I was rung up last year by a newbie undertaker who wanted the GFG to endorse his business. He had opened up in a small market town which already has a respected and established undertaker. Was he aiming to do anything different? No. Had he worked out the size of the market? No. It wouldn’t have taken him more than the few moments it took me. His town has a population of 13,000. The death rate is presently 9.34 per 1,000. So that’s 121.42 funerals a year. Throw in some local villages and you might get that up to 150. Divided between 2 undertakers, one with a big competitive advantage. I asked him why he had set up on his own. Usual story: he’d worked for an undertaker and always dreamed of being his own boss. He hoped it would work out. Why should it?
A little bit of market research goes a long way. We see very little of it in the funerals business, which is why there is such an oversupply of undertakers. The undertaker above is no one-off.
You can possibly help me here because I’ve been AWOL for months and I’m playing catch-up. Has there been any survey by, say, the NAFD or Saif in response to the social trends which account for the ongoing slow death of the traditional funeral as consumers increasingly opt for private funerals or direct cremation followed by a corpseless commemorative event – a celebration of life, a FD-less memorial service? Has anyone conducted a survey to find out what consumers are thinking and why? Considering that the business model of a full-service funeral home depends on people buying the complete suite of services, you’d think a little bit of existential angst might have prompted some market research.
Can any funeral director point to any market research, ever, which shows that bereaved people will beat a path to your door if you buy a new fleet of cars? That they think the marque and newness of your cars is a signifier of excellent personal service? That they give a toss about your cars?
We have regular surveys that tell us what consumers are doing – for example, what music they are choosing to play at a funerals. But precious few asking what they want. None that I can think of.
Progressive funeral people are no better. They think they know what’s best for bereaved people. They work from preconceptions. They like to say things like “Those trad FDs are the reason why funerals are so bad.” Where’s the evidence that these businesses are not giving people exactly what they ask for? “Funerals have been stolen from the people.” Is this what’s happened or did the people willingly hand over the whole shooting match to the undertakers? “I want to help families reclaim the care of their dead from the undertakers.” Is this what families actually want to do? How any of them? “People should be able to arrange a funeral that works for them.” Oh nice, what does that look like? “I want to open a funeral home that does things completely differently.” What’s the market need for that? How big is that market? “I want to help disadvantaged people arrange funerals they can afford.” Is there a living in that?
An element of hit-and-hope is always going to characterise any enterprise that seeks to break new ground. But you can only calculate risk if you have taken the trouble to get to know your market first and estimated the likelihood of being able to bring round waverers to the merits of what you’re offering. You leave as little to chance as possible, so you do the hard yards first.
More surveys, that’s what we need. More focus groups. A lot more marketing savvy. Above all, a lot more humility. Funerals are not the preserve of those who know best (and have nothing to learn) whether they’re old-school types with nothing to learn or middle-class so-called progressives.
A lot of people have set the world to rights on this blog, very cogently and persuasively. But it’s amounted to no more than preaching to the choir. The people we need to reach are the people who don’t take a continuous interest in death and funerals — the ones who check in to this website when someone dies and they need to act faster than they can think. Normal people. We need to ask them what they think.