5 Mistakes I Made Running My Funeral Home (And How You Can Avoid Them)

August 27, 2014
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Article By Kristan McNames, funeralOne

Who knew that this blog post would be such an exercise in self-reflection?

It’s weird to calm my brain down for a few minutes and pause to think about mistakes and mis-steps I’ve made since the inception of my business, Grace Funeral & Cremation Services,  in June of 2009.

I spend so much time in the day-to-day operations of the business that there’s little time to look back at the last five years and determine what – if anything – went wrong, and where it did.  But I’m all about moving on, and not looking back and wallowing in the past.  With that said, here are the highlights:

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Lesson #1: It’s hard to say “no”

As a profession, funeral directors are generally people pleasers.  We want to make people happy, or as happy as they can be in the difficult situations they come to us with.  It took a while for me to realize that I am not going to make everyone happy.  There are times when people have demands that just aren’t feasible.  We can’t provide a traditional, full-service funeral for the price of a simple cremation.  We can’t extend payment terms to consumers that don’t have the financial means to pay for their services.  We can, however, refer them to local lenders, and help them plan a service that meets their financial means.  There are times when “no” is the only answer possible.

There are policies in place that help the business succeed in the long run.  There’s always going to be someone, whether it’s a hospice social worker, a grieving family member, or a local charity who will ask for a free funeral, reduced price, payment plan or charitable donation that we aren’t willing to offer.  I’ve learned that saying no is hard initially. However, having clearly defined expectations and policies that benefit all the families we serve fairly are good for the business and the families.

Lesson #2: My time has value

When we opened our doors in 2009, we were inundated with every media salesperson, insurance representative, multi-level marketing person, and office supply company within 100 miles of our business.  It’s a great idea to be friendly and respectful but a poor idea to agree to an appointment with everyone that wants 30 minutes of my time.   I learned quickly that my time could be easily squandered if I didn’t learn to say no, with emphasis.  I also learned the hard way that it’s really easy to get overcommitted and over extended.  In an effort to meet as many people as possible, to make connections and to grow our business, I committed to networking groups and committees that I didn’t really have the time to give enough focus to. In the end, I realized that over-committing myself would end in a negative way – if not for me, for my friends, my families, and my own family.

Lesson #3: Spend money on things that make life easier

My husband (the co-owner of our funeral home) and I wanted to borrow as little money as possible in order to open our doors.  So, we decided not to purchase some things that we really wanted, but didn’t necessarily need.  We opted not to purchase a software program designed specifically for funeral service, scaled back the number of dressing tables, the upgraded body lift, and we hauled flowers one at a time rather than investing in flower trays.  But as the volume of our business grew, it made sense to invest the money in products that would make the day-to-day operation of our business more efficient and easier for us.  Looking back, I wish I had splurged on the operating software from the outset, which is a mistake I won’t make again as our business grows.

Lesson #4 : Make the right connections

We’ve formed initial relationships with more pre-need companies than I care to remember.  It took five years and a random Google search to find a company that is a great match for our funeral home. And when we did, I was so happy that I didn’t have to settle for mediocrity anymore.  By making the right connections, we were able to find a company that shares our approach to the families we serve, provides phenomenal marketing advice and really seems to genuinely care about our ability to grow our business.  On a side note, our sales representative actually answers her phone when we call, and is always providing consistent help.  I can say with confidence that by focusing on these connections, we finally have the training and resources that we need to build our advanced planning program.

Lesson #5: Don’t waste mind space on petty people

People are complicated.  Some people didn’t get hugged by their parents enough.  We shot a lovely commercial with customer testimonials, which had a small grammatical error.  We were oblivious to the error for months, until it was kindly pointed out to us in a series of emails from several people in our community.  The retired librarian was kind. The other folks…not so much.  Apparently, during the Olympics, I single handedly ruined a man’s patriotic experience of watching the games and was called a moron to boot.

There’s another story I like to tell about petty people that occurred when we first opened our funeral home. Contrary to popular belief, if you open a funeral home in a community where there are already 20 or so other funeral homes, many other providers in the area will not welcome you with a gift basket, a red carpet and a hug.  They will, however, drive their Cadillac through the parking lot, scowl, peer in your windows, loudly curse, and send unsigned hate mail.  The boldest ones will stop in, often with a recently hired employee in tow and tell you, to your face that your business will be a monstrous failure and that no one will ever choose to utilize your services.  Touché.

I’ve been guilty of allowing negative people and comments to filter into my mind space; it’s even easier since we’ve made it to our five year milestone.  It’s important to roll with the punches, and let go what can’t be controlled.

Mistakes are the greatest teachers

“A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.”

– George Bernard Shaw

Although I’ve made a fair amount of mistakes during my first five years as a funeral home owner, I’ve learned that it’s important to allow them to teach you. Not only have these missteps taught me, but they’ve also allowed me to grow as a person and a business owner.  I’m sure that I’ll make my share of mistakes in the future, and I look forward to the insight that the next five years of running my funeral home will bring.

What mistakes did you make during your first years as a funeral home owner? Tell us in the comments below!

kristan-mcnamesABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kristan I. McNames, CFSP, graduated with a Bachelor Degree from the Mortuary Science and Funeral Service Program at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. After working for two corporate funeral providers, most recently as the General Manager; she decided to open her own funeral home in June of 2009, with her husband Bob McNames. Grace Funeral & Cremation Services is located in Rockford, Illinois, and has served over 240  families since opening.

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