It was the fall of 2002 that I took my first steps into a local funeral home in a small town Michigan. I had been a professional marketing consultant for many years and worked with hundreds of clients in 15 different industries. My passion was, and is, to help business owners take their companies to the next level. Yet, I had never had a client in the funeral home business and frankly I wasn’t sure I wanted one.
As a business person, I looked at the funeral home market as being on the edge of a major chasm. The industry reports that I had read told me that less than 50% of funeral homes would make it over the chasm. The rest would crumble under the weight of declining market share and rising cremation rates. The reports also talked about the consolidation going on in the industry and how the days of the independent funeral home owner were numbered.
As a consumer, I walked into the building with the same sense of dread that I always had when walking into any funeral home. I had attended too many funerals over the years and had always left with an overwhelming feeling of “whew…I’m glad that’s over with” or “I’d never want to put my family through that”. I had never personally met a funeral home owner and I wondered what kind of person could work in this environment and deal with such a painful issue (i.e., death) day in and day out. My perception of funeral home owners was about to change…
I was ushered into a conference room where I met with the owners. They immediately surprised me on many levels. More energized than I expected, more business savvy than I expected, and absolutely passionate about dominating each of their four markets. They also saw funeral service as a calling, almost a ministry. Their passion for helping people shined through.
Over the course of the next 3 hours we mutually interviewed each other. They had met with dozens of different marketing consultants from inside the funeral home industry and were looking for a fresh perspective. I was committed to only working with the best company in a given industry because my style of marketing is very truth-based and only works if the company can deliver on the promises we make.
In hindsight, I won them over when I told them “Never spend a dollar on any marketing or advertising unless you can measure the results. Otherwise you’re just throwing your money away.” They won me over when one of them said “The cremation crisis is a bunch of bull. Cremation only deals with the disposition of the remains and it has nothing to do with how you can deliver a service that addresses the emotional, relational, and spiritual needs of the family.”
And with that….a business relationship was launched and a transformation process began.
Skipping ahead 3 years, you may wonder if the transformation worked. Working together we increased overall revenues at their funeral homes by 65%, our average revenues related to cremation services are up 110%, and our customer satisfaction rating is at 99.5%.
So how did we get here?
The answer is that we followed the exact same process I have laid out in my book, the Strategic Marketing Process for Funeral Service Professionals. Some of the labels we used for the various steps have changed from the original version but the overall methodology has not changed.
We began by studying the local market and by doing competitive research. We then packaged up the business, built our content foundation, and trademarked key words so that our competitors could not copy us.
We then trained the team on how to deliver our new style of service and created education based marketing that connected with local families. We next focused on delivering a service that always exceeded expectations and protected our reputation by collecting positive reviews.
During that same 2002 to 2005 period, Michigan was already bogged down in the economic depression that did not hit the rest of the country until 2008. Yet we grew revenues by 65%….that’s the power of the Strategic Marketing Process.
Word began to spread and the next thing I knew I was receiving calls from funeral homes all over the country. At the time I had clients in over a dozen different industries and knew I needed to focus on a specific niche in order to grow my business and leverage my time. After the success of my initial project focussing on the funeral home market made a lot of sense.
And with that decision I launched FuneralSuccess.com, loaded it with free content, wrote the first version of this book and began signing up new funeral home clients.
From 2005 to 2008 I travelled extensively and had the pleasure of working one-on-one with some of the leading firms in the industry. The work was invigorating but the travel was taking it’s toll. With 4 young kids at home plus another whole company that I continued to operate (Customer Driven Marketing) I was being stretched too thin.
By 2009, in all honesty….I was starting to lose faith in funeral home owners. For every Anderson McQueen that I worked with there were 50 owners who wanted to pay my fees but weren’t really willing to change. My own marketing efforts were generating lots of new clients for me but if a client isn’t willing to change it turns into a lot of frustration for both of us.
Then in June of 2009 I experienced the passing of my mother. I thought I was prepared for this moment but you can never be prepared…
Three days before my mother passed I decided to visit the local funeral home where she had made arrangements years ago. I wanted to see what they had to offer our family. Did they have a plan? Could they give us the funeral experience that we wanted and our mother deserved?
They had a reputation as being a good firm. Not great…but good. When I met with the funeral home owner I asked if he had any unique services that we could take advantage of….he gave me a blank stare. I asked if there was anything we could do to upgrade the service for her….he suggested upgrading the casket. I was appalled.
I was very tempted to move the arrangements to another local firm but instead decided to take charge. I carefully dictated a long list of requirements to the funeral home owner covering everything from exactly how he was to do the removal, to how we wanted the visitation to run, to how we wanted a dove release at graveside. To his credit he did not argue and cooperated as best he could. Sadly, many of the tasks fell upon our shoulders because he had no way to do them.
It’s important to note that none of my requests were unique. In fact, there were all small personal touches that I had learned from my funeral home clients. They were just things that this very traditional funeral home was unprepared to do for us. He was prepared to be courteous, take care of my mother’s body and rent us a badly decorated room. We needed a lot more….
My mother’s service turned out perfect. It was exactly what she would have wanted (complete with piano music and late night fireworks). Our family was delighted and all of our relatives commented on how it had been a great funeral.
I had a chance to talk to the funeral home owner after the service and I asked him if he would use some of these ideas with other families her served. He shook his head and said “No, it seemed like a lot of work”….I wanted to deck him!
This extremely painful event COMPLETELY confirmed my belief that a well executed funeral experience can be extremely healing for a family. But it also confirmed my belief that too many funeral homes are not prepared to meet the needs of today’s families.
And with that, I recommitted myself to the funeral industry. To seek out those few brave owners who are willing to change but need a roadmap, some guidance and some tools. I’ll continue to help those funeral homes that are willing to change, we’ll transform their business, and get them ready to serve families for generations to come. In the meantime, their competitors can fight over every call and keep lowering their prices until they can’t afford to stay open.
I am a catalyst for change. If you are ready to change contact me. If you are not ready to change please don’t call. We’ll both just end up frustrated.
On a final note…people often ask me…why do I work in the funeral home industry at all? I continue work in other industries and most of them are far more lucrative (and easier). Why do I also work in the funeral home industry? It comes down to something that I read years ago “whenever you’re helping someone heal, you’re doing God’s work”. I know that every funeral director that I’ve ever worked with is in this business to help families heal during the loss of a loved one. If I can help you with your noble calling, that means I’ve indirectly helped families all over the country.