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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.

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.

poor Saturday night I received a call from a lady that in years past I coached  her son in football.  The reason for her reaching out to me that her  niece, only 24 years old had just died at home and she wanted our  funeral home to assist their family.  Unfortunately, the young woman that  died had a debilitating disease and was released to home hospice  from a major medical center only the night before.

I know this family personally and frankly, the word pitiful comes to mind.  You know the family in your communities, truly struggling through life never seeming to get a break.  After providing me with the contact information, I forwarded the data to our on call funeral director.  Within just a few minutes, I received another call from the brother of the deceased.  He told me that he was the only one in the family with a job, almost everyone was on disability, and that finances were going to be a serious issue.  After listening, I shared with him that I understood and that our firm would certainly accommodate them to the best of our ability.  Since finances were an issue, I inquired whether he and the family would consider cremation; he said that was not an option.  They had a family farm property in another county and it was his sister’s desire to be buried there, the least that they could do.  Since this was a home hospice call, our staff was on the way as we spoke and I assured him that we would do our best and our conversation ended.

The best of our ability…this means that we (our funeral home) have to at least cover our costs; removal staff, casket and such.  Even with our offer to do this, what family wanted, they will still to struggle to cover the costs we must pay. When they came in to make arrangements, I was there simply so lend support and let them know that I truly cared for loss (I’m usually traveling all over the planet).  The funeral director conducted the arrangements as our standard; providing them information so that they could make educated decisions.

Anguishing from the experience losing their 24 year old loved one was now coupled with the living struggle of eking their way through life in financial stress…all the time.  I observed as the funeral director repeated what they were requesting from our firm, and then provided them with the cost for doing so.  We had agreed to provide what they wanted and reasonably could afford at our cost.  This family shared with the funeral director what funds they had available, and then we were able to provide them with a payment plan for the balance…still, just covering costs.

I felt compelled to share this real life event for a few reasons.  First, just plain human empathy for this family and so many others finding themselves in this very position.  Living day to day, struggling to make ends meet.  When death or another catastrophic event occurs, all of life’s regular problems are magnified for these folks.  Second, the families like this are one of the fastest growing groups in our country economically.  As a business person, whether a grocery store, shoe store, gas station, clothing store or pick a business; we have overhead costs just to keep the doors open and pay the people to provide service.  In the funeral home business, we are no different.

The difference in the funeral home business is that we are called provide service for those that have lost a loved one, regardless of their financial status.  Some states and municipalities offer indigent funds in the event of indigent death.  I have read that those offerings are “drying up” and non-existent in most areas such as our area of operations.  Many outside the funeral home business have no idea that we are not reimbursed by a government entity like Medicare of Social Security if a family has no life insurance and limited financial resources.  When a funeral home takes possession of a body, by most state statutes and regulations, we must either embalm or refrigerate within a certain time frame.  This regulation does not preclude getting paid from the family.

My heart really does go out to families that are financially suffering, God bless them.  I also understand and have concern for the gut wrenching job a funeral director does to meet their needs, both financially and their requests.  From one owner/partner of a funeral home to the others that read this, my true reason for writing this post is for more people to understand the business we run is more than just nice suits, shiny cars and transactions.  We make decisions that have profound effects on families, our employees and our business…it just isn’t what it seems.  Cheers y’all!

kiwi I want to share a few news stories profiled about the funeral industry  just last week; “FTC Undercover Inspections of Funeral Homes in Nine  States Test Compliance with Funeral Rule Disclosure Requirements,  Unlicensed Funeral Director Probed for Questionable Cremations,  Funeral Home Owner’s License Revoked After Settlement, and Family  Alleges Funeral Home Buried Wrong Baby During Service.” 

With those sorts of headlines, is it any wonder that consumers are skeptical when they walk into a funeral home?  We know that with any profession, there are bad apples and operators.  A quick internet search will reveal similar news about poor practices in financial, medical and other industries.  My point here is that the funeral industry is not leading the charge of positive news and demanding necessary change; rather we are allowing the negative news to dominate the headlines.

The FTC mandated General Price List disclosure is a fundamental regulatory tenet of our business.   Violations sit squarely in the lap of funeral home owners, period.  I have personally conducted “secret shopper” services for funeral home owners and to their dismay; some of their employees would have cost significant fines for lack of disclosure.  But why should there be surprise when funeral homes conduct no consistent training, monitoring or any regular oversight of their directors?  Our industry is predicated on people who when the proverbial “arrangement room door closes,” the funeral home owner and the family are subject to whatever information the individual funeral director provides…right or wrong.  What really fascinates me is the posture many in our industry maintain about training, “trying something new”, use of digital presentations, or changing their current operations.

There is a story I heard about the differences between a Kiwi bird and an Eagle. The Kiwi bird is short, has a long beak, and is flightless because of its lack of wing structure eating bugs, worms and such. The Eagle has large wingspans, a hard beak, with powerful talons and eats small game.  The Kiwi spends its day trying not to be eaten by predators and searching for food in fields with high grass, basically keeping their head down and only paying attention to just what they can see beyond their beak.  The Eagle takes to the sky searching for opportunity to gather its food.  So, if a field is on fire, the Kiwi keeps right on going about its business and doesn’t know the field is ablaze until its beak is on fire.  On the other hand, the Eagle circles above to prey on the food that will be running from the fire…

We have too many Kiwi’s in the funeral industry…myopic, resistant to change, apathetic and no idea that the “field is on fire.”  The FTC mandates, most States regulate, industry organizations (NFDA, ICCFA, NFDMA, etc.) offer best practices, yet the funeral industry Kiwi’s dominate the headlines.  So, how do we change this dilemma?

First, the Eagles have to clean up our own house.  The simple answer is training and behavior modification.  Create and conduct regular in-house training on relevant functions such as when to provide a family your GPL, proper body identification procedures with checks and balances, etc.  Sit in on arrangements and evaluate the information being provided to families. Of course many are afraid to do this…but who owns your business?  Even more important, who is accountable and must face public scrutiny along with paying fines for poor behavioral practices of your staff? Demand accountability, but clearly communicate through training, monitor and follow-up your concise expectations.  Training provides your team with the knowledge that as an Eagle, you set the operational tone of your firm.  Failure to do anything short, well, you’re a funeral Kiwi.

Once we have our own houses in order, let’s all engage in providing a cure for our symptoms.  How about we demand federal legislation that if a funeral home has a website, their GPL must be displayed?  By providing consumers information, they can make educated funeral decisions. The firms that fail to either have a website or comply, well too bad.  Let’s change the CEU system…attending boring classes about mundane subjects that have no teeth or relevant educational value is a waste of time and resources.  How about add exams for the CEU’s with a high proficiency rating for continued licensing?  Now, that sort of news would be much more encouraging to consumers if we are making serious efforts to “police our own.”

Okay, so there’s my two cents worth about the disturbing news last week and initiating conversation about solutions.  For what it’s worth, yes, our firm trains at least 3 times per week.  If you want to have conversation about how we accomplish this, please email me and we can chat.  As for the Kiwi’s, frankly I don’t think we’ll hear much from them…they are too busy looking for worms.  Let’s hear from you Eagles!  Cheers y’all!

arms I have had recent conversations with several young funeral directors  about their future.  These were both male and female, legacy (those that  their family owns the firm) along those that are employees.    Interestingly, the majority of their visions of the future were similar and  mostly dependent on where they are currently positioned; legacy, employee, corporate owned or family owned.

The common theme was their leaders/managers rarely solicit their ideas or viewpoints of how, if they had an opportunity, would improve upon different subjects.  I don’t think this issue is strictly a funeral home occurrence as “junior associates” in many industries such as banking, legal and such fare the same.  From my personal experiences, I am excited to listen to fresh perspectives from newly licensed or apprentice directors.  Our particular brand had greatly benefitted in such areas as use of technology, our proprietary arrangement process and other operational aspects.

The most concern I have from these conversations, even from legacy directors, was the lack of excitement for their future.  When these bright minded and aptly educated directors aren’t engaged in a culture that is propagating continuous improvement, why would they be excited?  Basically, the notion of doing their job, following the mundane routines of a funeral director and long hours should suffice.  I always ask “if you were in charge, or you could start your own firm, what would you do” and I get a litany of ideas.  These folks are thinking and have interesting perspectives. 

My favorite question is “would you like to own a funeral home” and most answer that it would be impossible…which bothers me the most.  I’m afraid we are losing the entrepreneurial spirit with our next generation of directors.  In many cases, they face an uphill battle.  Securing the capital to purchase  is difficult enough and funds for a startup funeral home stepping out on their own are even harder.

So as a matter of conversation, from “tenured” funeral directors to those at the beginning of their career, what are your thoughts?  Are we providing our next generation with enough engagement to maintain their interest or squashing their spirit? 

 

entrepenuer I recently heard a definition of an entrepreneur as one that jumps off a cliff  and builds a plane on the way down…this has a ring of truth.  We often see  news about people that have been successful bringing their ideas not only  to fruition, but made gazillions of dollars like Zuckerberg and Jobs.  But as  for the people that toil, try, fail, and start all over again, they rarely get much  press.

I personally know some in the funeral industry that daily get up and “build the plane”  with internet companies, products, processes, training modules and yes, new funeral home operating models.  I am often fascinated with how these folks envisioned their respective ideas and their take on how to penetrate the huge market.  The idea is not the hard part, it’s in the development, implementation and penetration of the market.  What many of my entrepreneur friends don’t realize early on that their product or service generally must be presented/sold/offered by funeral directors.  This particular part of the equation is frankly the most difficult to overcome and develop into a large scale.

I have a personal saying “a vision is only a dream without execution” meaning it’s not enough to dream, it’s all about making it happen.  I was part of developing a new funeral home operating model based on Six Sigma and Lean practices that opened in 2010.  The utilization of digitized arrangements for consistent messages to consumers, training of processes like home removals, all being done from computers which eliminated the need for office staff.  The service focus is providing families with a positive funeral experience, not wasting their time or money with outdated funeral processes.  Of course, the industry and competitive neigh sayers wanted to pigeon hole us that we don’t provide service, can’t this, don’t that, blah, blah. Interestingly and over 800 death calls later, our executed vision is growing with a great start to our fourth year in 2014.

The lessons learned as a funeral entrepreneur at the funeral home development level prepared me for other services and products.  I found that it was most important to listen to the consumer, not to “industry norms” or funeral directors about “what our families don’t like or we’ve tried that before.”  Funny thing when the consumer is provided with information, they make good funeral decisions.  But left up to some in our industry, the consumer would never have known nor had opportunity for selections.  The funeral consumer market is continually shifting and demand changes over time.  For instance, the current economy is significantly different than just 10 years ago, but many firms are presenting the same services and products without refreshing to current conditions.

Armed with this experience, I am involved with bringing new products and services to the funeral market.  Prior to launching with the general funeral home populace, we BETA tested.  I spent most of the effort listening to consumers and their acceptance/demand.  Along with feedback of best practices from the funeral directors that actually presented these services and products, I am certain of the success.  I sat in on arrangements simply to observe and learn.  Unfortunately, our industry does not take this same approach to new services and products. Rather, an idea is born, the product/service developed, and then the developers spend every effort trying to convince funeral directors of their particular success…without truly vetting both those that present and the end users; at need funeral consumers.

Knowing that consumers want and need a product or service, yet operating in an industry reluctant to offer anything new, the avenues of approach are significantly different than other industries.  So, for my fellow funeral industry entrepreneurs, here is some advice:

  1. Meet face to face with funeral home owners and directors or present using digital technology.
  2. Don’t waste your time trying to convince the entire industry, just find a few that are progressive enough to understand and execute.
  3. Use social media to promote your brand, services and products.
  4. Spend time with a firm and staff training them to present your service/product.
  5. Do the math…use realistic numbers for their revenue projections from sales of your service/products.  Measure the results.
  6. When funeral homes begin offering your service or product, support their efforts.  Listen to their feedback of best practices and what their families have to say.  Ask to sit in on arrangements to find out for yourself if your products or services are being presented correctly…listen to families.
  7. Provide firms with tools to inform the public of the new service or products they are offering (press releases, articles , social media avenues, and marketing techniques/tools such as information seminars to hospice or other organizations)

There is plenty of opportunity in the funeral industry for entrepreneurs, but few that make the effort and even less that succeed.  Keep building the plane…Cheers Y’all.

1 Merriam Webster— per·son·al·i·za·tion; make personal or  individual; specifically:  to mark as the property of a  particular person <personalized stationery>.  Wikipedia-  Personalization involves using technology to accommodate the  differences between individuals. Personalization technology enables  the dynamic insertion, customization or suggestion of content in any  format that is relevant to the individual user, based on the user’s implicit behavior and preferences, and explicitly given details.  Google Image: The image shown is the first when the word search for “personalization” is entered.

I was pondering personalization and the funeral industry after recently observing yet another arrangement session with a family.  The definitions above are the results of a computer search of just the word and subsequently an image search on Google.  What I found most interesting is that nothing was mentioned about funerals.  Of course when I entered “personalization funeral”  there are some blogs, references to industry written articles, and some funeral home websites that have done a good job with SEO on the subject.  When the same caption is then moved to Google images, a barrage of photos including an embalmed guy on a motorcycle appears and throngs of products from a Budweiser casket to candles.

Why am I writing this?  Because I’m not certain the general funeral consumer population is aware of our industry view of the subject “personalization.”  I’m consistently amazed by the reactions during actual post death decision making about this and many other subjects.  The family that prompted this post wanted nothing to do with in their words “any frills” for their deceased loved one (interestingly, the deceased was a “Baby Boomer”).  The funeral director, in line with our proprietary presentation of our arrangements, provided the family with information so that they could make educated funeral choices.  On the same day, at our other location which is four hours away, the same arrangement presentation provided, and the family seemed to want everything that was available including memorial products.  Our firm has made a choice that every family receives tangible recognition of the family’s loss and acknowledgement of their grief (a Mourningcross Bereavement Pin).  Every family that chooses cremation and an urn gets a personalized name plate with date of birth/date of death (using Print-A-Plate).  It’s personal to us, so we believe we should show the way.

I’m not being critical or making judgment; I’m just sharing a few observations.  To share an outside view of personalization, take a look at vanity license plates.  You know the ones with some clever message (like mine, BURYEM).  Virginia has the largest percentage of vanity plates in the US, about 16% (according to a study by AAMVA published in 2007) of all registered license plates are personalized.  Certainly that percentage has grown since.  Another interesting but little known fact that is the amount of “personalized caskets” actually sold is also in the teen percentages (or at least it was just a few years ago).

So, what is the point here?  It’s our job to provide information so that a funeral consumer can make educated decisions, and the first gesture of personalization should come from us…Cheers Y’all.

out of orderI was working a funeral service this past Saturday and experienced strange occurrences that I frankly don’t care to ever live through again. During the services, a young lady came to me to say that one of the restrooms had an “issue.”  Apparently, a roll or so of toilet paper just barely got the job done.  I proceeded to do my best plumbing expertise of using a plunger to fix the problem.  Well, it didn’t even come close…as I was sloshing away, the door opened with a man telling me that the other restroom has “an issue.”  Great…so I stopped plunging and opened the door of the other restroom and observed the same problem.

After exhausting all my best efforts to clear the hatch, I let my fellow participant in hell know we were in dire need of a plumber…on Saturday, in the middle of a funeral service.  My partner let me know that the family requested more memorial folders and the printer for some reason had decided that it also was overwhelmed for the day refusing to submit and he was up to his elbows in ink.  As the service let out, my job was to let folks know the bathrooms were unavailable due to an emergency…imagine the look of horror on some ladies faces upon hearing the news.

To add to the fun, a family of 11 walks into the funeral home to make arrangements for their mother that literally just died 45 minutes ago at the local hospital…and they really want to “get this part over with so that they can party.”  As we cleared the building of the service and initiated the arrangement session with the party family, the plumber arrived. I showed the plumber and his team the problem areas and they started to work, which included turning off the water causing all kind of alarms to start going off. On cue, the party family thought that was a sign that maybe they should take another of their six smoke breaks of the arrangement session.

My hat is off to those that serve the public in so many capacities, and especially those in the funeral service field.  We don’t just stop; we make adjustments, and carry on.  Saturday could aptly be described as a “crappy day”…but the sun came up on Sunday.  Please share some of your “one of those days” with us…Cheers y’all.

 

goodbyeI have seen it in the eyes of family upon my arrival for the removal/transfer of their deceased loved one.  Exhaustion, sadness, disbelief that death has arrived for the person they cared for and loved.  Many of us in the funeral profession have made home removals to see the look and feel the tone of those that have given so much of their lives over the recent past.  For the next 48 to 72 hours, these saints must muster even more energy for the funeral activities that will take place.

I have been part of and talked with many that shared their experiences with the exhaustive “death watch” which may last months.  In their wonderful mission of making the transition from life to death as comforting as possible, I also know that hospice and senior care workers now must move to their next assignment, exhausted as well.

Similar to bringing a newborn home, caring for a dying loved one uproots routines.  Sleep, work, personal time, meals, care visits, laundry, etc. all change.  In most cases, babies at some point get settled and find a routine similar to our own, but the transition to death has no routine.

An example and the inspiration of this post is one of our associates lost his father just last night.  Several weeks ago we were made aware that hospice care determined that the death of his father was imminent, which meant that as his funeral home family we are on standby to assist and serve.  The agonizing weeks, days and hours that followed took an emotional toll on their family.  It’s interesting that at our funeral home we have been notified by family that life sustaining procedures have been stopped on their loved one, and death may occur at any time.  I have personal knowledge of people surviving without life support and living for over a month…incredible testimony to our human design.

For some, plans for the funeral have been made for their deceased loved one. The details of contacting others, dates, times and locations are pretty much all that has not been secured.  For others, even more exhaustive days are ahead.  Funeral decisions made under the cloud of grief coupled with exhaustion only exasperate what is considered one of life’s most stressful events, the funeral of a loved one.  On top of this, finances, frayed emotions and unresolved family issues are not unusual during funeral events.

Death is often exhausting…for those that are dying, for family that is tending and caring for the dying, for those that make the transition more comfortable from life to death, and for those that serve the families in their darkest of days.  I have witnessed, deal with and ultimately know that I too will personally experience exhausting death of a loved one.  My words are from my heart to encourage all of us to continue to have empathy, provide comfort and serve those that are experiencing exhaustive death.  At some point, we’ll want to be served as we serve.  Cheers y’all.

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