Voices of Change
By Randy Garner
Reprinted from American Funeral Director Magazine, June 2017, with permission of Kates-Boylston Publications.
To subscribe to American Funeral Director visit www.americanfuneraldirector.com.
It was a late Friday afternoon in the December of a
year when things were supposed to be going better.
Jim Bradford stood silently gazing out the front office window of the funeral home where he had begun working
alongside his father as a teenager. He watched, seemingly invisible to the steady stream of cars and pedestrians
passing by on the snow-covered street and sidewalk that marked the front boundary of what had been the funeral
home’s location for over six decades. Jim’s father, Bill, had started the funeral home in the 1950s, and ithad grown from nothing to being
the community’s leading provider of funeral services. There was one other firm in town that seemed to mostly
serve the Catholic families, and Bradford’s had the rest, which gave them a steady clientele and comfortable
living. Bill had been a regular fixture at the funeral home until his death three years before from a rapidly moving
cancer that had claimed his life in something under two months. It was about then that Jim began to
see an escalation in changing family preferences for his services. People were wanting less from him. Some of
his old families were migrating toward a cremation provider several towns away. His dad, known for his philosophical
outlook on life that produced a constant barrage of motivational and sometimes humorous quotes, had
served in a different time. It was easier for him. The cremation rate was much lower. Everyone wanted pretty much the same thing.
And once you had figured out what that was, they just picked out a casket and vault and that told you how much
the whole shebang would cost, plus a few minor expenses like the grave opening, minister, etc. Alterations to
the service, for more or less, didn’t change the bill. “We don’t add on, nor do we delete,” he’d say. Easy peezy.
Facing ever-decreasing cash flow, in desperation, Jim had tried a few things that were supposed to help. He turned
his casket display into a reception room. He developed a website for the firm and set up a Facebook page. He
substantially lowered his direct cremation price to go after the shoppers and advertised this in the local newspaper.
He modernized his urn display to include some of the latest fads. In spite of all of this, things were not getting better.
They were getting worse. Even though his dad would probably be at somewhat of a loss to sort this all out, having owned the
place in different times, Jim wished he were around to talk to. His dad’s business sense was very keen. But even
without him being physically present, at every turn Jim could hear his voice. “Don’t ride a bad idea over the cliff.
If it’s not working, ditch it and try something else. Pride be damned!” When Bill launched into one of his philosophical tirades,
he would sometimes strike a pose, pointing a finger into the air like the farmhand (aka The Tin Man from “The Wizard of Oz”)
whose declaration that “Someday they are going to erect a statue of me in this town” brought a sharp reply from
Dorothy’s Aunty Em. The snow was picking up in intensity. As he continued gazing out the window, mesmerized by the falling snow, it
almost seemed as though his father was standing there with him. “What’s going on son?” he could hear his father say.
Jim was now talking aloud as he followed each passing car with his gaze. None of his ideas seemed to be helping much.
The reception room wasn’t getting much use because it was competing with any number of places around town that could offer
alcohol and full catering in a cheerful setting with no time limits. It had helped cut down the amount of money he had tied up in the caskets
that used to fill up that room, but that was about it. “If your core business of providing death care and funerals is not profitable, all of this other stuff is
just a sideshow, like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” The website seemed to be popular with folks who wanted to look up obituaries.
But that was about it. Jim was not aware of receiving even one call because of it. Word around town was that his website, devoid of any pricing
information, had funeral shoppers quickly looking elsewhere. Jim remembered a conversation with his dad the last time they had purchased a new
hearse: “I want options son! I don’t want some guy pitching me the goods and trying to limit my options by hiding information from me. I may even
pay more to the guy that gives me options.” Then he thought about what he had learned at an online marketing program that had been sponsored by the local
chamber of commerce. The presenter said that it is a mistake to think that online shoppers when not finding the information they seek on your website
will log off, pick up the phone and call you to get that information. Research has shown that most online shoppers will instead continue to look online
until they find what they are looking for on other websites that may even lead them out of your service area. Lowering his direct cremation price
had derived a very short-term benefit in call volume and workload but not much cash. Not long after he began advertising his new low price, the cremation
outfit two towns away dropped its price to below his and took out an ad on the same page. “Price shoppers are a fickle bunch, son. They will like you until they
find a lower price elsewhere, then they’ll drop you like a hot potato,” he remembered his dad saying. When he decided to get out of the price war, he had
gone the other direction by raising his direct cremation price to nearly $3,000, to more accurately reflect his overhead, and to hopefully put more cash into the bank.
Now he understood that one of the hospices in the area was giving folks a list of cremation providers and suggesting that they “shop around.” So now
when one of his direct cremation families went elsewhere, he was taking a $3,000 gut punch. Some of those families were throwing their own memorial
services. Jim’s dad’s voice returns. “Slow and steady wins the race, son. You have to charge enough to properly run your business. Not charging
enough has led to desperate shenanigans and cutting corners that has provided fodder for the media and given a black eye to us all. Charging too much
is an invitation for competitors to walk off with your business. Once that happens, it’s hard to get it back. The sweet spot around here is charging somewhere
in the middle, and giving great service, going the old extra mile.” The new urn display was a nice addition. But many of his families were finding his urn
offerings online at prices near what he had to pay for them. His father’s voice returned: “Son, are you an urn salesman or a funeral director? Families don’t call you
because you have nice urns. They call you because they want help and are willing to pay you to provide it. Give them lots of choices, fair pricing, plenty
of information, and great service and you’ll be OK.” It was time to head home before his wife started calling, wondering when he’d be home for dinner. In years past,
in busier times, dinner preparation had always been a guessing game for her. She never knew if he’d gotten a lastminute call or if a family had run late,
extending the workday and causing her to put together a plate of food for him to find in the warming drawer when he finally got home. But those
days were few and far between now. He locked up the front and headed out back, turning off lights as he went. As he passed the staff break room, he
reached in to turn off the lights when something in the corner of the room caught his eye. The company bulletin board hung in a far corner. On it were
the usual assortment of Workman’s Comp and OSHA posters, a sign advertising the Congregational Church Chicken Pie Supper that had taken
place the weekend before and notes of thanks that had been received from families he and the crew had served. In the top right-hand corner of the
board was a small poster that Jim’s dad had created on the computer with one of his motivational quotes. When he was still working, his dad had rotated a
new saying in that spot on a more or less regular basis for as long as he could remember. Stapled there now was the last poster Bill had created. No one
could bring themselves to take it down. It had been there so long now that neither Jim nor anyone else for that matter paid much attention to it. But today, the
words seemed to jump off of the page at him. It said, “Unless you change your course, you will most certainly arrive exactly where you are headed.”
Jim pulled out of the parking lot and turned onto the busy main street that took him past rows of small businesses that were preparing to close for the
day. These businesses, he thought, are no doubt facing many of the same challenges as he. The office supply store, the men’s shop, and drugstore –
all were locally owned and facing stiff competition from online and chain stores. He would make sure that he was not adding to their problems. No
more copy paper from Costco or online dress suits. If he expected them to support him, he would need to make sure he was supporting them.
Monday would be a new day, and the start of a new week, and soon a new year would begin. He was determined to do whatever it took to save his
business. He’d start by sitting down with the staff and brainstorming. Seeking their input was not something he was used to doing. He was going to
start off by flooding his community with information. There would be prices on the website, and content relevant to today’s younger consumer.
“Our family serving your family” would be replaced by “We will help you be informed consumers of what we have to offer your family. Lots of choices
and fair pricing.” He’d pay someone to help keep the company Facebook page fresh and relevant, and to explore the other social media options available
today. Jim envisioned a community forum on shopping local that would involve any local business that wanted to participate, and seek input from attendees
on how to keep their business. He could feel himself getting excited. He could hear his dad’s voice saying, “Son, you may be on to something. Slow and
steady wins the race.” With the city limits now behind him, in his rearview mirror the downtown lights became fainter until they finally disappeared into darkness.
Into that darkness came his father’s voice, once again. “Give the people what they want, son!” And then the voice fell silent. He knew what he needed to do. “Change
course,” he whispered to himself. “I’ve got to change course.” •