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What are the top three obstacles funeral homes are facing that challenge their success? The seriousness of this question muddled with chatter about all sorts of unimportant blither; car model/style, which embalming fluids are best, pants, skirts or white shirts, discounters, direct disposers, the funeral consumers alliance, showing/not showing prices on websites, have a talk, talk about someone else, casket color, urn type, which organization to join, corporates, family owned, and so on. It’s time to address important matters, initiate solutions and take action.

Declining revenue and profit is placing severe pressure on the overall funeral home market. To make course corrections a funeral home has three options:

  1. Raise prices.
  2. Increase market share (conduct more calls).
  3. Cut costs.

Perhaps a combination of all three are necessary, however firms require a complete professional analysis of overheads, pricing and operations.  Identify gaps, create new processes, train staff to follow the specific processes, and measure results. Measurement and training are ongoing, not an annual event. This is quite a simple solution; however the majority of funeral home owners lack the will and ability to make this type of commitment to hold everyone employed in the business accountable including themselves.

Embedded in the solution of re-calibrating financial stability is training. Let me be clear, there is a difference in education and training.  The funeral industry plays patty-cake with training funeral directors post school and license testing. There are no ongoing or relevant pass/fail requirements once a director finishes school and national/state testing.  For the most part the CEU’s offered and presented are a serious waste of time. We all know the truth: sit through the class, sign an affirmation of attendance for credit, and return to the funeral home doing the same old thing the same old way.  There is not one problem in the funeral industry that could not be corrected by training.  Training is behavior modification.  Don’t think so? A young 18 year old man fresh out of high school is trained in the military and in a short few years work on gazillion dollar equipment leading two or three more under his supervision.  In five years the same young man is leading five to ten people with multiples for the future.  Training change everything, however it’s non-existent in regular funeral home operations or priorities.

Management abounds and leadership is rare.  Many owners rather be liked than respected simply refusing to demand behavior modifications of the very people that receive checks from their own funeral home payroll. Most owners do not possess the ability or wherewithal to “take the bull by the horns” of their own business.  They are too cheap, prideful or embarrassed to raise their hand asking for help from professionals that have the acumen to provide analysis, solutions, training (behavior modification), measurement and accountability.

A funeral home can overcome barriers by analysis, implementation, training, measurement and leadership. The seriousness of the problems above are evident in P&L statements, national statistics (consumer trends) and the continued decline or funeral revenues. I solicit comments, opinions and of course refute of the content of this post.  From the smoke filled Command Post, Cheers Y’all! #thefuneralcommander

 

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

Posted February 24, 2016

8 min read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About Jeff Harbeson, The Funeral Commander

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

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ANC 1

Situation: Your loved one just died unexpectedly with no pre-need trust or life insurance available to pay for the funeral expenses. You can’t use the funeral home where you work and you receive no professional courtesy discounts anywhere else. You must pay full price for services rendered, casket, vault, and all the cash advance items including the cemetery space,  opening and closing fees.  How would this event effect your personal financial situation if you had to pay?

My team at The Harbeson Group and I have conducted hundreds of training sessions for funeral directors over the years on subjects like FTC Funeral Rule knowledge, taking shopper calls, removal/transfer procedures and so on. A few months back, I wrote a post Wear Other Shoes about training funeral directors to role play by planning a funeral for their closest loved one who unexpectedly died.  This training provides insight to the emotions people feel when arranging a funeral for someone they love and increases empathy for others in this situation.  But there is another facet to the training; what if you had to pay for the funeral expenses from your current and personal financial resources?

I provide funeral director training on the topic of cash flow solutions for at-need services. Prior to starting the training, I inform the group that I have permission from the funeral home ownership (or organization leadership) to charge everyone for the training they are about to receive.  The cost for the training is equivalent to the price for full burial at the funeral home including casket and vault (let’s use $8,400 for the purposes of this post).  I then tell the group the full amount is due to me at the completion of the training and that I accept cash, checks and all major credit cards…and I pause to let that sink in.

I love seeing some of the reactions on the faces of attendees and to feel the uncomfortable shift in the room. I then say “If there are no questions, we shall move forward with the training.”  Inevitably a hand will fly up with it’s owner asking “Are you serious?”  My answer: “What’s the big deal?”  “You ask the same thing of every family who makes arrangements with you, in fact for about the same amount.”  Silence follows as more air is sucked out of the room.

So I return to my original question: What if you had to pay today from your own financial resources?  Certainly there are those reading this who could write a check or have the credit card balance to pay, and then there are the rest of you. The majority of Americans (and let’s say a few funeral directors) don’t have the financial resources to pay for costly unexpected events in full, they need a payment plan. Sadly, just in the past few days, I read the obituary for a deceased funeral director asking for funds to be paid to help with funeral expenses. Just food for thought, if you had to pay today, would you need the services provided by At Need Credit?  Take a look and decide for yourself.

From the Command Post (no cigar for now). Cheers Y’all!  #thefuneralcommander

 

 

tablet pc, mobile phone and laptop When you send email to someone or a company, how long does it take for a response acknowledging receipt of your  inquiry?  Just in the last 48 hours, I sent emails direct to people and made inquiries to companies to purchase their  services or products.  Guess what?  No response. I know people are busy, however busy is not an excuse for poor  manners.  I personally know people that are very busy, successful and run large multifaceted companies that routinely respond to me in a timely manner.

It is not unusual for me to receive more than fifty emails, texts, calls and other messages in a day.  When I receive a message, especially a message that someone took the time to personally reach out to me, then I promptly at least acknowledge receipt.  Fascinating to me is that we are offered instantaneous communication tools such as phones, text messaging, Skype, email, and the like, yet we have a failure of response time.  With all this instant technology at our disposal, why then does it take so long?

Why?  Because we are in an era of poor business behaviors and manners!  If you don’t believe it, how many times have you called someone asking the question “did you get my email?”  You are calling to find out one of 2 things; either their technology doesn’t work or they simply ignored your message and did not respond.  How difficult is it to reply “I received your message, but I’m not able to respond right now…I’ll get back to you on this in <give a time>?”

I want to challenge those that read this post.  First; respond to inquiries in a timely manner…just send a personal quick acknowledgement of receipt, and then follow up as you said you would.  If you are really late responding (over 48 hours), say so and apologize. Second; when someone does not respond to your inquiry in a timely manner, call them out on it.  If they say they are so busy that they could not take the time to at least acknowledge you, ask them if you or your business has any level of respect and why you should continue the relationship?

You’re just not that busy; you’re rude and lack business manners.  Cheers y’all.

TAC (3) For several years of my military service, I was a TAC Officer (Training, Advising, and Counseling) at an Officers Candidate  School.  Yes, that’s me in the photo providing some advice.  The mission of the school was to train Non-Commissioned  Officers and Enlisted soldiers to become combat leaders.  Subjects from indirect fire to proper dining etiquette were trained  all while being conducted in a combat simulated environment.  Development of decision making skills under stress,  leadership, and personal accountability; OCS is considered one of the premier leadership programs in the world.

Prior to a class graduating and receiving their earned Commissions, I would always offer this advice:

  1. Always keep yourself in shape; fat and sloppy is hard to follow.
  2. Polish your boots, press your uniform and have a fresh haircut.
  3. If you follow steps 1 & 2, no one will know you are an idiot until you open your mouth.
  4. Have something relevant to say, or don’t say anything at all.

Enough said.  Cheers y’all.

bench Funeral directors daily serve families making funeral arrangements that find themselves unable to pay for a desired  funeral to honor their loved one. A fair analogy quote for this situation is “I only have bus fare, but I want to buy a Cadillac”  (this comes from my fellow funeral professional Todd Winninger).  Just yesterday I was chatting with a funeral director  about payment plans for their funeral home.  When a family does not have a pre-need trust,  but has limited life  insurance, cash or  credit card balance, my company At Need Credit offers a payment plan.

Two of the three plans require that a family make a down payment, at least half of the goods and services of the total cost.  By asking a family to meet the funeral home “halfway,” then the family is committed and the funeral home can at least recover a majority of its cost of goods.  When describing the information about how the plans work, the funeral director asked me “well, what if the family can’t come up with half of the total cost for a down payment?”

My response to the director was similar to the title of this post; “if a family cannot come up with half of the down payment for your goods and services, why are you trying to sell them a Cadillac when they only have bus fare?”  There was a silence on the other end of the phone.  I went further “what are you currently doing if a family cannot produce even half of what you are charging for goods and services?”  The standard answer was given “we reduce the casket and services” the funeral director said.  So then I went into the math mode “so lets say your least expensive service with the least expensive casket is $4995 and the family doesn’t have even $2,500…what are you reducing…are you performing a graveside service with no visitation, no embalming, and no hearse?”  Silence again…then “well no, we just try to work with the family” which in funeral director terms means that the firm takes whatever the family can pay at the time, perform basically what the family wants, and hope for the best.

Just a week ago I addressed this issue from a different perspective titled “A Real Dilemma, the Cost of Being Broke.”  The issue is not going away; I get emails, phone calls and inquiries daily from funeral homes inquiring about At Need Credit payment plans. My funeral home locations weekly face this problem. The questions I want to bring to the funeral professionals: if your family only has bus fare, why are you trying to sell them a Cadillac?  I know that there are going to be responses from some that some social or government organization will pay something…but even then, are you matching the goods and services with the amount you collect?  Meaning, if the organization pays your firm $1,000 what do you give the family in return…do you provide the absolute minimum?  I hear often, “what if the family has no money?”  I then ask. “how much is no money?”  I have personally seen a “no money family” pay $15,000 cash for a funeral.  From my own experience, I have never known a family to have absolutely $0…I am not disputing that they exist.  So another question for discussion: when a family says they have “no money,” how does your firm serve them?

Anyone with a computer, television and even those that still read newspapers (I personally dont know anyone anymore that gets the paper under 75 years old) knows that our economy is in the toilet…if not, CNN Money reports that 76% of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck to bring you up to date.  For discussion sake, please share your funeral home solutions to those that “have bus fare, but want to buy a Cadillac.”           Cheers y’all.

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