Loyalty and The Funeral Industry (Part 1)

October 7, 2014
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Article by: Jeff Harbeson, The Funeral Commander and The Harbeson Group

I have spent some time in the past years studying the shifts of “loyalty” in the funeral industry from a few different perspectives; from a funeral industry product/service provider, as a funeral service provider, and from funeral consumers themselves. My observations are from actual experiences/research including my tenure as a sales representative for a funeral products company, a funeral home owner/partner and a funeral industry entrepreneur.  There is quite a large amount to share, so this blog will have several segments over the next few weeks.

My first real loyalty (or lack thereof) experience in the funeral industry was when I worked for a big funeral products company. It was my mission to sell our provided products/services to the funeral homes in my assigned territory(s) and secure those relationships with multi-year contracts.  The contract was primarily to provide caskets, urns and some ancillary stuff at a discounted/rebated rate for 100% of the funeral home product purchases. My reality check was during my visits to the funeral homes I would notice products in the garages being stored that were not from our brand.  Additionally, you know how funeral directors love to talk, I was always made privy to why the urn sales were down by “you didn’t hear this from me, but we have whole closet full of X brand urns in the basement.”  What made these example scenarios interesting was “rebate check” time when I delivered the rebate check and it was lower than expectations.  Then it was “chickens come home to roost time” because the number of services provided and products sold were way off base. One of my favorite responses was “we are really here to assist you, but paying you a rebate for purchases from another company was not added to the contract.”

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The even larger disillusionment while busting my fanny to not only sell for the company but to generate revenue for my family came when I unwittingly uncovered that I was not the only one in my territory selling my company products; so was my company.  Through local distributors under a different brand name my company was selling a “less expensive product with different features” to the same funeral homes that I supposedly had developed business relationships and even “100%” contracts.  Of course, my direct supervisor vehemently denied that any such activity was taking place until I actually showed him a price list and photos of the product.  That’s where the fun began.

During a particular company meeting I addressed this issue to the company leadership and frankly the responses were hilarious.  First starting with denial, then to “not the same products, these don’t have the same blah blah features” to “they are not manufactured with the same standards and finally “these products are not going to your customers.”  Being like the Coast Guard motto “Semper Paratus” I came with all the evidence with photos of the “non-features” and those photos taken in funeral homes within my assigned territory base.  You can imagine my popularity numbers were flying high with the company “big cheeses.”

This issue simmered for a few months and finally fully substantiated on a customer trip visit to the manufacturer.  While touring one of the plants, I noticed unfamiliar shells of caskets on the factory floor.  There was a point of manufacturing process that we prided ourselves as “unique.”  I watched one of the unfamiliar products go right through that same line and the process performed exactly like the other “core-line” products by the same personnel.  Taking the initiative, I asked the person performing the task in the factory “what type of casket it that, we don’t have those in our area?”  God bless him, he beamed “it’s a BR549 (names and brands not used here to protect the guilty).”  Basically, my suspicions confirmed that my company was manufacturing, selling and offering caskets to the customers in my territory without me receiving any of the revenue for those sales.  Some loyalty.

The influx of “foreign” caskets a few years ago was all the flurry of conversation.  Articles written, comparisons made, law suits brought about.  The “American made” label was touted by some of the companies basically offering that consumers would be totally off-put and “no one should be putting their momma in one of those.”  Hold it a second.  Remember that factory tour?  Stacks and stacks of “Made in China” boxes were abundant and in clear view for all to see.  Huh? And oh yea, how about the “we have a plant in another country, but it’s still our skill and craftsmanship that makes the difference.  I won’t even get started on urn manufacturing, just turn over the product and look for the “made in what country” label for your own answer.

There are other instances but not enough ink or finger typing endurance to share more.  My summations for the reasons for these examples of “lack of loyalty” are simple.  Although funeral homes enjoy the support provided by some of the vendors that provide their products and services, as owners we always seek better pricing.  If nothing else, the contract is supposed to be a binding “loyalty” contract, however I dare say they are pretty much nothing more but a piece of paper.  The vendors get all indignant about this issue, but as the example above with the BR549 product line, contracts really don’t mean anything to the vendor either.  It’s a vicious cycle; funeral homes vie for the best price (notwithstanding contracts) and manufactures sell however and to whomever they can find to buy their products.

I’m old enough to remember vehicles made overseas and how we viewed those vehicles.  Guess what’s at the top of the best selling cars on the road in America?  Some of those very cars we made fun of back then (see 20 Best Selling Cars July 2014).  The point here is consumers demonstrate some of the exact purchase and loyalty behaviors that we mimic but complain about in the funeral industry.

Why are we so shocked that consumers choose less expensive service/products (to some in our industry the analogy code words are “discounters,” cremation societies and online purchasing)?  Subsequent posts to this blog will address these same behaviors from consumers.  Don’t shoot the messenger, it’s an issue worth addressing;  I look forward to your responses and the discussions.  My cigar is about completed…so from the Command Post; Cheers y’all! #thefuneralcommander

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