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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.

 

 

juniorA humorous thought came to me recently after visiting a funeral home, is it really a good idea to turn over your funeral home to the kids?  I was introduced to the “next generation” as Dad described “my retirement plan and opportunity to stay at the beach house all summer.”  “Next Gen” was sitting on a foyer couch playing on his IPhone and so intensely enthralled with a video game of some sort that I received a kinda “what’s up” head nod which I suppose should have impressed me; at least he acknowledged the introduction by his Father.  Obviously Dad has grand visions of passing on the family torch to “gameboy”…for some reason I was thinking that his name was Gordon, like the kid in the Sprint commercial saying “it’s pronounced Gor Don.”

I thought to myself “Dad, you better have a big pile of cash squirreled away somewhere for retirement and I wouldn’t be packing the car for the beach anytime soon.” For a brief moment I saw some potential there…”Next Gen” knows how to work a phone!  But then reality hit me that the likelihood of him actually conversing with someone was probably a stretch.  I wasn’t sure of my other thoughts of “Bless His Heart” was for Dad or “next gen”…maybe both.  Somewhere in my mind I could hear the conversation between Dad and Mom…with Mom saying “well, YOU were given a chance; YOU turned out alright; HE’s not YOU; YOU just have to learn to accept HIM for who HE is, HE’s a good boy and YOU are too hard on him like the time YOU made HIM play sports, blah, blah, blah.”

I’m certain that grandfathers and dads for generations have thought that when looking in the eyes of their “legacy”…the end of the business is near. One of my all time favorite movie scenes is from Smokey and The Bandit which is posted below…which depicts as we all know, sometimes “legacy” comes with issues. I’d like to solicit readers to share some “legacy fails” of funeral home ownership…please do not mention the name of the funeral home, the town or the people involved…just the stories.   Cheers Y’all!

 

change postI am working on development of new initiatives with funeral professionals and others from various professions.  The intertwining of funeral regulations and required documents with technology along with business logic is really interesting.  On top of that, the planning sessions often create debates that seem like arguments (especially if I’m involved).  Many, many times I have challenged my team of funeral professionals with combined 75 years of expertise, with; why?

There are so many “nuances” of funeral service which turn into “ruts” of process, behaviors and perceptions. Regulations from both federal and state entities add to the dimension of complexity for funeral service providers.  During our process sessions we found ourselves actually researching and highlighting regulations by reading collectively word for word on a large screen monitor for clarity. Interestingly, some “funeral lore” was completely dispelled in the language written and guidance provided about the subjects in question.

From my perspective, when challenging the “why we do it this way” the best form of working through or around a funeral service related issue is to actually research word for word current FTC/State laws and regulations in place.  The FTC Funeral Rule is rather simplistic in it’s intent; always protect the consumer by being transparent with pricing, offerings and documentation; basically don’t cheat.

The State Funeral Service Laws and Regulations for the most part don’t significantly differ from the intent of the FTC Funeral Rule.  State regulations are more in-depth about licensing (which generates fees…what a surprise), educational requirements, necessary oversight on pre-need requirements, and so on.

Most interesting from our development sessions is the lack of language provided in any oversight authority regarding digital communication (email, websites, social media).  By overlaying the current regulatory requirements with so many choices of providing information to funeral consumers, huge opportunities exist.  Following the rules of consumer protection and transparency, funeral service providers are afforded the ability to highlight to anyone with internet connectivity their goods, services and value of a funeral respective to their patucular funeral home.

Responses to my funeral blog post last week The Hotel and Funeral industry…what can we learn? from several funeral professionals provided excellent thoughts and insights especially on the  Connecting Directors LinkedIn Discussion Thread.

As a continuation of much needed and appreciated discussion about the process of change in the funeral industry, what is the process of change at your funeral home or funeral related business?  Do you think of an idea, conduct regulatory oversight research, debate and create a workflow of process to initiate the change? Or…? I look forward to your continued sharing of ideas.  Cheers y’all.

overcomeLast week’s article in Forbes magazine by Perianne Boring The Death of The Care Industry and Eternal Life Online  prompted a predicted limited response from funeral directors (at least from sources like LinkedIn, Facebook and the blog world) although the LinkedIn Connecting Directors.com site provided excellent opinionated responses from a few funeral professionals.  I had personal conversations with several others regarding not only the contents of the article, but the loud and clear silence of rebuttal opportunity to what I consider an expose’ that did not shed the best light on the funeral industry i.e., a paragraph heading of  “The Veil Of Secrecy in Funeral Homes.”

My personal position is that Ms. Boring wrote an excellent piece using several sources from Caleb Wilde, the Federal Trade Commission, Jessica Mitford, Consumer Reports and others.  If funeral directors are upset by the article, I remember a saying “I don’t make the news, I only report the news” and those of us in the funeral profession should not “shoot the messenger” but take note of what is revealed in the article.

My take away is that frankly, what was reported is not “new news.”  Guess what?  There is inflation in the funeral industry, the FTC makes regulations that are regularly broken by rogues, funeral homes are for profit businesses, funeral home practices have evolved over the years, the advent of the internet and social media are providing more exposure to once limited funeral home information.  And, oh yeah; it’s expensive to die.  

What is not generally known about me is that I have spent some time and have experience in the Hospitality Industry.  I have family that has developed, managed, owned, operated, bought and sold hotels with an impeccable reputation in the hotel business for decades.  My personal mentor in life and business, J.E. “Buddy” Watson, provided me insight along with opportunity to periodically work alongside him.  The exposure of brand standards, training, management, development, construction, capital raising (private equity, venture capital, legal requirements, etc.) actually was the impetus for me developing the Family Choice Funerals & Cremations brand of funeral service.

turn downHave you ever seen a J.W. Marriott hotel, a full service Marriott hotel, a Marriott Courtyard, a Marriott Residence Inn and a Marriott Fairfield Inn in the same cluster near each other and wonder why?  Well, it’s because each of those brands represent a different customer segment.  The contrast of the full service product with amenities like convention/meeting space, full restaurants and a bar significantly differ from the limited service hotel with basic check in, basic breakfast offering, etc.  Additionally, the rooms are appointed according to the level of what the consumer is willing to pay.  But remember; the fundamental purpose for a hotel is simply a place to sleep away from home.  

So now, it’s time for me to hone in on my point and take away from the Forbes article.  The hotel industry and funeral industry are similar, but many in the funeral industry have not figured this out yet or at least refuse to acknowledge such.  When funeral practitioners like Caleb Wilde shared in the article that his family of funeral directors shifted from “residence/home funeral service” to body removal from the residence to the funeral home, that was a big deal for the industry.  Interesting how residential indoor plumbing began to emerge around the same time making one wonder if removing waste from the home was then considered “new and modern.”

Many funeral practitioners changed their modus operandi; instead of embalming, casketing and setting up the residence for a funeral they built a location to perform all the work.  It’s now a rarity to have embalming and other funeral services provided by funeral directors at residences.  Many of the funeral homes were also residences of the funeral directors, truly exemplifying “family owned and operated.”  Over the years, I suppose funeral homes decided that they did not want to “funeralize” in their own homes, so the advent of the modern day funeral home was developed and built.

Some of the “family inhabited” and “new location” buildings are still in existence; but the buildings are now a real estate burden because the consumer community served back in the 50’s and 60’s has changed.  I have been to many a funeral home that is struggling due to changing of the local clientele change and the real estate value plummeting along with their business.  In contrast, the modern day funeral home is quite different from the early “new location” buildings.  Some of these “funeral homes” resemble resorts or very expensive hotels with fine amenities, well-appointed furnishings, lush manicured grounds, a huge chapel, fleets of expensive automobiles, catering/event areas exuding elegance and the finest surrounding to honor a loved one.  Others are more modest with functional meeting rooms, a chapel, and the basic necessities for service funeral consumers, just a bit smaller.  An emerging type of funeral provider, disdainfully called “discounters” by many funeral royalty, are minimal facilities that may even be located in an old shopping center, but often offer the same products and services as the others without all the amenities.

open casket 1Providing these descriptions of hotels and funeral homes…are you seeing the similarities (besides both industries provide turndown service)? Which charges more for service; the full service J.W. Marriott or the Marriott Fairfield Inn? The well-appointed “full service funeral home” or the so called “discounter?”  A number of resources are available online to compare prices of hotels which include their own brand reservation sites like Marriott.com competing with Hotels.com and Travelocity.  A consumer is now trained to research online for information, pricing and comparisons looking for the best value for their particular stay.  Conversely, if a consumer is seeking the same about funeral homes (a permanent stay product) their resources are limited.  My friend and fellow funeral industry entrepreneur, Ellery Bowker, owner of Directors Advantage reported that only 8% of US funeral homes provide pricing on their website. Ryan Thogmartin of Disrupt Media Group and the popular Connecting Directors.com website is considered the funeral industry “Guru” of social media.  Funeral homes are still reluctant to engage social media professionals like Ryan to provide consumers information to make an educated decisions.

Captain ObivousIn recent history, the hotel industry had either a full or limited service product but has now evolved with extended stay, suites and other offerings based on the consumer demand.  The funeral industry has basically provides for two categories of full service (like a J.W. Marriott or Ritz Carlton and full service Marriott) or a limited service (like Marriott Courtyard or Fairfield Inn).  If you shop online, sometimes you can find a full service hotel for a limited service price (ask my fellow Captain, Captain Obvious of the Hotels.com website).  The same consumer shopping for services is more commonplace in the funeral industry, but the results are not the same due to as the Forbes article and Ellery Bowker point out, a “Veil Of Secrecy” still exists purposely by funeral homes not listing their prices online…forcing a consumer to actually visit the funeral home location for the coveted and FTC-mandated General Price List.

The lack of response by funeral directors about the Forbes article may be due to the inability to adjust their practices to consumer demands such as the hotel industry has.  Basically, a “full service funeral home” has all the amenities one could want and charges appropriately for the goods and services…even if the consumer doesn’t have a desire for such.  Ever heard the phrase, “Spend a Night, Not a Fortune?”  Well, my mentor, Buddy Watson actually coined that phrase back in the 70’s for a hotel chain.  So could the phrase, “Pay a Tribute, Not a Fortune” be an appropriate message to consumers about making their funeral plans?

When spending a night in a hotel; a consumer has the choice of the finest of amenities and services or lack thereof based on their own value proposition. At death; burial or cremation, a consumer has the choice of the finest of amenities and services or lack thereof based on their own value proposition.  Either way, the emergence of savvy, limited service funeral and online funeral service providers will continue to capture growing market share.  Factually there will always be a market for the full service hotels and funeral homes and there are more limited service hotels than full service to meet the demand of the consumer.

Finally, the gap of funeral consumers that have the financial means or desire to use full service funeral homes are diminishing.  Consumers that either are financially struggling or don’t find value in the full service funeral product are increasing.  The funeral service providers that figure out how to meet the needs of the increasing segment of funeral consumer with immediate transparent information and desired product will flourish in the next several years of increasing death numbers due to population along with technology for spreading their message.  Take note of other industries and how they evolved successfully…the death care industry is not dead, it’s just “going through the change.” Cheers y’all.

 

Perseverance“I’m convinced that about half of what separates successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure  perseverance.”-Steve Jobs  

Rather than writing my usual recalcitrant views and complaining about the funeral industry woes, this funeral blog post is dedicated to OPTIMISM! If you are a funeral home owner, funeral director, funeral attendant, pre-need salesperson, or work at a funeral home; if you had unlimited capital, intellectual and technology resources at your beck and call…what would you invent?  Would you rather work 80 hours for yourself or 40 hours for someone else? Come on…let’s hear from you…what DO YOU WANT TO INVENT? Cheers y’all!

jackass Upon return and reflection from ICCFA in Las Vegas, I realize how our new world communicates.  Having a funeral blog  has provided me a platform for soliciting ideas, sharing experiences and observations with other funeral industry  professionals.  Most important, a funeral blog provides an opportunity, when positioned and utilized correctly, to get to  know each other in our new world order by using of social media.

During the ICCFA and on the Expo floor, face to face introductions to people from Australia, Ireland, Canada, Sweden and even Indiana (snicker) were so much easier…conversations flowed as if we were long time associates. In a way, we are because of our new way of communicating.

I am blessed to work alongside and have a personal relationship Ryan Thogmartin of http://www.connectingdirectors.com and Disrupt Media.  Ryan is unequivocally the guru of social media for the funeral industry.  I shared with Ryan last week my fascination of the power of blogging, LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter as mediums for brand building along communicating intended messages.  In his “wizard way” of explaining all of the connectivity to so many in the funeral industry, I’m still amazed how few actually still do not take advantage of social media for their companies.

So, my first post upon return from the 2014 ICCFA I will provide testament that a funeral blog is an extremely effective tool to communicate your message and platform.  As for me, I enjoy sharing from my experiences as an entrepreneur in the funeral industry, observations of behavior mixed with a splash of humor and natural recalcitrant thoughts about “established norms” that so many subject themselves.

If you are one that reads http://www.thefuneralcommander.com and so many other funeral blog writers like Caleb Wilde, Nancy Burbon, Kate Hamilton, Jeff Staab, Ellery Bowker, Kim Stacey & Jess Fowler…thank you for providing us a platform for communicating.  If you are one that keeps blindly going in circles wondering how “everything seems to be changing” but you’re not, well keep waiting for that monthly newsletter in the mail.  Cheers y’all!

 

 

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