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stuck

I was recently at a funeral home strategy/training meeting and the Broken Escalator video above was presented as a primer for discussion.  This is a fantastic and thought provoking example for us in the funeral industry.  The NFDA just posted estimations that cremation will eclipse burial this year (see: Rates of Cremation and Burial) and consumers are as scattered in their views about death/disposition as cremated remains in a hurricane.

Yet, the majority of funeral service providers are “stuck on the escalator.”  Here are some examples:

  • “It’s not a problem in our community.”
  • “My families don’t/won’t blah, blah, blah.”
  • “We have been through this before.”
  • “We’ve always done it this way.”
  • “Training?”

The “stuck on the elevator” syndrome is also an epidemic in the funeral supplier world:

  • Repackage the same offerings.
  • Same casket, different color.
  • Discount and rebate games.
  • “Our research shows.”

Jessica A. Smith recently published a great post  I Want A Direct Cremation, Please on the OGR blog offering common sense approaches to assist consumers with cremation choices.   The pundits and talking heads (see Talking Heads; What We Allow Will Continue) continue to lead the blind sheep over the cliff with their “charge more and show more value.”  I guess my question is; why are there so many funeral providers stuck on the escalator?  Thoughts and comments?  From the desk of The Funeral Commander, Cheers Y’all! #thefuneralcommander

conversation starterI’m just returning from another funeral convention and I would like to provide “color” on my observations.  I had conversations and meetings with many people from practically every facet of the funeral industry, however I am certain those conversations would not get published in any industry magazines…somewhat lends back to “The Truth” series I recently posted.

From vendors, the majority complained of a lack of attendance from buyers and decision makers. On opening day of the exhibit hall, a cannon could have been fired down most isles and not hit nary a funeral service provider.  Something new and never done before was the presence of a suicide prevention booth; however it was hard to get in as it was jam packed with new vendors/first timers seeking counseling trying to figure out why their booth is not full of buyers (I guess they failed to read and take my advice on being an entrepreneur in the funeral industry).  The non-conventional conversation among this particular crowd (vendors) was that “second tier” organizations should consider events with exhibits such as these perhaps every other year.  The cost to attend, lack of ROI, and dwindling attendance is going to force some tough decisions in the future from a vendor participation perspective.  Suggestions of one big annual funeral expo that covers funeral directors, cremationists and cemeterians would suffice with perhaps individual breakout sessions if needed for organizations.  The individual organization fiefdom is a drain on vendors, members and participants.  Every state has its own annual organizational gathering repeating the same madness but on a smaller scale.  The smart states have completely eliminated exhibits.  So my vote (and I’m sure lots of others if they had one) is to let’s quit doing the same thing the wrong way over and over again…what’s that called?

The speakers and breakout sessions had excellent content with relevant information.  Again on the notion of “one big funeral gathering” with many speakers and subjects would stop the redundant messaging under different flags…so maybe the presentations given at the “one big funeral gathering” could be recorded then retrieved in an archived library for those not attending.  That sounds like a smart revenue generation model with mass appeal, but what do I know?

Speaking of tough decisions, the funeral service providers I had the privilege of chatting with provided me with realistic reports of their experiences at providing services/products to the ever changing consumer.  Outside of the emerging Social Media, technology and of course DNA collection (yes, that’s a shameless but true plug) they saw nothing really addressed how to provide better service to the consumers they serve.  Think about that for a moment.  Basically, if the company/vendor is not providing or improving upon a technology based solutions (sales, service, arrangements, B2C marketing, operations, or product) then the relevancy to a funeral service provider is benign.

An interesting and emerging segment that was present in technology seems to be a platform for consumers to memorialize themselves using an online portal to capture their life stories, videos, etc. (I guess Facebook/online obits is just not getting the job done).  The fallacy for most is the choice some really odd names which I personally wonder how consumers find them in the first place.  One of those odd named providers makes claim that their product/service helps with the “family experience” but when I drilled down a bit I got the old “we’re still working on that” position.  Basically, capturing a life well lived is a great notion, in fact some of these cats have somehow found people (companies) to invest in this idea without a strong revenue generation model (you know, pay back investors’ money).  Aurora’s value added Be Remembered has all of the components for such a platform (at no cost to the consumer or funeral home) which leads me to believe that others fail to do any relevant market research before launch.

The best non-conventional conversations took place off the floor with a drink in one hand and a cigar in the other (yes, that’s my favorite environment for great conversations). I think that all would agree such funeral gatherings provide a platform for those in attendance to have all important face to face interactions.  During these important extemporaneous sessions,  I actually was made privy to a new product that I think is brilliant; cremated remains, the life story, storage and columbarium all in one…technology, sleek design and a solution.  Another was about a new brand of funeral service to consumers; a collaborative effort for a brand that will capture and address the majority market in America…the 75% that make less than $50,000.  Those folks die too, but we don’t talk about them much.  Finally, this is a big world but getting smaller.  The alliances of companies collaborating on a global scale are becoming more commonplace.  I personally had conversations with people from Canada, Australia, Spain, Italy, China, Ireland and even New Jersey.

In a nutshell, if it’s not a technology driven product at the exhibitions and expos that assists funeral directors to provide enhanced service to their consumers, the interest level is dwindling.  There is always some that will pine for the days of yore, but those days are going away with facsimile machines.  The from my vantage point, defined success for the future in the funeral industry is messaging, technology and collaboration.  That’s the view from the field and The Funeral Commander.  Cheers Y’all! #thefuneralcommander

honor

The truth: U.S. active duty or veteran military members deserve proper respect for the title they earned and honor for serving our Country at their funeral. Recently, I have been party to discussions that some (few) funeral professionals just get this flat wrong. When it comes to military affairs and funerals there is no room for debate or opinion.  Anything short of our best effort is unprofessional and disrespectful.

One of the great attributes that the military provides for those that offer their life (only 1% of all US citizens) is the complete understanding of (and adherence to) regulations, standards and protocol.  The culture of discipline and following the chain of command ensures success from the most insignificant tasks to major initiatives.  Follow the rules, your leaders and do your job.  All of the success is not just happenstance; training takes place every day to perfect the standards of operation and organizational effectiveness.

A service-member has earned a title, whether it is Soldier, Marine, Sailor, or Airman. It is also customary to address that person by their rank; Corporal, Sergeant, Chief, Captain or the like.  Yes they are ladies and gentlemen, but they earned a title and rank which distinguishes them from all others, period.  By taking some time to understand the particulars about the military member (branch & rank) by funeral directors prior to engaging family or others, our profession is elevated. Trust me, for those of us that know the difference, it makes a difference.

One great debate ensued with a group funeral directors about proper folds of a flag while resting on a casket.  I hate to even share this, but there was actually a funeral director that stated, “I was taught this way and I don’t care who likes it or not, that’s the way we do it,” when referring to how they incorrectly fold the U.S. flag on caskets of veterans at his funeral home.  If you read my blog or know me, I love a great debate.  But I get pissed off and downright indignant when people, and I don’t care who you are, disrespect our country, our military or our flag.

In an effort to educate rather than humiliate, how about we read the link Congressional Research Service that provides information for proper uses of the flag.  More relevant information: Flag Casket Placement: http://www.vba.va.gov/pubs/forms/VBA-27-2008-ARE.pdf; Navy: http://www.public.navy.mil/bupers-npc/support/casualty/Documents/NAVPERS%2015555D.pdf; Army: http://www.armypubs.army.mil/doctrine/dr_pubs/dr_a/pdf/atp1_05x02.pdf; Marine Corps: http://www.marines.mil/Portals/59/Publications/MCO%203040.4.pdf; Air Force: http://www.mortuary.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-141110-023.pdf

If you take the time to read the information provided above, it’s blatantly obvious that, “we’ve always done it that way,” doesn’t cut it for military funerals.  As a point, wouldn’t it be great if all funeral homes had such detail in their operating manual and regularly trained on these along with other funeral related topics?  Well, some of us do, but that’s another subject.

The truth is that Military funerals are special and deserving of professionalism by those of us that provide the service.  If you don’t know, ask.  Most states have a National Guard burial detail and local military organizations like the VFW are always willing to lend a hand.  Don’t make it up, there are those of us that know the difference.  As one of them, Cheers Y’all.  The Funeral Commander #thefuneralcommander

think

I am creating a presentation after being asked to speak on the the topic “The State of The U.S. Funeral Industry in 2015” for an organization.  In a post earlier, Adapt and Overcome; Time for Bold Leadership, I made reference to outside influences challenging the funeral industry such as economics, shifting consumer views, and technology.  While furthering my research regarding consumers, I had a discussion recently that makes me ponder a contributing factor to our challenges; our own “internal language.”

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of visiting with the Life Celebration, Inc. team at its headquarters not far from Philadelphia.  If you have not had the occasion to do so, it’s quite impressive what this organization has created to assist funeral directors training and creating meaningful funerals. During the meetings, I had opportunity to have an in-depth discussion with Jim Cummings, Chief Experience Officer, regarding the Life Celebration, Inc. philosophy, training and offerings.  Jim made a statement that really resonated with me; “we have to change how, as funeral professionals, we view ourselves and the people we are serving.  They are not our families they are consumers, there is a difference.”

Jim has a very interesting point.  So, as part of my work for the before mentioned presentation, I looked up the definitions on dictionary.com:

family (noun; plural; families) a basic social unit consisting of parents and their children,considered as a group, whether dwelling together or not.  

consumer (noun) a person or thing that consumes & a person or organization that uses a commodity or service.

I have heard over the years and still today funeral directors refer to their customers as “my family.”   If someone didn’t know better, they would think funeral directors were actually burying or cremating a person from their own family unit (as defined and generally recognized by most of the population above).  If “my family” was accurate, a funeral director would not have to get all of the information for the death certificate nor waste copious amounts of time on the obituary.  He or she should know all this stuff about his or her “family” and funeral directors would be picking up the bill, or at least not profiting (we would never profit off of our own family…right?).  Where did this notion “my family” referring to consumers we serve come from?    Is there another profession that mirrors this philosophy; physician/patients, hotelier/guest, attorney/client, church/congregation, hospice/patient?  These other professions have compassion and love for those they serve, but don’t use the moniker, “my family.”

I believe this sort of “make believe posturing” in the funeral industry is one of the many contributing internal challenges we’ve created. Perhaps by viewing customers as what they are, consumers, we would not be failing to adapt to their needs.  If we can change the way we visualize ourselves, we will better understand those that we serve.  We would study their product/price points (not just sell whatever the vendors produce), their preferences for experience (rather than make them accept only what we have been used to offering), we would conduct services at different venues (not just our chapel or a local church) and we would communicate with them in the ways they communicate (social media, not the yellow pages) actually having something to say that is relevant to their needs.

If they are “your family,” why are they forsaking their loyalty to your firm and flocking to other funeral service providers like cremation societies, online providers, and so on?  Think about it; if they were your family, wouldn’t these consumers you are serving pretty much reflect your own family’s cultural, religious and historical funeral preferences?  Yet, we are bewildered why they won’t and don’t do what we want them to…like “our family” would.  The assumption that interjecting into a group of strangers or previously served consumer group’s life for 72 hours or so and assuming genetic ancestral linkage is just plain off base.

As usual and customary, I’ll get some push back from the Kiwi’s among us which, from my point of view, bolsters the Southern saying “a bit dog always yelps.”  My intent for this post and the presentation I am creating is to challenge conventional thinking and solicit other viewpoints to find solutions.  So, what do you think…are you yelping or helping?  From the Command Post through the fog of cigar smoke, 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

 

 

casket salesMy post earlier this week Let’s Make a Casket Deal has brought many responses.  If the funeral home operational model is in dire need of change to adapt to the shifting consumer market, shouldn’t the casket companies do the same?  The most resounding in box and emails from funeral directors I have received this week is that their casket salespeople are scarce until a promotion or “big sale” is being perpetuated (especially this time of year). A few nights ago, I had dinner with funeral home owners and directors.  They too had the same observation that casket company reps seem to show up now basically “hawking” (not my words, but from a funeral home owner) caskets or whatever their quota says the immediate need dictates your attention.

There was a time that casket company salespeople actually provided training and useful information other than “let’s make a deal.”  Again, the funeral world is changing, but are casket companies adapting?  Do you really need to look at a lithograph to buy a product, or can you go online and see for yourself? Merchandising?  Does a funeral home owner really need advice to know that the profit of a casket is whatever you decide the retail cost minus the wholesale cost? Does the phrase “buy low, sell high” ring a bell?  One of my favorites casket company quotes “YOUR WHOLESALE AVERAGE.”  All I care about is my net profit per sale!  If you don’t know that you can make the same net profit from a 20 gauge as a high dollar 18 gauge, send me an email and I’ll help you out. There is no direct correlation between your “wholesale average” and your net profit per sale…it’s the casket company’s way of saying “your wholesale average is helping our net profits.”

Just for fun, let’s take a quick economics and history lesson.  The cost of a particular white 18 gauge casket in 2004 was just under $1000 and in 2014 it is around $1950 (who knows what it will be in October).  I’m not really good with math, but that’s quite a stark increase in cost. Back then if the margin was $1.500 on this casket the consumer would pay around $2,500.  So, if the same margin was added to this product today the consumer must pay around $3500.  If today you purchase a white 20 gauge casket (or shop around for a similar product) for $700 and the margin is $1,500, the consumer pays around $2,200.  It’s not what you sell, but what you keep.  I have always wanted to conduct a consumer study by having white caskets, same color interior and different gauge/materials/interior material all lined up with corresponding retail prices.  What would the consumer buy?

Now you would possibly hear from some (most likely a casket company) that “we have conducted that test, and they chose the model with all the bells and whistles because of the perceived value.”  BUT; what if this was an actual at need purchase made with real dollars and has to be added to all the other funeral home, cemetery and cash advance costs?  Think about it.  Which of the before mentioned white caskets are you, the funeral director “better off” selling?  Either one.  IT’s the families financial and personal choice and they are happy and your net profit per sale is the same.  Help me understand where “your wholesale average” makes a lick of difference here?

Times are changing and so is the entire funeral industry operating model; from serving the shifting consumer, the funeral home, to the vendors of products and how they sell to us.  It’s time to take an objective and new look at how to purchase, price and position our goods we provide the families’ we serve.  So that “knock at the door from your new best friend to let’s make a deal” requires more scrutiny. Remember, it’s that time of year.  Cheers y’all! #thefuneralcommander

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