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blog post 19 nov

The funeral industry continues to evolve and reflect that survival and growth are contingent on consolidation or strategic alliances.  Just recently, Pierce Mortuary Colleges  announced the merger with Worsham College of Mortuary Science.  Interestingly, the announcement was made after a provocative interview on Episode 5 Funeral Nation TV about the need for change in the funeral service education system. Coincidence?

Vandor Corporation and C.J. Boots Casket Company, Inc. announced a strategic merger agreement this week which will strengthen their collective positions in the funeral marketplace for manufactured and fine hardwood products.

Earlier this year Matthews purchased Aurora Casket creating a funeral service/product manufacturing giant.  The new company is the only of its kind offering caskets, cremation solutions/equipment, memorialization products, cemetery products as well as funeral home management solutions.  Interestingly, their primary competition in this sector has been woefully left behind scrambling around the cornfield seeking headlines of significance.  Of course the acquisition of Stewart by SCI sent a message exemplifying the necessity to consolidate for growth and survival of funeral homes.

What I have found most interesting is the reactions by funeral professionals to merger/acquisitions mentioned along with others that have been occurring as of late.  I can best categorize the majority of reactions as emotional rather than a business perspective.  When I say emotional, I mean like a street corner argument between the Sharks and the Jets in West Side Story.  “I’ll never use so and so; I’m glad I went to school here because blah, blah; these guys are taking over the world” and so on.

consolidation

The decisions of merger, consolidation and acquisition are for strategic and financial stability long term.  The due diligence ( defined as a comprehensive appraisal of a business undertaken by a prospective buyer, especially to establish its assets and liabilities and evaluate its commercial potential for those Dancing with the Stars readers) is conducted with expertise probably not taught in most mortuary school accounting classes.

Most that bitch and complain about the business of consolidation and merger rarely have done anything other than receive a check for their employment.  So little contributed yet so much said.  Few business owners or those that have developed businesses engage in the junior high cafeteria rhetoric because they have a true sense of the difficulty operating in our current market environment.

In a nutshell; in order to survive and thrive in the funeral industry whether a learning institution, funeral home, manufacturer or service provider, consolidation is key.  The decisions are made for the overall good of the brand and enterprise, not because of which colors look the best in the logo or the proverbial “we have always done it that way.”  Get used to the headlines and I can assure you there are many more such alliances ahead.  These are exciting times; either jump on board, do something yourself, create disruption or just stand there waiting for the good ole days to return.

From the Command Post and through a heavy fog of cigar smoke, Cheers Y’all! #thefuneralcommander

 

 

Tough Discussion

Association Discussion; Opening A Can of Worms

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak and present a CEU session to a group of funeral professionals of a state funeral organization at their annual convention. The audience was great with excellent discussions and engagement.  What I found perplexing was there was another funeral organization, from the same state, meeting at the same time a few blocks away.  I’m going to address what appears to be obvious and initiate a conversation that may “open a can of worms.”

Why is there two organizations with common issues and needs meeting at the same time, in the same city, but separately? For that matter, why are there so many organizations that are so similar yet choose to segregate themselves?  In Virginia alone, there are 3 state funeral director organizations that all are autonomous with their own conventions/meetings, staff, memberships and money spent. With all the scrutiny that we face by the news media, consumers, governmental and regulatory agencies; is all the segregation really the best portrait of funeral directing?

It’s 2015 and on the surface, one would think, gasp…that some of the organizations are divided by race.  Okay I said it…so, now refute it.  I am also aware of local “funeral director organizations” that are actually part of state associations that will not allow certain competitive funeral homes to join. Yes, licensed funeral homes are not allowed to participate.  I personally have knowledge of firms that are refused membership. What’s your take?

Not long ago I was a vendor and working the convention schedule in a few different states.  In some cases, the dates overlapped but in all cases the money spent to register, display, stay, eat and entertain was pretty much equal.  The company I worked for began scaling back budgets for state conventions because of escalating costs, lack of ROI and dwindling need to physically display because of new technology for messaging of products or services.  But at each convention, pretty much the same vendors and programs were provided.  The differentiation was the staff running the convention, location, people in attendance and non-essential time activities.  Make sense to you?

As for national organizations, one does not have to conduct in-depth research to surmise that the secondary tier organizations are struggling. It’s all about resources and value to the membership.  If a “one stop shop” organization offers CEU’s (education/training), legislative representation (advocacy), cremation resources (education/training) and a well presented annual convention which has a tremendous expo/trade show, why do the other “second tier” organizations even exist? What’s your take?

Just a few days ago, one second tier organization touted “breaking attendance records” at their recent annual gathering.  A breakdown of the “participants” shows that less than 1/3 are actual funeral directors and the rest of the attendees are comprised of vendors, spouses or kids.  Great spin, but the reality is that this type of “national organization” is drawing less than some state conventions.

What are your thoughts about all the different organizations that for the most part have a common purpose of representing the funeral profession? There are organizations that have excellent positive impact for education and influence, and others that seem to be more fraternity in nature. For sake of discussion, what are your thoughts of how we as an industry best should be represented…collectively with a strong and cohesive voice or segmented?

Don’t shoot the messenger, I’m just stating the obvious (as usual) and addressing what seems to be a colossal waste of resources. Cheers y’all!  #thefuneralcommander

front lines

From my vantage point, the funeral industry is experiencing an era of significant change due to primarily outside influences; economics, shifts in consumer views about caring for our dead, and technology are among the top.  These particular challenges mean that we are adapting to change outside our control and innovative/bold leadership is required to “fight the battles” ahead.  The enemy (for sake of analogy) is the before mentioned influences; however do we have leaders in place to not only win the battles, but ultimately the war?  The war may be characterized along a few fronts; remaining relevant to consumers (of value), financially stability (funeral homes, product manufacturers, etc.) along with the integration of technology which is essential for relevancy and financial stability.

I have written and posted about this subject Are You a Kiwi or an Eagle regarding leadership (or lack thereof) in the funeral industry.  Because I am challenged daily as a leader from many “battle fronts” like: development/structure of new companies/brands which involve legal, accounting, capital investments, regulations (local, national and international), assembling teams, delegating, creating company cultures, personnel issues, marketing, websites, customer acquisition, retention and such; I study leaders, leadership styles and results.

A quote “most battle plans rarely survive the first shot” and there is some truth to this.  Think about it, most of our doctrines and current operations are based on what we experienced in the past.  An example was this past week’s attacks in Paris; the enemy now is successfully using new tactics, attacking not where we thought they would (a battlefield “over there”), and they successfully spread their message; every news media on the planet brought to our eyes all over the world exactly what they stood for.  We are obviously unprepared for such attack and pitifully exposed that we are reactionary (the attacks were conducted as planned, lives were lost, the message of fear propagated).  In the funeral industry, are we following old doctrine and not studying or training to defeat the “enemy” that may cause harm to us?

GSP Painting

One of my favorite leaders in battle and war is George S. Patton; confident, decisive and “told it like it was.”  Many did not like his bold personality and style of leadership; but few questioned the results (sound familiar?).  General Patton once said “fixed fortifications are the stupidity of man” as a prognostication about the German Siegfried Line of fortresses for defense.  This particular quote resonates with me because many in the funeral industry are hell-bent on continuing to build “fortifications of defense” in attempts to ward off the inevitable; consumers gravitating to cremation, declining traditional burial, economic downward spiral, and seeking alternative services outside our offerings, etc.

Another favorite quote from Patton: “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”  For the funeral industry as a whole, this frankly is an indictment.  Yes, there are innovators and forward thinkers however many are still heading in the same direction they were 5 years ago. The same tired discussions continue; generally just bitching most of the time about the innovators, forward thinkers, vendors and always their competitor…yet rarely taking decisive action to initiate change.

If you took some time to dig a little deeper into and beyond General Patton’s brashness, you would find that he demanded accountability of himself and his subordinate leaders “Always do everything you ask of those you command.”  Furthermore, he was not a tight-fisted leader, but actually wanted people to be innovative; “Never tell people how to do things…tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity” and “If you tell people where to go, but not how to get there, you’ll be amazed at the results.”  Patton demanded creative thinking and allowed for leadership of those that followed him.  We need more of this from funeral home owners…unfortunately there are many, I think because of their own frailties, that don’t allow for “surprise of ingenuity” or “get amazed by results.”  Dictatorial leadership is rarely successful and those subject to “serving the kingdom” cheer at the Dictators inevitable demise…sometimes assisting in their demise (funeral coup?).

Patton’s “Nobody ever defended anything successfully, there is only attack and attack and attack some more” basically meant to train, stay on the move, innovate and attack; but don’t keep moving the sandbags around hoping you’ll win the battle.  We have to be proactive as leaders and never satisfied that we have reached any sort of  pinnacle, stay “on the attack.”

As for me, I’m going to continue to adapt and overcome as well as “shoot the donkeys” (unless of course I see the need for use as the US soldier did in the featured image).  I detest having jackasses hold up an entire column of warriors ready to do battle; just shoot them, throw them over the side of the bridge, keep moving to fight the battle, and win the war.  I’m laughing to myself because I know the jackasses will take umbrage to my school of thought, but as Patton also said “We herd sheep, we drive cattle, we lead people. Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.”  From the Command Post and through the cigar smoke; Cheers y’all!  #thefuneralcommander

intl chatI recently returned from an overseas trip meeting with funeral professionals from the United Kingdom, Ireland and Scandinavia (Sweden in particular). Having discussions regarding funeral home operations, marketing and consumer perspectives was quite interesting.  The basics of a person dying and the family in need of a funeral professional is the foundation of our business no matter the geographic location, however there are varying degrees of processes and perceptions about our business.

As in the US, pre-need planning/funding is a hot topic in the UK having continuous issues of perceived (and real) money handling issues.  Also in the UK, the funeral directors and funeral homes are not regulated as we are here in the US.  Basically anyone can “set up shop” to provide funeral services. Very few funeral homes own crematories as most crematories are owned by local municipalities.  Just like the US, consumers are struggling to pay for funeral services of their deceased loved ones which increases pressure on funeral homes to offer alternative services/products for additional revenue.  Significantly different in Sweden; consumers are prohibited from keeping the cremated remains of their deceased loved ones. The cremated remains must be buried or entombed in an approved niche.

I found most interesting the lack of technology (even worse than the US) funeral homes/directors use as a basic premise of their operations and marketing.  There are a growing number of funeral homes that have websites, however the content on the sites vary greatly (just like the US).  A consumer may find the perfunctory “we care more,”  “our family serving your family since” and “look at our fleet of cars” blah, blah, blah.  In some parts of the EU, funeral homes are now just considering posting online obituaries.  The use of social media by funeral homes to consumers is extremely sparse, yes even more so that in the United States.

The best part of my position is the ability to meet other professionals in our industry all over the world and have conversations from different perspectives.  A recurring conversation and full agreement is the varying degree of information a family may receive based on the funeral directors experience, personality or even mood while in an arrangement session…the lack of consistency of information provided.  We all agreed that the internet and an educated funeral consumer is going to create challenges for funeral directors in the “I’ve always done it this way” mode of funeral arranging.  I’m going to write a 2014 year end review and make some predictions for 2015…this subject will certainly again be addressed.

Next year I will travel all over the world  and have the blessing of chatting with many that work in and alongside funeral homes serving families.  The conversations will continue with the question “what do you think are your biggest challenges facing your firm (or business)” and that question is the topic for this post; your answers?  From the Command Post, 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

 

 

 

 

like respectI have been around the proverbial block of leadership in my life from both positions of leader and follower.  Just recently I was having this discussion with one of my partners about behavior modification in funeral homes.  Behavior modification is quite simply changing poor habits and continuous ineffective or unproductive behaviors.  Funeral director training is a behavior modification tool that alleviates continuous ruts.

However, funeral director training is one thing, actually conducting and coaching is quite another.  In our discussion, the topic of like versus respect was broached.  A challenge for many funeral home owners is the difficulty of operating in a close environment.  Conversely, how do other organizations seem to efficiently function in similar “close quarters?”  We discussed an example of a particular funeral home owner that struggles to “take command of his troops” even for the overall good of their firm.  The firm as mired in a continuous struggle for profitability and lacks consistent revenue performance from the revenue makers…funeral directors. The owner just doesn’t want to “rock the boat” which means he fears making necessary decisions, training and performance demands because he may “upset someone” thus not being perceived as “their friend.”  We have both heard many times )I just can’t do that; these people are my friends.”

Another example we discussed is being a parent.  Making decisions as a parent is often adverse to how friends would interact.  However, the inability to make often life decisions for the sake of “being a friend” may have severe consequences for the child over time.

So for the sake of discussion, which would you rather be as a leader, liked or respected?  I believe there are circumstances for both; certainly my answer would be that I would like to be liked and respected.  Let’s narrow this down to the work environment in a funeral home. Would you rather work in an environment and culture of like or respect?  What’s your choice? Cheers Y’all.

 

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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