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The New Normal

Every year the funeral trade magazines post numerous articles written by a handful of funeral home financial and marketing consultants like David Nixon, Dan Isard, Alan Creedy, Glen Gould and Bill McQueen just to name a few of the better known. They have provided the funeral home owners with vast amounts of great information through the years about sales averages, how to set up budgets, break-even analysis calculators and the like. We look to these folks to help us figure out what the future might look like and give us some “Normal” numbers to compare our numbers to. They have access to what people are doing around the country that most funeral home owners don’t have access to and we have come to depend on them to give us a “pulse” of what’s happening.

Over the last ten years the funeral business has been changing so much that I don’t believe that we can say what is “normal” any more. Thirty years ago when the cremation rate was below 20% all over the country and most funeral homes provided the same type of service and merchandise to nearly every family they served it was pretty easy to say what was normal and average. But now with new low cost cremation providers, online funeral arrangements sites, and competition from hotels and reception facilities taking a larger piece of the pie every year what’s normal for me may not be normal for someone else.

I think it’s time for all of these consultants to go back to the drawing board, put their thinking caps on and come up with some New Normals for us to compare things to. They need to realize that there are now multiple sets of normal numbers depending on cremation rate, market population, religious and ethnic background, and the number and type of competitors in your market. There is no “one size fits all” any more.

What is normal for a town of 50,000 people with 50% cremation, 3 traditional funeral homes, 2 low cost cremation providers and a large population of church members?

What is normal for a college town of 120,000 with 65% cremation, 2 corporate funerals home/cemetery combos, 3 independent funeral homes and 4 low cost providers and 2 online arrangement providers?

What is normal for a 600,000 population big city with Ethnic firms and Religious firms and corporate firms and independent firms of all shapes and sizes? How many low cost providers can exist in a town like that? Do Online arrangements sites really work or are they just the latest thing the vendors are trying to convince us all we need.

The places in the country that have been dealing with 70% cremation for a long time are the folks the rest of the country should be hearing from and learning from. What is their reality? What kind of average sale do they have? How are they surviving and thriving? What did they do when their call volume remained the same but their annual revenue dropped by 25% because people were choosing less expensive options? I’m guessing that over 50% of the funeral homes around the country saw their average income per call decrease last year (that’s all calls, cremation and burial calls, combined). SCI just reported that their average income per call dropped last year.

With all due respect to the folks in the middle of the country who are still doing 80% burial or big city ethnic firms where people drop $15,000 regularly on a funeral, I don’t even want to talk to them.  They are not in the same business as me. And I’m not so sure the start-up guys in the big cities that are carving out a “hip and new” niche market for themselves can really relate to what it’s like in a market with a steady population and a blue collar income where people are just trying to get by. There are only so many deaths in most markets and only so many dollars that people have to spend.

So…. All of you Mr. Smarty Pants people out there what is the new normal???

I’m Dale Clock.  Thanks for listening.

Last fall I wrote a blog entry about our new venture at our Fruitport, MI location called Sunset Celebrations. I told you that we were converting our existing funeral home into a facility that was capable of hosting different kinds of family oriented events like Graduation Open Houses, Birthday Parties, Retirement celebrations, baby showers and other similar events in addition to the Funerals and Memorial Services and Celebrations of Life. I used the words Event Center to describe the facility, because that’s what’s it’s purpose was now. A place to hold family events.

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wedding reception

Since we re-opened in September we have hosted a wedding reception, a Retirement Party, a Company Christmas party, an Anniversary party, two Memorial Services, two Funerals, several business meetings and a Vendor party where local Tupperware/Avon/Amway type folks displayed their products. They were all very successful events and everyone was very happy with the facility and we were receiving new calls every week to reserve the facility for events in the spring and summer.

Then in January we got a letter from the Village of Fruitport Building Inspector telling us to cease and desist from hosting events other than “funerals” because we were zoned as a funeral home and not as a Banquet Hall. The only major difference between the two zoning rules was that a Banquet Hall required 2 acres of land and a funeral home only requires one acre. Plus there is nothing in the funeral home zoning rule that prohibited us from hosting other family events.  But in an effort to be good neighbors we stopped taking further reservations and started efforts to resolve this issue with the Village Council so we could continue to serve the demands of the public.

Now we have run into some major challenges with definitions and words.

What is the definition of a Funeral? What is the definition of a Memorial Service? What is a Celebration of Life. What is a Home Going Celebration? What is a Farewell Party?  The fact is each one of the events I just listed are family gatherings recognizing a marker moment in someone’s life. Each one of those events is a gathering of people in a building where there are tables and chairs for people to sit around. Food and beverages are typically served. There are photographs displayed and videos shown on TV’s. There is often a microphone so everyone can hear the stories that people want to share with each other and there is music for all to hear. There is a parking lot for cars and restroom facilities for our human needs. Those are the basic elements and activities of every one of those events.

Now, let’s think about retirement parties and graduation open houses and anniversary parties and baby showers and wedding receptions. The fact is each one of the events I just listed are family gatherings recognizing a marker moment in someone’s life. Each one of those events is a gathering of people in a building where there are tables and chairs for people to sit around. Food and beverages are typically served. There are photographs displayed and videos shown on TV’s. There is often a microphone so everyone can hear the stories that people want to share with each other and there is music for all to hear. There is a parking lot for cars and restroom facilities for our human needs. Those are the basic elements and activities of every one of those events.

I hope you noticed that the italicized words describing all of those events are exactly the same. The exact same thing happens at each and every one of those events.

I ask this rhetorical question. So…Is my newly remodeled facility a Funeral Home that also hosts Family Events or is it an Event Center that specializes in Funerals and Celebrations of Life? And does it really matter?

The fact is that the business of funerals has changed dramatically over the last 10 years. Today 70% of the 450 families that we serve annually choose cremation. So where funerals were usually associated with a dead body being displayed in a casket, now that happens less than 30% of the time. The vast majority of the events we help plan and coordinate are not much different than a graduation open house. (Except that we a capable of planning and producing our events in just 3 days where most mothers take months to plan their senior’s open house)

I feel that if the Council of the Village of Fruitport wants to continue to have a local funeral facility to serve their community they need to seriously consider changing their rules to adapt to the future realities of funeral service. Nearly every Funeral establishment in our area now offers some type of reception services. It’s what the public wants. It only makes sense to allow us to host other family events too.

I’d love to hear what the rest of you out there think of this issue.

I’m Dale Clock.  Thanks for Listening.

If StoneMor Partners manages their rest of their companies like they manage Sunrise Memorial Gardens in Muskegon, MI then I recommend all of their investors call their brokers immediately and dump their stock like a radioactive hot glowing boulder.  Since StoneMor took over the operation of Sunrise a few years back it has been a revolving door of inept employees “Managed By Fear”.

I have never seen people so afraid to make any decision, let alone the right one without calling their supervisor. I have never seen management so completely out of touch with an operation, seemingly incapable of training people to do a relatively simple job. Policies, procedures or prices change on a monthly basis. Nearly every family that we serve that has to deal with this company/cemetery comes back to us with terrible stories and complaints of pushy sales tactics, overpriced required merchandise purchases, expensive additional service charges for work that requires little time or effort and brown dried up grass overgrown with weeds. I cringe every time a family tells me they own property there.

The things that happened this week at Sunrise pushed me over the edge. Their treatment of families and the attitude of their staff was disgusting. I had a family tell me they were treated so rudely by a Sunrise staff person in the office that they wanted to punch her in the face. And another family was pressured into purchasing a vault, even though they had purchased one from the funeral home the day before. And when we thought we had that issue resolved they called me on the morning of the burial and told me they had already installed their vault so I was out of luck. Rather than fight the issue I did the right thing and had the vault company go back and pick up my vault. At the burial the family told me both employees were blaming each other for all the errors and confusion.

My complaints to the next level up got blown off by some cell phone carrying, car driving middle manager who gave a 5 minutes dissertation about how their mission is to work with families and funeral homes to provide the best care and services. What a bunch of crap. He and everyone at the place were just worried about meeting quota and how much commission they were going to get. He accused of us lying even though I can prove the time line of how things happened.(we met with the family on Sunday and they went to Sunrise on Monday)

We know some upper level folks that work for StoneMor and contacted them to see who we should talk to and got a few email addresses. Then we called the Michigan Cemetery Association to find out how we should handle our complaint and they said that no-one at StoneMor or the cemetery association would listen to funeral home complaints. It had to come from the family. But rather than put the family through any more grief I have decided to air my complaints here. I’m hoping this might get management’s attention a little sooner. And If anyone reading this has had challenges like this I invite you to comment below.

I want you all to know I’m not just some whiney pants funeral guy that lost a sale. I completely understand that this is business. I’ve been to sales seminars and understand the methods. And it’s all about getting to the customer first in many of these situations. But what’s going on here is borderline fraud and coercion. It’s stuff like this that puts death care in the headlines and gives everyone a black eye.

To paraphrase Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie Rainman ….”StoneMor Sucks”

I’m Dale Clock.  Thanks for Listening

Time for Something New

Last November we had some major water damage at the Clock Funeral Home facility in Fruitport, Michigan. It is a small facility (2500 sq ft with no basement) that we only have staff at when we are meeting with families or having visitations and funerals. We check on it regularly but it is not uncommon for there to be 5 day stretches that no one is in the facility. It seems that the furnace starter failed and the building was without heat for a while. It was also a matter of fate that we had an unusual early cold snap during that period. When we discovered the problem with the furnace we had it fixed, turned the heat up and left the building. DSC00602

Three days later our parking lot snowplow guy was clearing the snow and called us to say there was water running out from under the door. Not the kind of news you want to hear. What had happened was that the water pipes that run through the ceiling had frozen and cracked during the cold snap when the furnace wasn’t working. And when we turned the furnace back on it thawed out the pipes and the water started spraying water in the attic space above the ceiling. It eventually soaked the drywall and tiles and the ceiling came crashing down on the furniture. The water then continued to run for 3 days before it was discovered. Here are some pictures.

IMG_0379 IMG_0391   IMG_0381

This brought to us a major dilemma. This branch was small and didn’t have good bathroom facilities. The layout wasn’t good for larger crowds and we had shifted all of our body preparation to our main facility in Muskegon over 15 years ago. The business volume in Fruitport had been slowly declining for a few years and we wondered if it was worth it to repair the place at all or just close the facility down.

After a few weeks of thought and contemplation we decided to take a gamble and try something completely new and different. We decided to completely gut the building and turn it into an Event Center for all of life’s events. We are calling our new business “Sunset Celebrations”. Click here for the website. http://sunsetcelebrationcenter.com/

We will still be able to hold funerals, visitations and memorial services just like before. But now the facility has an open floor plan, with a sound system, TV’s on the walls and a small serving kitchen so we can hold any type of event that folk’s desire; wedding receptions, birthday and anniversary parties, graduation open houses, business meetings and baby showers. We are working with area caterers to provided food for events. The facility can comfortably handle crowds of up to 125 people depending on the layout.

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Under Construction

We are finally ready to reopen the place. Which is good because we have our first wedding reception there this weekend. And the road in front of the building which has been completely torn up for the last 4 months for a new sewer project will be open too. I’ll post photos soon.

I’m Dale Clock. Thanks for listening.

Almost everyone in funeral service is searching for a simple answer to the main challenge that faces most of us.

“As the cremation rate continues to rise and our income continues fall because people are choosing less of the services and products that we typically provided, what should we do to remain profitable?”

And from that question come many more. Why are people choosing cremation more? Why are people choosing simple cremation providers instead of traditional funeral homes? What types of services and products do people really want? What can we do to be relevant in people’s minds? How are people getting the information they use to make decisions? Etc. etc. etc.

We are all in search of the “Secret Sauce”. The one magic thing that when we do it, or buy it, or install it, that “Secret Sauce” will solve all of our problems and transform us back into a business where things were normal and regular. A business where we knew what people wanted, we gave it to them, they paid us and we all made money (by accident) and everyone was happy.

Well I’m going to tell you right now that I don’t have the recipe to the “Secret Sauce”. So you can stop reading this article if that’s what you were hoping for. Life isn’t that simple. It never was. I’m writing this to let you know that you’re not alone out there in your search.

I was originally going to tell you about some of the things that I have tried over the last 25 years. What kinda worked and what didn’t. So I started listing everything I tried. The list kept growing until I reached over 60 different things. Some of the things we tried we are still doing. Many things came and went. If I showed you the list you’d get bored halfway through it.

I wish there was an easy answer, but there isn’t. I’m guessing it’s a combination of many ingredients. And the ingredients will be different for different size firms in different parts of the country. It’s no longer a one size fits all. I’ve attended numerous classes and seminars and I’ve heard some great ideas. But not all the ideas seem to fit with my philosophy. Not that they are bad ideas, just not a fit for me.

The biggest challenge that I see for most firms is to get the whole staff united in one direction. For 10 years I have been trying to move my folks where I think we need to go. Some folks have followed, some folks have left, some folks have died, some have retired and some wish I’d stop trying new things and just go back to doing things the way we used to.

If I was the charismatic leader that we read about in business books I would make wonderful speeches and lead my supportive troops into battle. But I’m not that kind of guy. Like many funeral directors, I am a pleasing accommodator that tries to avoid conflict. I can try to change some but, at 57 years old, I don’t see myself becoming a Lee Iacocca any time soon.

So I’ll keep refining and honing my message to my troops and to the public.

I still believe that the true vale of a funeral is the gathering together of people and the sharing of stories. It’s my job to help people gather together and help them share their stories and hear the stories of love and support from their friends and family. Everything we do at the funeral home has to focus on those two activities. And if they do, we will continue to serve the people for years to come.

I’m Dale Clock. Thanks for listening.

There is a wonderful song from the musical, Mary Poppins, which I’m guessing most of you could sing along with.

“Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. In the most delightful way”.

Wiktionary defines the phrase like this “Proverb – An otherwise unpleasant situation can be pleasant when a pleasant aspect is deliberately introduced.

I like to think of it like this – If you put a positive spin on the difficult things we have to do in life and a positive spin on the things we know are good for us, like take our medicine. With that positive attitude you can accomplish those things much easier. And in the end you’ll be happier and all the better for it.

So what has this got to do with funeral service? Well, I think that funeral service needs to put a little sugar with the medicine they want the public to take.castor-oil-postcard

Funeral service keeps preaching that to really recover from the loss of a loved one you need to have a service, preferably with a body present. Time and time again in trade publication articles and books endorsed by all the state and national funeral associations we hear the same story. All the funeral service endorsed doctors of sociology and psychology say that a traditional service is the correct “medicine” to cure people of the disease of grief and mourning.

We have been told to go out and “educate the public” on the need for this medicine. We have been advised to ask the hard, probing and thought provoking questions in arrangement conferences about what will happen if the family doesn’t provide the “medicine” (service) for friends and relatives.We have been encouraged to use guilt as a motivator to convince people that they need to take/provide the “medicine” for everyone involved or else they will fail to heal properly.

Image But this all reminds me of some old black & white movie of a tough old nurse forcing a spoonful of castor oil down a kid’s throat. “Take this. It’s good for you”.

Wouldn’t it be better if we put a little sugar with that medicine? Wouldn’t it be better if we promoted funeral service from the more pleasant aspects of what happens during funerals and visitations?  So what’s pleasant about funerals, you may ask? It’s pretty easy. We as, human beings, do it nearly everyday in dozens of different places.

Gathering together with people and sharing stories.

That’s it. Two things. Gather together and share stories. Meet and Talk. Isn’t that what you do when you go out to dinner with friends? Isn’t that what you do at parties? Isn’t that what you do at Church, at Rotary, at the Friday night fish-fry, at the family reunion? And when we meet and talk, we smile and laugh and remember. And in the end we usually feel good about it. Right?

That’s exactly what happens at funerals and visitations. People gather together and share stories about their loved one. Happy stories, funny stories, sad stories, long forgotten stories, stories from the bible and family stories. We all know it’s a good visitation when the room is full of people and the noise level is up from all the talking. There is laughter and hugs along with the tears.  It is through those stories we share our love and respect for that person and for the family. It’s through those stories that we celebrate a life.

It is through those stories that the heart gets healed. The medicine that the people need is really in the stories that they hear and tell.

So I think that funeral service needs to focus on those two things; Gathering People Together and Sharing Stories. Funeral service needs to promote the fact that we are experts in helping people gather together and share stories. People like to gather together and share stories. It’s a pleasant thing to think about.

What’s a better marketing phrase to use “We make a hard time a little easier” or “Gather Together, Share the Stories, We help make it easier”?

Yes, we help with people who are mourning and travelling through grief. But by using a little sugar – “let’s gather together and share the stories” – we can help the medicine go down so they can heal their heart.

If we don’t get this right the public will continue to move away from funeral homes towards restaurants and clubs and backyards for their celebrations. The choice is ours to make.

I’m Dale Clock. Thanks for listening.

Thomas Lynch does not speak for me. And if all of funeral service continues to hold him as the all-knowing wizard of funeral-land he may just lead everyone down the yellow brick road to nonexistence. We can’t go backwards. The almighty public has spoken and we need to listen to them, not the man behind the casket.

At the NFDA 2013 Convention in Austin, TX last month, I attended a presentation by Thomas Lynch and Thomas Long. Lynch is a well-known funeral director and the author of the NY Times best seller book “The Undertaking”. Thomas G. Long is Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler School of Theology, EmoryUniversity, and one of the most popular preachers in the United States today. They have co-written a book called “The Good Funeral” and this tag team presentation was basically a way to present their views and promote their book.

The room was filled with over 1000 funeral directors who listened intently, erupting into applause and laughter at various jokes and phrases delivered by the two experienced presenters. The two Toms knew how to get their audience of believers going just like a good preacher or politician does. Their talking points were well rehearsed and the “bro-mance” between the two of them was very evident. Their message was basically this; Funerals that are solemn and contemplative affairs with a body present and in a casket are “Good Funerals”. Anything else is nothing but fluff and a waste of time. Period. End of Story. No middle ground. No acknowledgement that the way the world communicates has changed. No compromise. Just a desire to have things the way they were in 1969.

They both spent the better part of an hour bashing anything that had to do with celebrating a life, uplifting stories about the deceased that focused accomplishments or good deeds, favorite music being played, tribute videos, personalization of any type, dove releases, photo collages, web sites, web casting of funerals, etc., etc., etc. According to them if it didn’t exist in 1969 (an arbitrary date that I picked) then it has no place in a “Good Funeral”. Well, maybe a new hearse is OK, but that’s about it.

I don’t want to make this a personal attack. Both Toms are amazingly talented, successful, intelligent men. They are well spoken, well written, articulate and entertaining. They make you think, they make you laugh. They are passionate about their beliefs. But they don’t speak for me. And the reality is that they don’t speak for the majority of funeral consumers in the United States. And I don’t think they should be speaking for all of funeral service either.

I believe: The true value of a funeral is the Gathering Together of People and the Sharing of Stories. Stories of love, memories, respect, and honor. We gather together because we, as human beings, need that contact and the emotional connection we get from being with one another. We gather together at happy times and sad times. We gather at births, graduations, weddings, anniversaries, retirements and deaths. We gather to worship, to praise, to celebrate and to mourn. And at every one of those gatherings…. we tell stories. It is through those stories that we heal and grow and love.

It’s our job as funeral directors to make that Gathering easy, comfortable, meaningful and memorable for all who attend. It’s our job to help people tell their stories and help people hear the stories from friends and relatives.

Gather Together…..Share the Stories…..Celebrate a Life…..Heal the Heart.

It is not our job to dictate how they gather or why they gather or where they gather. It is not our job to dictate what stories they tell or how they tell their stories. Do you tell Catholics they need to have funerals like the Baptists? Do you tell the African-Americans they need to have funerals like the Amish? NO!!! Then why does funeral service think they can tell the Karaoke Crowd, or the Pig Roast in the back-yard crowd, or the balloon release crowd that what they are doing is WRONG. And that is what Thomas Lynch is preaching. He says that all of this new stuff is WRONG.

Telling people they are wrong is not going to get you very far in business. Sure, funeral service will bring out their grief experts to say that viewing the body is a good thing and people who suffer from complicated grief didn’t view. They will use humorous clichés like “You can pay the shrink, you can pay the bartender, or you can pay the funeral director.” Or they will compare funeral directors to doctors that have to tell patients about cancer and the best course of treatment. But grief is not cancer and what about the 99% of people who didn’t choose the view the body and are doing just fine in their grief recovery. Where is the data on them? There isn’t any because there is no problem.

 The two Tom’s definition of a “Good Funeral” does exactly what I am saying. It gathers people together and they share stories. Maybe their gathering is somber and reflective. Maybe their stories come from the Bible. Maybe viewing the body is an important part of their story telling. I am honored to help them share their story in a way that fits their lifestyle, customs and beliefs.

 But if the family wants to gather in the back yard, with a karaoke machine and release balloons while singing Fred’s favorite song, they are not wrong. They are different from the two Toms. Yet, they are the same. Because they too, are gathering together and sharing stories which will help heal their heart.

 If I want to stay in business I am going to make sure I can provide the karaoke machine in addition to the church truck. I am going to make sure I can restore an old photograph with Photoshop just as well as I restore a 92 year old grandma’s body who spent the last two years in a nursing home. I am going to make sure my facility can be set up with chairs in neat rows one day and round tables with matching center pieces and wine bottles the next.

 My job is to help people Gather Together and Share the Stories. If I do that, they will heal on their own, in their own way, without me telling them what to do. 

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