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Please read this heartfelt and emotional account of a funeral director’s heart. #thefuneralcommander

A Simple, Village Undertaker

Today was a tough day. I cried at work and it has been a while since that has happened. Not that crying is unusual at my workplace, it’s just that I’m usually not the one doing it.

Before I tell you about today, I need to provide a brief, back story:

This past December, we were called to handle the cremation for a man whose next of kin was his sister.  As we navigated through the process, I saw where she lived and mentioned that my family had once lived in an adjacent neighborhood.  As we continued to chat, we connected the dots  and soon came to realize that our families had been next door neighbors for a short time before we moved  from Columbia to Aiken and they moved to a new home.

Happier times, almost twenty years ago. Happier times, almost twenty years ago.

That period of time is a bit of a blurr…

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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

Happy 3

This is not my typical blog post because it’s deeply personal pouring into words grief, grace, and gratitude.  If you read this in its entirety, you’ll not see my regular content but real, raw life…and death.

As parents our single greatest fear is the loss of our child, no matter their age.  In the funeral home business, we frequently serve such painful and tragic services for the survivors that grieve an early death.  I personally know two funeral industry professionals that lost sons this year.  I had conversation with the parents of one and I was deeply moved as they shared with me about their son along with the anguish they are suffering.

This past Wednesday a young friend, team mate and fellow Military Academy mate of my oldest son Hunter died.  Graduation and life had separated them along with all the other young men that shared their unique educational experience. However, news of the loss spread nationwide among this group of young men that would bring them together once again.

Such an event causes deep introspection and I was moved by the discussions I had with Hunter about life, death but most importantly his personal foundation as a man.  In the midst of tragedy sometimes there is an emergence of realization for things we just cast aside yet now become vividly important.  Listening to him my heart was filled with pain for his loss, pride for his expressed thoughts and emotions along with my inability to slow the steady stream of tears…my own emotions.  He and I are close, but such deep conversations are rare for any men which makes me grateful for our discussions.

Young men trekked from across the country to pay their respects and gather in support of each other as well as the young man’s parents.  But this story gets worse; another young man from this same group died the night before the visitation.  My wife had found a photo of Hunter and the first deceased young man along with a third baseball team mate and fellow student.  I posted the photo below on my Facebook page sharing my grief and prayerful thoughts for all that were suffering from the first loss…and now we are left with only one.

HMA 1

This post is to publicly share my own grief for the loss of two young men, offer condolences to their loved ones and friends.  I also want to share my gratitude that God has blessed me immensely with two sons that I’ll be able to wrap my arms around this week and express my love to them. Only by grace are we all not in such a period of grief that others may experiencing this week from the loss of a child this past year.

I have gratitude that God has provided me a platform to share this along with other experiences globally.  As this is being written, I’d deeply aware of true thankfulness for being loved and respected by those that mean the most to me.  As I get older, the things that I want most cannot be purchased and I truly seek what I admittedly took for granted earlier in my life.

This week of Thanksgiving is different for me because I know of four chairs around family tables that are empty this year because the tragic loss of four young men.  I’m not going to ask the typical “what are you thankful for this week” question.  I’m ask that you to reflect on the true life stories I have shared with you and simply challenge you to express love to those most important to you right now.  There will be empty chairs at someone’s table this time next year…

Normally I conclude with my cigar ablaze and a cheeky good bye.  But today, I close this with tears flowing and earnest thoughts of grief, grace and gratitude.  #thefuneralcommander

change positions

Funeral directors meet with families during a time which most agree is very difficult.  Arranging the funeral of a loved one is stressful and often the necessary decisions made are clouded by varying emotions as well as grief.  Part of the regular funeral director training provided at our funeral homes for arrangements include role play; our funeral directors plan the funeral of their closest loved one in detail.

The role a funeral director performs is to provide information so the family can make educated decisions.  Without ever “wearing the shoes of the next of kin” the anguish is only observed and not experienced.  I have personally been part of this training and I can attest how emotional the process may be, even in a training environment.

I have conducted funeral home training on this subject and the results were enlightening.  One of the interesting scenarios created was that the deceased loved one had not pre-planned with a trust, had no life insurance and the expenses must be paid out of the role playing funeral directors personal resources.  As you read this, put yourself in that position; it’s up to you to pay for everything you select for services and products right now out of pocket.  Ask yourself; what would that do to my current personal financial status?  Having this thought in mind, would you buy the best of everything?  What would your choices be if you we financially responsible for the goods and services selected today?

When meeting with families, it’s natural to wonder why sometimes the decisions made seem to be other than what is customary or expected.  On top of financial stress, family dynamics enter the picture sometimes.  Just like many of you, I have personally witnessed strained funeral arrangements with a bad cocktail of financial woes and family discourse.

Finally, I know many funeral industry professionals that experienced unexpected loss of their spouse, child and parent.  After talking with some, their perspective of wearing the shoes of the people they normally serve changed.  If you are a funeral professional and lost a loved one, you know the angst.  Otherwise, think about conducting funeral director training for arrangers and changing shoes with those you normally guide; it may have lasting impact.

Funeral News! Ryan and I recorded our inaugural Funeral Nation TV web cast show that will be aired October 6th…I am certain you’ll enjoy the FN show! From the desk of The Funeral Commander, Cheers Y’all.  #thefuneralcommander #funeralnationtv

Sep 25

How is your funeral home “pre-planning?”  Death is inevitable but so are shifts in the funeral marketplace, consumer behavior, the economy, and so on.  Pre-planning for funerals is a tenant of the funeral industry which millions of dollars are spent to compel consumers to make choices prior to their own demise.  I am totally on board for all efforts to propagate funeral pre-planning for a myriad of reasons like easing the burden from those left behind, making personal choices and it most cases it makes good financial sense for the consumer as well as the funeral home.

As a matter of fact, take a look at what consumers are finding in the market place for planning. The conversation and topic is widespread for individuals to get their “affairs” in order.  End of life planning companies like Everplans.com are providing planning platforms offering a vast array of services and advice from wills, trusts, closing online accounts to final wish funeral preferences.

So as an industry if we believe that pre-planning is so important, how are we pre-planning for the future at our funeral homes?  Take a look in the employee break room (some places known as “the bull pen”) or where the work schedule is regularly posted.  Is there a schedule for training anywhere to be found?  Not CEU’s that frankly don’t have impact for maintaining or enhancing funeral directing professional skills (which based on the news reported by the Star Press in Indiana 30 Hoosier Funeral Directors Cited would have been a good idea). Planning for regular, intentional and relevant training should be on every planning calendar in every funeral home.

How about pre-planning for marketing?  This Social Media thing requires more effort and thought than placing obits on Facebook pages (and as note, LinkedIn is NOT the medium for such).  A recent article written by Ryan Thogmartin of FuneralSocial.com  posted on funeralOne’s blog Do’s and Don’ts-Future of Facebook Obits should be a training session in itself.  A well placed plan for posts, topics and editorial not only on Facebook but also funeral home blogs provide returns to the funeral home with positive exposure.  Does your funeral home have a media manager that schedules and plans for messaging/content?  My favorite mediums (yes, I’m being sarcastic) of the paper place mat ads in the diner or calendars don’t usually provide much planning effort, so it’s time to GET SOCIAL!

We all know it’s that time of year; price increases by casket companies which means the majority of funeral home owners change their price lists to reflect and offset rising costs.  Of course, I have much to say on this subject, however for this post I’ll limit the observation to why only now?  Why only once a year?  What type of formula is used by your firm to calculate pricing? It’s all about planning.

Succession planning is a topic that should be put into place at every funeral home, it’s like having a will for the business.  What would happen if the owner gets hit by a bus?  Who takes over and more importantly, who is capable of replacement?  By the way, some owners would answer this question with: “no one could step into my shoes, this place would fall apart without me.”  What type of training is being provided for such an event?  I have personally witnessed and know of funeral home owners making attempt to sell their business and retire only to be abruptly stopped come business valuation time.  A rude awakening comes when dreams collide with reality.  Our industry has professionals such as Succession Planning Associates for such advice.

The point of this post: are we as an industry practicing what we preach?  What type of planning does your firm conduct, how often and what are the benefits being reaped from this ever-changing business?  As we all know, life can change pretty quickly (or at least that’s what we tell consumers), what’s your plan?  Speaking of planning, stay tuned for details about the best FN news and commentary show in the funeral industry:

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From the desk of The Funeral Commander, cheers y’all!  #thefuneralcommander

TFC-Truth & HellI posted Can We Handle the Truth? a few weeks ago with tremendous feedback from many points of view.  Most  were in agreement with the notion that we in the funeral industry need to take a step back and reevaluate our businesses from many avenues of approach.  There were some that agreed with the post content, but doubted that such a collective discussion would ever take place, much less have impact.

I have traveled extensively the last few weeks attending a “meeting of funeral professionals” (I’ll leave out the name of this particular event to protect the innocent), meeting with several funeral home/large cremation providers and with a prominent/high volume funeral financial provider. At the funeral professionals meeting the format allowed for various speakers within our industry present a multitude of topics from how to manage change to the importance of social media (yawn…old news talking about it, implementation and execution are foreign strategy topics).  I listened intently to most of the speakers and one stood out as a practical real world, experienced voice.  In a nutshell this funeral provider actually understands consumer segmentation, invested, created, and implemented services/products to meet demand.  This man and his company created several different value propositions based on consumer needs/demands finding tremendous success; how refreshing.

In the very same week, an article was published by a well-respected industry leader regarding price competition.  The message had excellent points  such as projecting a clear message to consumers differentiating your brand versus competition along with providing value and customer service.  Let’s take a short look at how Walgreen’s does it:

What’s the message?  If one brand offers the exact same service for a better price (value) and can clearly communicate to consumers…what are the results?  Why didn’t the commercial show the pedicure for $30.00 ($10.00) more…would the lady react  the same? The truth is that a basic cremation is transfer of a body from place of death, the necessary paperwork, and the crematory fee. Most states require a minimum cremation container which adds to the cost.  How can a firm clearly articulate the difference to consumer on these basic charges in a value proposition?  Well, “we’ve been here forever, we care more, we have a bigger building, etc.” is not much of a definitive set of reasons to pay over $1000 more for exact services.  But here is the rub; the next piece of advice in the article is raise your prices.

A few thoughts about raise your prices. I get it, I really do.  If a business has expansive real estate and huge operating overhead costs, raising prices is just about all that can be accomplished. OR can change the model, cut fat out of operating costs by updating with technology and training personnel to perform better.  Perhaps earn new business by (fill in the blank) marketing?  Maybe even do as the speaker I referred to above, invest in developing different brands to meet consumer demands. Three elements of sustaining a business: 1. Do more business 2. Raise prices 3. Cut costs.  Does the current economy dictate that raising prices is the best answer right now?  Competition (like the Walgreen’s commercial) is savvy communicating their message to consumers.  Basically, they can do what you can do…for less and actually make profit.

There are many firms in the US that have created fantastic opportunities for celebrating life with upgraded facilities, offerings of services, technology, clear messaging and a true reflection of “you get what you pay for.”  The same firms invest and respond by creating value and realize that “one size does not fit all” by broadening their business (most cremation societies are owned by large funeral homes).

Just for fun, let’s look at Merriam-Webster’s definition: Valuethe amount of money that something is worth : the price or cost of something: something that can be bought for a low or fair price: usefulness or importance.  The funeral industry definition: Value: pay more for something that can be bought for a lower or fair price just because we say so.  The article is right on point; show value…

An analogy:  2015 Cadillac ATS vs. 2015 Toyota Corolla; ATS base $33,215-Corolla base $16,950.  Now the question is: for the majority of working Americans, which is the best value?  Both are transportation and designed to take you from one place to another.  Many would absolutely agree the ATS…however, if the consumer does not have the ability to buy the ATS, the value means nothing.  Are we trying to convince consumers that a Corolla should be priced the same as an ATS and has the same value?  Value is defined by the person making the purchase, not by the person selling…it’s hard to show the value of a Cadillac if you only have money for bus fare, “I Only Have Bus Fare But I Want to Buy a Cadillac”, sound familiar?

The truth is the consumer is dictating changes that some funeral providers are unable to meet because their operating model is outdated only allowing for “raise prices” and a willful refusal to make hard choices for change. The funeral consumer is finding information online (not necessarily from funeral home websites), shopping for “better deals,” seeking celebrants for direction, and choosing offers/products/services outside of traditional funeral channels.  The funeral consumer is choosing cremation over burial at a rapid rate which applies pressure to funeral homes and manufactures to find new revenue.

With all the meetings and discussions over the last few weeks, the recurring need for adaptation to accept consumer change is at the top of the list.  Yes, there are companies and funeral homes making significant strides in the right direction.  However, the truth is, the vast majority of funeral providers will continue the status quo…just like Radio Shack did.  From the desk of the Commander, Cheers Ya’ll! #thefuneralcommander

modernDuring a recent funeral pricing debate on Face Book, a funeral director actually made the statement “we give better service.”  I have personally been part of conversations with both funeral directors and funeral home owners about this very statement.  Fasten your seat belts, let’s take this topic for a spin.

When I hear “we give better service” my first thought and response to the statement is “what does your firm do that that other firm does not?” Usually there is quite a pause of conversation because the person making the statement actually has to think about what they said and provide some factual basis for their position.  I have heard  with my own ears; “We have new carpet in our chapel…our chapel is bigger…our fleet is newer…the water bottles we give out at graveside has our name on it…we have a bigger parking lot…they wear different suits/ties…we care more…and we have more staff on a service.”  My ALL TIME FAVORITE is “they don’t even have an organ”…how in the world did the State Board issue that firm a license?

My responses to such ridiculous blithering is “what type and year was their carpet installed, what are the dimensions of their chapel versus yours, what year models are their cars, does your name on the water bottle make the water taste better, how many cars will their parking lot hold, what color suits/ties do they wear, the other firm cares less…how many staff dictates a better service and of course how in the world do they provide music there without an organ?”  While the other person is pondering what I asked, I throw the grenades; “how many services have you attended at your competitor and if they have such inferior service, why is their market share increasing?”  Sort of a glazed look comes over their eyes, but no answer.

Does “we give better service” mean that a huge chapel like St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City gives better service than a country church like my family church, Indian Field Methodist in St. George, SC?  By the way, St. Patrick’s parking is terrible and many Indian Field’s attendees park on grass. Can an attendee of services find God in both places?

How about an analogy in the restaurant business?  Does the famous Chic-fil-A “my pleasure” culture with $5.00 chicken sandwiches/fresh flowers on their tables pale in comparison to Morton’s of Chicago’s fine dining, linen and expansive menu?  Is the customer at Chic-fil-A any less full or served than the the Morton’s customer?  Crickets.  Basically just mindless chatter with absolutely no basis.  I know what some of you are thinking, “you get what you pay for.”  That’s my next post topic…stay tuned.

poster 1I have attended services at all sorts of funeral homes across the country…I have seen mistakes made at both.  Family cars all lined up in disarray to actually leaving an old woman in a limousine after services were over back at the funeral home (this was at a huge several location funeral home always “crowing” serving since Sherman burnt down the South).  Just because a visitation at a funeral home has an old man opening the front door for you…pointing to an old lady across the foyer…and she points/directs you to another old lady down the hall…which she points you to another old lady standing at the register stand, and after you sign the book she then points you to the old lady in the casket…does not necessarily transcend into “better service.”  Perhaps this funeral home would get high marks for an “evening senior day care center.”  I have been to funeral homes with small staff and no one greeting at the door…but the visitation was lively…people laughing, hugging and conversing (even to the like of “Enter Sandman” playing over the music system).  How would that song sound on an organ?

The point  I’d like to get at here is “we give better service” is quite a far fetched and inane discussion point especially when the person making the statement has never attended the “other funeral home.”  However making assumptions is always easy, but we all know what happens when we assume…Like I have been told all my life and have actually said to my kids; “don’t worry what so-in-so is doing, do it the best you can and move on.” Cheers y’all.

 

 

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