Is this the industry’s High Noon moment?

Charles 13 Comments


The funeral industry is in a bad place. Public reaction to last week’s Which? report revealed few friends. It also showed it to be no good at defending itself.

Things are going to get worse. Time is running out. 

At the GFG we’ve lost count of the number of calls we’ve taken in the last year from TV production companies, in particular, wanting, with one honourable exception, to dig dirt and put the boot in. The bully boys are circling. 

Crisis? Yes, crisis.

Consumers are baffled and angry because there’s no way of knowing who’s good (if any) and who’s not. Poor marketing is a contributory cause. But the most brutal truth of the matter is that the codes of conduct of the industry trade bodies, NAFD and SAIF, simply do not, by themselves, offer consumers quality assurance.

So what’s a good undertaker to do? From time to time, here at the GFG, we like to offer suggestions.

First, the good guys need to hang together and keep the bad eggs out. They can do that in one of two ways. They can form yet another trade body, a selective one. Or they can adopt a different business model.

In the past we’ve looked at the viability of rolling out a really good, proud brand – ‘John Lewis’ funerals. That’s the way for the consolidators to go. Presently, the consolidators are adding zero value to consumers’ experience of a funeral, and short-term value only for their shareholders. Their present way of operating is astoundingly dim.

We’ve also looked at the joint venture model used by Specsavers – here

Another model that funeral directors might like to consider is the Best Western model.

It’s a clever and an attractive way of doing things – a collaborative way of doing things. Best Western is an organisation which provides back office roles, marketing, reservations and operational support, to over 4,000 hotels in 80 countries worldwide. Best Western doesn’t own any of these hotels; each one is independent. It’s a chain, but it’s not a chain. You get the best of both worlds: all the warmth and individuality of an independent hotel, and all the assurance of quality standards which all hotels have to meet.

It’s not an orthodox franchise operation where both franchisor and franchisee operate for profit. Best Western is a non-profit membership operation which works, democratically, as near as dammit as a co-op, one member, one vote. Membership is renewed annually.

Re-read the last two paragraphs substituting ‘funeral director’ for ‘hotel’ and you begin see how easily this model could adapt to the funeral industry.

Here at the GFG we do not feel a sense of responsibility to save the funeral industry. Our focus is the best interests of consumers. Good funeral directors collaborating effectively to keep each other up to the mark and get the message out would help a lot. 

It is high time they got their act together. 

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gloria mundi
11 years ago

“Dew not forsake me, oh mah darlin….”
High Noon indeed. Strong, visionary stuff. You’re not forsaking them, but you point ways ahead from an objective, well-informed viewpoint. That’s a great service.

Simon Ferrar
11 years ago

I like your thinking Charles and I think we can ‘big-up’ the NDC on this one as they have, in their own way, already got the ball rolling. In its infancy maybe but their network of Association of Natural Burial Grounds and Friendly Funeral Directors can be viewed as a similar model. We are bound by their Code of Conduct but more importantly we are rated by the families that we have provided for. This is done with NDC feedback forms that are completed by the families we have served and returned to the NDC for evaluation. These are monitored… Read more »

Charles Cowling
11 years ago

Thank you for this, Simon — lots of good cogent points.

We are always pleased to big up the Natural Death Centre:

11 years ago

The GFG recommendation is, in its own way, a very good ‘trade body’ even though it actually offers no real protection to the consumer. Clients like it, very much in some instances.

The real test of a trade body is when it is called in to mediate between two parties. If a funeral director works on the principle that he or she never allows a situation to develop where this is necessary, why do we need them?

David Holmes
11 years ago

I agree Charles – the industry does not seem to have reacted well to the Which report. I feel that the Association’s are inevitably dominated by vested interests. Quite how this can be avoided when it’s the Members who fund them I don’t know. What is for sure is that consumers will become increasingly aware that all may not be as it seems with their ‘local’ funeral director. They will become more hostile, less trusting with all of us – which most of (good guys) us will surely regret?

James Leedam
11 years ago

Inspiring stuff Charles. We visit quite a number of funeral directors and have found that most independents and Dignity branches could benefit from looking closely at Co-op Funeralcare’s branding, premises and presentation – yes really… As an example, it is so much better to meet around a table in comfortable chairs so that you can take notes, spread out and share information. Though fax machines remain the industry norm, it won’t be long before arrangers will be showing clients coffins, hearses, burial grounds and funeral products from iPads (giving them immediate internet access to investigate and arrange obscure requests). Estimates… Read more »

Simon Ferrar
11 years ago

I’m new to this but Which? and the ‘popular’ press splashed this all over the public domain but did/could any of us splash back, bigger and wetter?? Credit to you Charles for highlighting and getting the discussion going but if the glorifying press beat us, we need a bigger stick than them. I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy. Make the public aware. Let the public decide. Openness, flexibility and plain good service will always win over. We just need to create a loud enough voice for people to hear above the black chatter. I don’t know what the answer is… Read more »

Simon Ferrar
11 years ago

James Thank you for your feedback and I appreciate and respect what you have to say. I do wholeheartedly agree with your vision of the electronic future. I also take onboard your summation. I wasn’t declaring that the NDC was a solution but merely a starting point for discussion. I do understand that the NDC isn’t out to champion our cause per se but more to promote the virtues of the natural ideal. The shortcomings you list may be valid but in my opinion not necessarily negative. And I do think it is a tad ingenuous to call the ANBG… Read more »

james showers
11 years ago

Am I alone in feeling that this blows a bit hard – even slightly in the wrong direction? I haven’t seen the Which report in full – but there are clearly differences in service, attitude and pricing amongst fd’s, and not just in Milton Keynes. Of course. In some respects this is no different than dentists, specialist doctors, hairdressers, supermarkets or service engineers. Different strokes etc. The difficulty is that we do not arrange a funeral on a regular basis, and do not know what to look for in a supplier. I feel that an educated public is the best… Read more »

David Holmes
11 years ago

James Leedam makes some excellent points. We smaller FD’s often appear to resist modernising, but is that fair, are we really stick-in-the-muds? I would like to invest in I.T., I would like some better quality, more comfortable furniture, a better carpet and lots of additional equipment and sign-age. Sadly it’s a bit chicken and egg. The banks are certainly not lending and my current business income is only sufficient to make a modest living. To offer a better, more comfortable arranging experience for my clients and attract more of them, I am convinced I need investment but cannot yet see… Read more »

11 years ago

If the reaction to my nervous ordeal on the BBC1 breakfast sofa is anything to go by; we got 10,000 hits and our website crashed last Friday, the public are crying out, and I quote one email “at last, someone talking sense about the funeral industry” Nearly 100% of the complaints we get about FDs concerns the large groups. Every business man worth his salt knows that as soon as you grow the left and right hands start losing track of each other. So small is beautiful in my opinion, however scruffy and IT illiterate, it is about bespoke, personal… Read more »

11 years ago

Charles, we need to talk..!!! Bring pen & paper (or iPad )

James Leedam
11 years ago

For the record, Rosie’s figures are not right. The ANBG charges shown on the NDC website are:
0-5 burials £75
6-20 £150
21-50 £295
51-100 £495
101-200 £995
201+ £1495
As an organisation with six natural burial grounds, the fees Native Woodland Ltd would pay to be members of ANBG are in excess of £2500 per annum, which is high when compared to Corporate Membership of the Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management for which we pay £395/yr.