Saturday, August 13, 2011

And yet another... RIP

I've been feeling weird and detached all day today. A phone call I just received confirms why.

Dave was a great embalmer and one of the funniest people I had ever had the pleasure of knowing. It's almost impossible to describe him, and it's my firm belief that only people who had the privilege of experiencing him can understand what a loss we've just incurred.

Dave explained to me long before his cancer diagnosis that it was his mission (completed mission, I might add) to do everything he wanted to do in his life before the age of 50. That way, every day after 50 was just a bonus. He lived his life truly and fully, and only on his terms.

All of us should have such character and determination.

After his diagnosis, he described the side effects of one of his more radical treatments in quite possibly the funniest statements I've ever heard, but just too raw to write here, even for my standards.

I'm at a loss for any other words to write. Dave, I'll miss you. The world doesn't change... but it certainly has less in it without you.

I'm cracking a beer or two for you tonight. No one could hit 'em with the powder puff like you. You beat fifty and almost made sixty.

Mission accomplished.


Saturday, July 23, 2011

An Extended Absence... Morons Playing on the Field of Dreams

You know, even the old Guerrilla himself tires of trying to bail out the feeble-minded, the exceptionally egotistical and the just plain stupid. After a string of absolutely mind-numbing encounters with funeral home owners whose egos are writing checks that their asses can't cash, I had to throw up my hands. The final straw was a fine group of gentlemen who contacted me 1 year into their business venture.

No business plan. No funeral home experience. Just self-styled "expertise" and the grand delusion that their shiny new facility would shut the established firm in town down, post-haste. And in their wisdom, a barely five digit marketing budget.

How, may I ask, can anyone in this day, age and economy still be relying on the Field of Dreams business plan?

If we build it, they will come.

Excuse me while I throw up.

That is the worst kind of all the kinds of self-deluded bullshit out there. Pardon the language, but I have got to get a point across. A new building or bigger parking lot isn't going to bring the world beating a path to your door...regardless of what the "expert" told you.

It's about connections. Any chimp with a bank account can hire a contractor to build an International House o' Funerals... it takes a true professional with skill, experience and compassion to elevate the business. Give me a true pro with an old building and an "expert" with a new building and I will show you how the pro whips the new guy's ass every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

People have swarmed into this field in hordes from other professions as the tech bubble burst or from the intellectual backwater of academia and proclaimed themselves experts. Some of these clowns don't even have a professional license or those that do are barely five years into their career and tout themselves as "experts."

These experts are ruining the profession. They're lazy and/or clueless. You don't get to be an expert five years in. Come talk to me when you've got at least a decade of actual day-to-day funeral home experience and then MAYBE we'll use the 'E' word.

Don't be fooled by the wanna-bees. They talk people into doing moronic things, like building new places without a business plan.

And for the guy who told me he has allocated $10,000 to fix his sinking business, let me say this: don't give me the 10k, give it to a good bankruptcy lawyer. Who might save your ass and some of your assets.

And for the rest of you...the Field of Dreams is fiction. Just like a successful business with an "expert" at the helm. The time has come to wake up. The economy is not getting any better. If you have hired one of these clowns, I pity you. Give me a call. I must just help you for free.

Let's be more careful out there, shall we?

Doc's Death

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The end of an era...

Greetings good readers,

Never one to ignore the blogical muse when she slaps me, I felt compelled to write this today.

Yesterday, I buried an old friend. Tom was instrumental in my formative years as a funeral apprentice. He taught me lot, both in what to do and what to never do.

He was the antithesis of the stuffy undertaker. He was big, loud and brash. He sang too loud at Masses, his blue eyes danced with mischief and when that was matched with one of his Cheshire grins, you knew you were in for trouble! He talked to himself a lot and had a nearly photographic memory for names, faces, and funeral details.

And most families loved him. Most.

Tom was very funny and charming at a time when most didn't expect wit and charm. It put some off, but for the rest Tom would be the funeral director of choice the next time the family lost a loved one.

I saw Tom (or Big Tom, as most people knew him) turn a gaggle of elderly nuns into giggly schoolgirls with an inaudible (and probably bawdy) joke. I saw him hand a particularly crabby priest a business card that said "Jesus Loves You" on one side and "Everyone Else Thinks You're An Asshole" on the other side.

The priest loved it.

It became a long running joke with that priest and our firm to say "Jesus loves you" when he would get in the lead car on the way to the cemetery.

Tom also delighted in handing unsuspecting folks huddled around the outdoor ashtray urns a card that said "Thanks for smoking. From your local undertaker."

He would go to great lengths to get me (or others) to laugh at inappropriate times during a funeral. If you managed to hold it together, he would take that as the gauntlet being thrown down and redouble his efforts.

He got me once. ONCE.

Tom and I worked the front door one busy Sunday afternoon. An ancient gentleman slowly worked his way up the steps. Tom grandly swung the door open and said to the gent "Take all the time you need. I'm here 'til 5."
To which the man smiled and said "It's good to see you, Tom." Tom looked at him and his face changed.

Then Tom said, "Well, I'm sorry. I didn't know it was YOU. You old bastard, I thought you were dead." A hearty back pat, a Big Tom smile and a "Take care of yourself" from Tom as the man headed back to the visitation room. The old man seemed genuinely pleased and comforted that Tom recognized him.

"Who was that, Tom?" I was unsure that what I saw actually had just happened.

Tom stared far out the window and after a minute said, "I have no idea."

Tom's one downfall was never knowing when to be himself and when not to be himself. If Tom had known how to govern himself, he would have owned the city funeral business. He would have taken it by storm.

One of the most successful funeral home owners in this city is famous for joking and buying rounds of drinks at bars. Maybe it is some sort of St. Louis anomaly, but people seem to enjoy working with someone who isn't afraid to utilize some well-placed humor and irreverence.

What's the lesson here? Maybe it's time to channel a little Tom into your style. People love professionals, but people love REAL people more. Tom was real. He laughed with them, wept with them, he held the widow's hand during the walk to the gravesite. No one ever accused him of being a stuffy phony, which is a persona many suspect of our profession.

Be real. Add just a drop of Tom - but carefully. A little goes a long way.

Jesus loves you, Tom. Say Hi to Father Good for all of us down here.

Your friend,


PS - To all the readers out there, I want to share one more event - Tom taught me never to say no to a lunch invitation or a drink when proffered by a family. Never say no but find believable and genuine reasons to decline, because some ethnic groups in our city would take that as an egregious slap in the face to just say no. And you would have never got a dime of their business again...nor any of their friends or relatives.

That being said, true to form Tom and I accepted a family's lunch invitation and agreed that we would sit off to the side and slide quietly out after we had eaten.

So there we sat, enjoying the traditional south St. Louis church funeral lunch of rubbery roast beef and mostaccioli when he and I saw the children of the deceased all pick up their plates and walk over to our table to sit down and eat with us. What followed was a bit overwhelming, but many, many verbal thanks culminated in the family taking pictures with us...which they sent copies of in the long thank you letter that arrived a couple of weeks later.

Yeah. That really happened. And that was the Tom effect in purest form.

Happy August! I bid you all much success in the coming months.


PPS - Tom also taught me the only proper drink to allow a family to buy you was Scotch on the rocks. Good call, Tom!

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Discount vs. Differentiation

Good morning, Guerrillas!

One of my first clients was in an ultra-competitive market...really, imagine the World Series/Super Bowl/Lower Oakland Roller Derby all rolled in to one.

This firm was and continues to be world-class as a does their competitor. Each tiny bit of market share is hard won and guarded fiercely with politely bared fangs...

Even after an on-site visit, I could only make small suggestions to this firm, as they were already doing most of what I would have suggested them to do. They were already on their was their competitor. They do have an edge that the competitor doesn't. They seek the counsel of almost every expert in the field that they can find.

Is this an inexpensive process? No. Does it pay dividends? It most certainly would have to or they wouldn't still do it. They are CONSTANTLY stretching, reaching and growing their arsenal on every front. They don't bring a knife to a gunfight. It keeps them from trying to compete on lower levels of the playing field, such as the time-honored tradition of discounting one's services to win a price shopper.

One of my earliest mentors in the business would snarl and gnash his teeth every time he would hear of our firm getting into a bidding war with another firm.

"What are we? Hookers? Car Salesmen?" He would growl, grumble and fume.

You see, we could honestly say that we did a superior job to our main competitor. But our management was absolutely petrified to stand up and say that to a price-shopper. Not even the old "remember-you get what you pay for" chestnut.

Don't discount yourself. Differentiate your firm. Make your customer experience superior, superlative and sublime. Fulfill needs that they don't even know they have. It isn't always in grand sweeping gestures. Disney doesn't create ONE BIG EVENT for you to experience to make you want to come back. They know that loyal raving fans are made when you string a bunch a small moments together that are made magical with just a little effort.

And Disney does not compete on know that and I know that. They dominate by providing an unparalleled experience.

You too can dominate your market in the same way. Do all the things your competitor isn't able or willing to do. *WARNING* It means being extra perceptive and working your ass off. But it pays dividends in the end.

Hardcore price shoppers are usually not worth your time. They want every thing in the world and don't want to pay for it. Even if you make their experience breathtakingly memorable, some of them will still run to the guy down the street next time to save $100 bucks. In fact, I'm sure there are even a few of them that cannot believe that they can't find someone to pay THEM for the privilege of cremating their mama...

The new economy is creating a new breed of these shoppers. Some of these can be won by merely explaining how you are better and why the price variance is justified. But it can't be all talk. You got to prove to them that you were worth it. Do it! DANGER!!! If you really aren't worth the price difference, they'll sniff you out in a second and complain to a hundred people about how you lied and cheated just to get their money...

For many, price is merely an objection. Find out what is behind that objection and you can successfully negotiate around it. Maybe they had a bad experience with a competitor (a firm they may have used for generations) and are looking for an excuse to make a switch. Most people don't know how to go about making a move like this (especially with death imminent) so they fall back on price alone.

Don't be afraid to to use this line (or your own variation thereof) "I don't want you to make a mistake or choose the wrong funeral provider based just on price when there are so many other factors to consider as well (insert your reasoning here).

Plant the seed of doubt...but gently. Most have never given thought to the possibility that choosing the lowest cost provider might just be a grave mistake. (I'll groan for you.)

Handle these dealings delicately. Fight for the RIGHT price-shoppers, but learn to cut loose the ones who aren't worth your time and energy.

When you create the right experience for them, the next time their need rolls around, price should be much less of an issue for them.

As always, I toast your success and remain,

Dan Heaman, CFSP

PS - Down below look for a bit of advice for dealing with the bottom feeders of your marketplace competition...The Chicago Way: courtesy of Mr. Connery!

The Chicago Way

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Violence in the Funeral Workplace

The busy season lies just ahead for most of you...that time when the phone never stops and the prep room is always full and incessant floral deliveries...

Pressure...sometimes of nearly geologic proportions...

Our business is a natural pressure cooker. It can break the best of us. It can turn an ordinarily disciplined staff into a bunch of poo-flinging fraternity monkeys.

Adding the pressure of busier times can really get ugly.

Now, to be clear, I am not speaking of some Fort Hood-type situation...but I am addressing the destructive and demoralizing everyday haranguement and hostility that needs to be removed from your workplace.

After meeting with good friends over good drink last week, and be regaled by the tales of intolerable behavior (often acted out in front of ownership and management types), I see this being a situation that is probably far from unique.

Hopefully, you have a handle on it. You squash the actions before it festers into something that will land you in sexual harassment, intimidation, a "hostile workplace" or any of their bastard relatives.

Strictly enforcing your firm's code of ethics (which should have a section on peer treatment & respect-if it doesn't, get one in there. Now.)

Don't run the risk of damaging the staff you have worked so hard to develop (remember the Guerrillas in the Midst post?), don't risk the liability that a damaged staff could drop the ball on something big (and land your butt in the middle of a legal and PR nightmare) and don't make a bunch of lawyers rich because a pissed-off ex-employee got fed up with the monkeys and your lack of management skills/guts etc.

Violence doesn't always mean gunfire...don't be foolish enough to ignore what's going down inside your own walls.

To end this tome with a more usual tone, don't forget the true meaning of the coming Thursday. Even if the picture isn't perfect and some challenges are facing you, be thankful you have the ability to face them. Be thankful for whatever good the past year has brought you. Being thankful lets the Powers that be know that you appreciate the blessings they have delivered to you, and that's frees them to send more. Read the Prayer of Jabez if you need an additional lift.

All the best to you,

Dan Heaman, CFSP