Why relational people fail in competitive markets

The experience of the death of my father several years ago did not give me new insight into the value of funeral service, but it did sharpen my vision of the role played by the practitioner in the process.

As I expected, the "value added" came in the form of an intangible: the perceived level of care for my family and me as individuals. I saw this at work in both the staff of the hospital and the funeral home. Both would be described as positive experiences despite the tragic circumstances. What made them positive was partly related to our perception of their level of competence - which was expected. No matter how competent they might have been, however, it was the way in which their actions and interactions told us how much they cared that made ALL the difference. I saw in living color the old adage: "No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care."

Unfortunately, experience tells us it is possible to operate at a successful level if you don’t care. We see this in business every day. It is the caring (real concern) that differentiates you from the mediocre.

I think this is what has drawn me to this profession. The personality and individual reward systems of those I admire most serve as a mechanism to ensure sincere care and concern for those they serve. Yet it is that same personality that now is creating a stumbling block for those who need and want to make the competitive transition for their future.

Short Term Focus:
Making strategic decisions with the primary emphasis on developing and preserving relationships is not intrinsically bad. In fact, it can be a strong value driver and has served that function well in funeral service over the years. The trouble is making long-range decisions through the relationship "prism" distorts everything back to a short-term focus.

Effective long-range plans almost always involve change. Change is nearly always disruptive and, consequently, has an impact on a relationship that MIGHT be negative. At the very least, it represents a risk to a relationship. People who are not relationally driven find it much easier to develop and implement long range plans.

As you know, I have been sharing what I know about the major changes being rolled out by the "non-conventional" forms of competition to our profession. I have tried to be careful to document my observations and, to the best of my ability, avoid conjecture in favor of fact. I have been surprised by the non-response of most of those I have talked with. It is almost as if no one cares.

I now wonder if part of that non-response is a function of the fact that people realize that any response will require risk to relationships – both existing and potential. In fact, as a relational type person, I have hesitated to be as blunt in my findings because I knew I risked reaction from people I cared about.

Dysfunctional Strength:
I have concluded that what is an obvious strength in a caring profession is simultaneously a liability. In fact, as new competitive strategies are now developing on a daily basis it is more than a liability – it is dysfunctional. On a personal level, I have concluded that if I really care I am not helping those I care about by contributing to complacency. Case in point: I have already met several funeral home owners whose markets have been so severely impacted so quickly that their best option is to salvage what they have and sell out.

For those of you who still enjoy good market share and are in markets that are not yet impacted you have time to make the changes you need to. Those changes will impact relationships – some negatively. For you to have a future, you will simply have to gut it out.

The value you bring to the process is uniquely personal – not unlike a doctor or attorney. But, we need to remember the Process will work without the value – just not as well. Until one experiences that value on a personal level it cannot be articulated. So, if someone never experiences it they will never know the difference.

Learning to change:
We made the decision at Trust 100 to stop acting like an association and start acting like a business a few years ago. We lost a few friends over this decision and, yes, we do miss them. The end result, however, is that we are stronger and more viable today than we have been in a while. The change was not easy; but it was necessary. I believe the only choice for funeral homes to remain viable is to do the same thing.

To me, acting like a business does not mean squeezing vendors for their last nickel. I think we will miss some of those vendors who are in danger of being driven out of business. No, to me, acting like a business means making decisions strategically. Deciding where you want and need to go and then developing a coherent plan to reach your goal.

This change is tough for most small businesses. An individual’s paradigm of what it means to operate as a business can sometimes result in "throwing the baby out with the bath water". In addition, partners and staff develop different agendas and purposes over time and leadership styles (by preference or necessity) tend to be conciliatory in nature. (Whatever keeps the peace)

We can help:

We have successfully broken the cycle without sacrificing our core value system. It took a little courage and a lot of serious introspection about which core values really had meaning and what business we wanted to be in. We are now in the process of helping some of our clients make similar transitions so that they are able to make critical decisions for their future. The reward for these firms is the ability to have control over their destiny again and have fun – basically, to have a future.

I will leave you with these thoughts:

The gifts and talents that caused you to be good at what you do bring value to the process of bereavement care. In fact, I believe that it is those gifts and talents that are the value. However, if you don’t get a chance to use those gifts and talents no one will know and it simply won’t matter.

A close friend of ours, a man whose skills as a funeral practitioner are admired by all who know him, said this to us recently:

"I love taking care of my families. There is nothing that gives me greater satisfaction. But, my families aren’t the same people they were. Loyalty doesn’t count for much any more."

So, relational people fail when they don’t get the chance to establish a relationship.