leaders. I began my funeral industry journey first as a casket sales rep taking me to today as a funeral industry leader operating multiple businesses within the industry.

Those businesses include two successful funeral homes, the TouchPoints Six Sigma funeral home operating platform, an online cremation service, an at-need payment company, a successful consulting company and co-host of the Funeral Nation show. I felt that The Funeral Commander would provide a perfect description of my military and funeral leadership experience.

Q: What is your advice for funeral directors who are looking to implement change? What can they do to support desired change in their firm?

Jeff Harbeson: Before implementation of any change, one has to acknowledge that a problem exists and understand where to initiate correcting the problem. When I first started this journey in the funeral industry, I wanted to learn everything I could about the processes, operations and costs of a funeral home. However, I could not find consistent or credible information simply because no real training existed to find the answers to my questions.

Before implementing any sort of change, my advice is to understand the process or problem and determine if change is necessary. The next logical step is seeking solutions to take corrective actions. Then rebuild the process, train and implement.

One factor to consider is identifying the audience that will be affected by the change. If it’s the funeral consumer, then you also must take into account that behavior modification (training of funeral directors) and monitoring of the process has to take place.

An analogy would be if you’re a baseball player and striking out frequently. You would have a coach analyze your swing so that he could teach you to take corrective measures. After modifications are made, then the hard work of practice and implementation takes place.

My team and I created a complete, alpha to omega six sigma based funeral home operating platform called TouchPoints. TouchPoints identifies every possible step that a funeral director and staff take, and we train multiple times per week to follow those processes. This system allows us to manage workflow and easily identify problems when they occur to take quick corrective measures. Again, back to the baseball analogy: there is a process in place for professionals to follow and they are in continuous improvement mode even practicing before a game.

Unfortunately, the funeral industry has hurt itself simply because once a funeral director gets out of school and gets hired to work, the general funeral home training program consists of: follow me and do what I do. The “trainer” may not have the best route to follow thus perpetuating the problem for the new director. Our system actually provides such great training that new hires, even if newly licensed, are making funeral arrangements on their own in a matter of weeks.

From a funeral industry training standpoint, we have CEU’s however in many cases are a colossal waste of time and resources. Many CEU’s have no intrinsic value to a funeral director and no “teeth.” Many times a funeral director is basically sitting in a session for an hour simply to sign off on a paper and get credit for attendance. No measurement of proficiency, just pay a fee and get credit. TouchPoints has a series of training programs so that our funeral professionals are performing to standards proficiently and are continuously sharpening their skills.

Returning to the question: you have to train to make change—just like professional baseball players take batting practice before a game. Making change takes intentional leadership effort and consistent relevant training for provide a solid foundation.

I can’t think of one issue or subject in the funeral industry that could not be corrected, addressed, or changed without training. From my point of view, training is behavior modification and it’s impossible to make corrective measures nothing is in place from the start. The majority of funeral homes have no training program or process in place to make changes.

Q: When looking at the entire experience a family has with a funeral home, it can be valuable for funeral home professionals to “see” that experience from the family’s perspective. How can we teach or train our staff to see this perspective?

Jeff Harbeson: Funeral directors meet with families during a time which most agree is very difficult. Part of our funeral director using TouchPoints for arrangements includes roll play. We actually get the funeral director to plan their own closest loved ones’ funeral. On top of that, we also have the role-playing director to make choices based on their own financial resources to pay out of pocket. It’s a valuable training session and enlightening for those that are fortunate enough receive. Without ever “wearing the shoes of the next of kin,” the anguish is only observed and not experienced.

Jeff Harbeson: Funeral home operations, in general, have not changed at all and many funeral homes are still serving the consumer the way they did 50 years ago.

However, the consumer has made a tremendous shift in several different directions. For example, consumers know more about our business simply because it’s readily available on the Internet. Twenty-five years ago, consumers had to actually visit a funeral home if they wanted information. Also, the way we communicate has completely changed. Therefore, the consumer is researching and making decisions however many providers have not adapted to using technology to reach the “undecided” consumer with relevant messaging.

In the past, a funeral home was in a community and if someone died or needed to make inquiry, they would physically visit the funeral home to get information from a funeral director. Today a consumer sits in front of a computer and conducts their own research without leaving the comfort of their surroundings. If a funeral home website or social media provides the information sought after, the consumer may then inquire. However, if the website is too “funeral-esque” (like playing piano music when you land, or funeral-wordy), the consumer moves on to other sources.

The trend of people separating from organized religion is a factor that requires attention. If a family is not affiliated to a particular faith and does not think that ceremony is necessary, that’s a problem for many funeral homes with significant investments in real estate as well as recovering revenue from funeral services, visitations, and wakes.

Another significant yet not widely addressed trend is how we are serving financially struggling families. The typical American worker earns less than $50,000 per year. Forbes recently posted a story about how 63 percent of our consumers don’t have$500 cash to pay for an emergency. As a general rule, funeral homes provide no training to their directors how to address the needs of financially struggling families.

Everything comes back to training: how do we address or how do we adapt to emerging trends? We need to know what we offer meets the demands of consumers. Identify those gaps, create a solution, train, monitor and refine.

About Jeff Harbeson, The Funeral Commander

Jeff Harbeson is Founder & CEO of The Harbeson Group which provides leadership on the battlefield of funeral industry innovation. By developing strategic alliances and relationships with other influencers to execute his visions, several successful companies were launched. Jeff is one of the Founders of Family Choice Funerals & Cremations™ as well as the Select Cremation™ brand of funeral service providers. Additionally, Harbeson and team developed a proprietary Six Sigma based funeral home operating platform, TouchPoints™. Also creating At Need Credit™, the company became the funeral industry leader providing loans and payment plans for consumers to pay funeral expenses. As a funeral industry entrepreneur, Harbeson pens the well-known blog, The Funeral Commander and he is also co-host of theFuneral Nation TV web show with social media expert Ryan Thogmartin.

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Feb Blog

Funeral service providers have a reputation for reluctance to make changes even if necessary for their own good, are generally slow to adopt pretty much anything new and rarely create from within. What if we took the example of the canary in the coal mine?  You know, a safety net just in case we were to get a sniff of dangerous carbon monoxide and can abandon the mine before coming to harm?  This business is not that simple, however so few ever get to taste the sweetness of success after taking a risk.

Why is that?  If we watch an episode of Wild Kingdom starring Marlin Perkins following the annual migration of wildebeests we can see in real time how we seem to act.  Just keep our heads down, move with everyone else and don’t venture away from the herd.  “Damn that river crossing, I’m staying right in the middle and just trying to survive.” Never mind a new route that may make more sense.

Does the fear of failure suppress risk taking?  Creation of new products or services should be initiated among funeral professionals because that’s where the “rubber hits the road” (more on this particular reference in the next paragraph), but the majority of something new comes from outside, not within.  Is it because everyone is so busy and simply putting extra time into something that may not work out isn’t worth the effort?  Did you know the modern day church truck was invented by Samson Diuguid, a funeral director back in the 1800’s in Lynchburg, Virginia? Because church aisles were too narrow for pallbearers to walk on both sides of a coffin, Diuguid created a much used product that made our job easier and the funeral experience better.

What about taking a risk in the funeral industry that my invoke ridicule and embarrassment?  Oh no, not from fellow funeral professionals!  Back to the Diuguid folks, they actually had the gall to use a rubber wheeled and a motorized hearse to carry a casket!  It’s said that other funeral directors made fun of Diuguid and even coined the contraption “blasphemous to the profession.” We have the same twits in abundance today and you can see them flitting around “busy” at funeral meetings and conventions.  They are easy to spot; usually adorned in full funeral director dress inclusive of suit, white shirt, and not too flashy tie.  Funny, since there isn’t a family to serve in site…impressive huh?  Interesting about this particular sect of the herd is that they themselves have never invested, created or invented anything in their lives however are the first in line with nay saying gibberish ridicule of “my families won’t” or “that will never” and so on. Funny though, when the something new takes hold they follow rest of the herd sometimes too late as the crocks are lurking for the finely-adorned stragglers.

As for me, I’m going deep in the mine with a cage full of canaries and keeping my #FNhustle on to make #FNchange to better our industry. Yep, I’m going to fail at some of my initiatives.  Yep, I’m going to be ridiculed (however not to my face because the before-mentioned finely-adorned, nay-saying eunuchs who literally don’t have the balls to do so).  And yep, I’m going to succeed and just keep mining.

I challenge you to go get some canaries and enter the mine; it’s hard, nasty work, you might fail and get laughed at or you may actually do something to make a difference. If not, please start shopping because the new season of conventions and meetings are starting and you’ll need to be seen.  From behind a thick fog of smoke in the Command Post, Cheers Y’all! #thefuneralcommander

 

 

Change Hustle

As a funeral industry entrepreneur I am blessed to be privy to many facets of this business.  Funeral homes, online cremation services, financing, media and other funeral service related products and services fall into my “wheelhouse” of operations.  I have written posts describing my perspectives and experience in this lofty adventure Funeral Industry Entrepreneur?Talking HeadsNon Conventional Conversations, and so on.  With all of this said, I write with confidence that I am unequivocally qualified to provide the following commentary.

The funeral industry (yes, it’s an industry because it generates $16 billion in annual revenue in the US alone) is experiencing one of the most dramatic shifts in our history. Everything from the economy, internet, and consumer demand dictates we are in an exciting period.  However, with this shift comes change and there will be collateral damage along the way.  Don’t think so?  Read this article from the Huffington Post  which points out that over 20,000 jobs have been lost and the revenues generated from our industry have declined.  Additionally, read the OGR’s Blog regarding trends that should be “wake up calls.”  I want to be clear that we have many funeral home owners, funeral directors, vendors and manufacturers that are making #FNchange and doing the #FNhustle, but for the rest of the herd…

I see hubris and arrogance at its extreme contributing to the fore-mentioned forecasts of despair.  In many respects, we are our own worst enemy because there are so many that are simply complacent.  An old saying “pigs get fatter and hogs get slaughtered” is also in play; basically there are those who have become wealthy (funeral homes and manufacturers alike) and are not investing in change (their people, products, services, real estate, or brands).  Basically putting lipstick on those pigs in a feeble attempt to dress it up, but it’s a still pig nonetheless.

Why is the majority resistant to change and growth?  Simply, it’s hard.  Money, time, learning, focus, training, and trust of others require a great deal of effort.  Reverberating in the halls of funeral homes are echoes of “it ain’t broke, why fix it?,” and “Our families won’t like that.” A few others include “We’ve always done it that way,” and “They will come to us because we have the best service.”  All of these statements are saying “We’re lazy as hell and we are not going to make any effort change.”

As part of my work, I spend an incredible amount of time and resources on funeral home websites.  I personally know of funeral homes with no website- looking at many others, they may be better off.  If I can tell how pitiful a funeral home is by their website, what does the consumer think?  If the website is this bad, how bad is the service and building? These types have bad websites or no “interweb” (yes, I’m being facetious) are telling the entire world just we are simply too cheap, lazy or ignorant to positively present ourselves as caretakers of the deceased.

There is much to say, but in an effort to be concise, I’ll post more on change in the coming weeks.  In the meantime, watch episode Episode #15 of Funeral Nation TV and our interview with Brad Rex, CEO & President of Foundation Partners Group to get a flavor of #FNchange as well as #FNhustle.

From a very thick fog from a sixty ring gauge Maduro cigar in the Command Post, Cheers Y’all! #thefuneralcommander

 

parting-logo@2x

Parting.com launched its site which has virtually every funeral home in the United States with pricing for services listed for consumer comparative analysis.  This disruptive innovation is the first of its kind in the funeral industry; the FTC, State and other funeral directory websites have never been able to accomplish…listing General Price List information for consumer comparison.  It’s reported that a small percentage (9%) of funeral homes offer any pricing information on their website which provides Parting.com with a tremendous opportunity for consumer search using the internet for funeral homes.

Parting.com offers line item pricing from the GPL for basic services, embalming, visitations, etc. as well as direct cremation from the funeral homes listed.  As a service to the consumer, the listed funeral home’s prices for at typical funeral (basic service fee, transfer of remains, facilities for viewing, facilities for ceremony/staff, embalming) are conveniently added from the GPL listed.  Average national prices for a casket, dressing/casketing and outer burial container are separately listed but all added together to provide the consumer a comparative look at firms in the particular area of search.

In addition, most of the funeral homes listed have photos of the location (most look like Google earth shots), a link to make an appointment as well as a function for a consumer to review the service provided at the funeral home.

Innovation in the funeral industry continues to evolve especially in technology sector.  I remember in the recent past funeral homes that did not have a computer in the building (I still get applications for one of my companies that appear to be completed on a typewriter) and had a fax with the rolled paper.  From my vantage point, Parting.com has created a truly disruptive innovation site that no doubt is defined below:

Wikipedia defines Disruptive innovation: is an innovation that creates a new market and value network and eventually disrupts an existing market and value network, displacing established market leaders and alliances. The term was defined and phenomenon analyzed by Clayton M. Christensen beginning in 1995.[2] More recent sources also include “significant societal impact” as an aspect of disruptive innovation.[3]

Interestingly, if a consumer is already searching the internet for a funeral home, they certainly have no or very little relationship with a provider.  Consumers now will have the benefit of comparative pricing if they are so inclined to use Parting.com instead of having to call or visit the funeral home for additional information.  Parting.com has “upped the ante” for funeral homes to create more interactive and informational websites to showcase their particular value, services, etc. to secure the internet shopping consumer.

Want to know more?   Tune into Episode #9 of Funeral Nation TV we interview the founders of Parting.com and learn about their disruptive innovation in the funeral industry.  From behind a thick fog of smoke and the Command Post, Cheers Y’all!  #thefuneralcommander

doc n a box

Recently we’ve been made privy to reports from NFDA (2015 Member General Price List Survey) and CANA (Cremation Rate Doubles in 15 Years & Correlation Between Cremation/No Religious Affiliation.  These reports provide excellent data of where we came from, where we are now, and initiates further need to focus on where we are going to meet the demands of consumers in the future.  In fact, Ryan and I discussed these topics at the top of Episode #2 of Funeral Nation which will air Tuesday October 13th.

I have been a proponent of continuous improvement of our funeral service brands from training, technology, services/products provided to the physical environment of where we operate.  This focus in my not so humble opinion is how we will both survive and thrive in the years to come as funeral service providers.  As I was watching this morning’s news, a medical segment was profiling an online or “virtual doctor visit.”

The online consultation is provided by a licensed physician or nurse practitioner though a webcam for personalized treatment.  When necessary, the professionals can submit an e-perception for pick up at a local pharmacy.  Online consultation is for the convenience of the patient and according to this particular story; patients are moving this direction in droves.  Convenience? Eliminating the hassles of scheduling an appointment during “normal clinic hours,” long waits at the ER or urgent care,  and the costs associated with a doctor visit, etc.  This new service allows the patient to remain in their comfortable surroundings and receive consultation; any guesses of what’s in the next paragraph?

As I write at this very moment I can see “we’ve always done it that way” (aka WADITW) smirking and thinking “that’s terrible service and unprofessional.”  Is it?  Similar service is being provided now across the country by savvy funeral directors that are in the quest of continuous improvement.  Yep, total online offerings with the consumer never leaving their comfortable surroundings and the cremated remains delivered to their front door.  Ole WADITW is smirking once again thinking “well, they can’t get a burial done that way and my families would never go for this.”   Yeah, you’re right Sparky.  But make sure and read the before mentioned reports above and maybe conduct some consumer research.  Remember when we heard “nobody will use a dang card instead of writing a check and I need a travel agent?”  Cremation is rising like the Pillsbury Dough Boy’s brother in a 400 degree oven!

As usual, my mission is provide fodder for thought by funeral professionals to consider and discuss.  If you don’t like the message or challenge for continuous improvement, then how about this provocative question: matching suits and ties or not?  From the Command Post and a thick fog of cigar smoke, Cheers Y’all!  #thefuneralcommander #funeralnationtv

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