The futility of fighting evolution

Date Published: 
June, 2005
Original Author: 
Doug Gober
York Merchandising Systems, Kenner, Louisiana
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, June 2005

Adapted from a presentation at the 2005 ICFA Annual Convention

A conflict has arisen between the deathcare profession and the consumer.
It is a battle between tradition and change, with one side tied to "the way we've always done it" and the other consistently rejecting it.
You need to understand the dramatic changes that have taken place and what they mean for funeral and cemetery services. Your livelihood is at stake.

Society has gone through drastic changes over recent years, affecting the way businesses run and consumers buy. The type of change of which I speak is not a gradual change; it is the dramatic change that occurs in a business and stretches that business like a rubber band to the point where it can never go back to the way it was. At that point, that business, society or institution has been changed forever.

Stretching the rubber band creates a new way of thinking, or what we call a generic strategic breakthrough. Two conditions must exit simultaneously for this type of change to occur.

First, there has to be a change in the way something is done or in the product that is used to do it. Secondly, there must be a change in the environment. For an innovation to be accepted into the marketplace, the market has to be ready for it.

An example that illustrates this phenomenon is the creation of food supermarkets in the 1920s and '30s. During the Great Depression two men noticed an old warehouse in New Jersey selling wholesale products. They took this idea back to Columbus, Ohio, where they started the first supermarket in the United States, called "The Big Bear."

This store still exists today as an affiliate of IGA. The store got its name after a bear that was trained to walk down the aisles of the store taking cans off shelves and placing them in a shopping basket. The idea was that if a bear can do it, anyone can.

For the time period, the creation of Big Bear was a generic strategic breakthrough because once the idea of a supermarket was born; businesses were never the same again. For the supermarket innovation to be successful, there were two external conditions that had to exist: refrigeration and automobiles. Before the 1920s, the idea of a supermarket might have existed in someone’s head, but the environment did not allow it to flourish.

Before refrigeration, people did not have the means to store perishable food, nor effective transportation to bring it home from the store. After the 1920s the icebox allowed every family to have refrigeration, and private vehicles eliminated the need for delivery trucks. Without refrigeration and private vehicles, the idea would never have succeeded.

Today, the traditional supermarket is under siege. People are now rejecting the old supermarket in favor of stores such as Wal-Mart where everything is under one roof.
Innovation and changing consumer expectations are the elements that drive change. The purpose of a business is to create a satisfied customer, so it is the company's responsibility to adapt to the trends and ideas of the marketplace. If a business ignores these trends, it cannot survive.

How consumers buy today
The first step to adapting your business to the evolving market is to understand who your consumers are and how they buy. Wal-Mart has become the largest corporation that ever existed in the world, each year bringing in hundreds of billions of dollars in sales.

The principal motivating factor that brings people to Wal-Mart is not its service (or lack of) or even its price, it is convenience. The people who choose to shop at Wal-Mart do not expect front door service, nor do they want it. They come because they can find everything they need in one store.

More and more, the consumer preference is leaning toward self-serve businesses. Consumers no longer want to be bothered while they shop. They like to know that someone is there if they have questions, but they do not need someone following them around the store asking if they can help. In fact, women's universal response to the question, "Can I help you?" is "No thanks, I'm just looking."

People have adapted to the "I'm just looking" mentality, because stores are now set up to make it easy for consumers to find what they are looking for on their own.

What do food chains such as McDonalds, Subway, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell have in common? They offer consistent and predictable service. People like walking into stores and making their own decisions.

Fast food restaurants have evolved from single brands into multi-brands, which I refer to as "KenTaco Hut." This is where you have Kentucky Fried Chicken, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Exxon gas under one roof. These complexes have spread all across the country, strategically placed right off of freeway exits. KenTaco Huts are good for the gas stations because they get some of the people who normally pay at the pump back into their stores.

Fast food restaurants are constantly adapting their menus to meet the changing demands of consumers and the latest diet trends. Subway, which used to talk about fat, has evolved its entire menu to focus on carbohydrates. Hardee's offers a burger without a bun.

McDonald's has created a happy meal for adults including a salad, a bottle of water, and a pedometer so that after you eat your salad and drink your water you can walk and measure how far you have gone.

Has the price list for your cemetery or funeral home evolved in the same way that these food businesses have?

Funeral service stuck in the past
Our offers just have not changed much. What would your offer be today if you knew that everyone walking through your door was going to spend $20,000? Although they are not spending that much now, maybe they would if we let them.

This has nothing to do with money. If you are ready to sell your products, people will be ready to buy, but you need to have these products and services available. We have to be better prepared to allow our consumer to say yes to something bigger and better.

Our profession is stuck back in 1962. It is the only profession that has not evolved
to meet the changing needs of the consumer. The same consumers who have been brought up on Wal-Mart, Home Depot and McDonald's are the consumers who walk into our funeral homes or cemetery offices.

We take those people and immediately assume it is a good idea to teach them a new way to shop. We make them sit silently across the table from us and listen as we tell them how and what they should buy.

People do not buy like this anywhere else in the world except possibly a timeshare sale. Do you like being compared to that? Research has consistently shown that people are not happy with the funeral selection process. The response to you is positive, but the response to our process is embarrassing.

The most difficult paradox for us to understand as a profession is that people like not being waited on. We grew up with the notion that personal service meant personal attention and lots of it.

Now the definition of personal service is changing to a point where, ironically, one-on-one service across a table is actually considered impersonal. People prefer to be let loose and look on their own.

So how can we help our businesses to evolve and better meet the needs of consumers? First of all, we need industrial strength training of employees.

We are the only profession I have ever seen that will allow people to work for us who we know are screwing up. They may be nice people, but they do not belong face-to-face with your customers.

Too often we have the attitude, "Well, he's never wrecked a hearse, and he's worked here 27 years, so he's got to be a nice guy." You have to remember that he is the one in the selection room with your families.
No other business does that. Other businesses go to great lengths to make sure their employees understand the company strategy. Their employees also know that if they mess up, they can lose their job.

What about cemeteries?
Some of us cemeterians still have books of rules as if we are in such high demand that we can make all our future neighbors accede to our requirements. If they don't, we will not even let them through the gates. I am not sure that any of our cemeteries are in a strong enough position to be so demanding.

Even if your cemetery is the only one in town, if your demands get too far out of line, families can just turn away. What are they turning away to? Cremation. Our entire profession can literally go up in smoke.

People thinking about cremation generally do not think about cemeteries. A cemetery's value proposition is the one most challenged by cremation because it is the least recognized.

Our mobile society itself is putting your cemetery offer under siege. An example is a woman who wishes she had kept her parents' urn with her because she lives in Florida and they are in a niche in Pennsylvania.
Our challenge as a profession is to find out who we are and what we are about. Are people venerating the memory or are they venerating the remains?

The only way to find out what people really want is to set up interviews conducted by an independent source (someone other than you) and ask them for their thoughts. Afterward, you need to follow up on their responses and make the necessary changes.

To change our image, we must change what we do
There are not a lot of positive things being said about our profession, and it is not going away until we change our system. We can no longer afford to be just "not bad" to offset the negativity about us in the marketplace.

In 1963, Jessica Mitford wrote a book called "The American Way of Death" which impacted us all and led to the implementation of the 1984 FTC rule. Between 50,000 and 100,000 copies of her book were sold.

Today, over 15 million people each week watch the television show "Six Feet Under," and like it or not, these viewers are comparing the selling process in the show with your process.

We also are compared to others in our profession. We are judged and convicted by the sins of others, by the least among us. The responsibility for change is not on the people screwing it up, it is on you. It is on those of us who know better and are passionate enough about the business to want to make a difference.
We need to start innovating and leading by example. Bring people with you to meetings or show them relevant articles. Take any opportunity to be a leader and go to those people in your neighborhood to share what you have learned. Without you, they may never hear it.

Think of the most memorable funeral you directed or were a part of and identify the elements that made it so memorable. Figure out a way to make your funerals memorable on a daily basis, because ultimately that is what will drive people to you.

If we don't do it, someone outside of our profession is going to do it for us.

This is your consumer and your business to win or lose, and I believe that we all have the power necessary to make this business last far into the future.