Alan Creedy’s Outside-the-Box Wisdom for Funeral Practitioners: Part One

Posted January 28, 2016

10 min read

Alan Creedy is a leading thought leader and expert when it comes to the critical needs of the funeral profession, focusing in on what practitioners need to do today and how to prepare for the future. CRäKN had the privilege of sitting down with Creedy to talk about what’s really changing in the death care industry, what progressive professionals should know about today’s customer, and what he is doing at the OFDA Education Conference in February. Read the second part of the interview here.

Q: You’ve been in funeral service for much of your career. What has stayed the same, and what is changing?

Alan Creedy: What stayed the same is people are still dying, and those that care about each other, still care about each other!

If you roll the clock back 30 years, the public really only had two choices they needed to make. One was: “Which funeral home am I going use?” The second was: “What merchandise am I going to buy?”

Today, that’s all gone really. Furthermore, the significant question has changed. It is now less, “Why should I buy from you?” Than it is, “Why should I buy at all?”

Funeral service got caught because they were dealing with a simple customer, and now they’re dealing with a complex customer where they have to validate and actually sell the value of what they are offering. Interestingly, the value of what they offer to the public really has not changed, which we know from people who have actually gone through the process. Many people no longer recognize the value of having a ceremony and doing a communal gathering in conjunction with a death. Our society, because of its death avoidance, has more or less gotten away from that. However, those that have experienced the process, usually recognize how important it was to them. They are grateful that they did have a ceremony and gathering.

The skill sets and the role that funeral directors have to play now are significantly greater than they once were, relative to the customer interface.

Q: You’ve spoken about this concept of the “complex customer,” and how the power has shifted in a way where there is at least parity between vendor and customer. You’ve also said how, as a result, there must be a shift in how practitioners actually “challenge” families. What do you mean by this?

Alan Creedy: What’s happened in the last 30 years is we’ve moved from that simple customer to a complex customer. When you’re dealing with a complex customer there are some factors funeral directors are encountering almost routinely: You’re perceived as high priced; you’re dealing with multiple decision makers; you’re dealing with multiple roles, and multiple issues that people are working through the process with.

I go back to that one statement, “Why should I buy from you?” which has morphed into, “Why should I buy at all?”

The classic approach to dealing with a complex customer is in fact, to challenge the customer and help them think in new ways. You almost have to create an “ah-ha” experience. One of the things I tell my clients is, “You want your family, somebody in the family group or the family as a whole, saying, ‘Gee, I’d never thought of that.’”

Here is an example. People who are looking for or thinking about cremation in my social set will often make an off-hand comment to me that what they’re going to do is they’re going to scatter the ashes.

My response will be, “You know, a lot of people do that, and it’s a pretty romantic idea. But if you don’t mind I’m just going to make a simple suggestion that you retain some of the ashes, because you really don’t know that somebody in your family isn’t going to need some kind of permanent place to commemorate that person. Once you scattered it, it’s gone.” Every single time, without exception, and I’ve probably made that comment more than a dozen times, people say, “Oh my gosh. Yeah, you’re right. I hadn’t thought of that.”

That’s the kind of challenge that you want to bring to your families. Let’s really think about what you’re trying to accomplish here: you want to give funeral directors a narrative that has visceral truths that people can relate to.

Q: And do you think there are other industries that face similar challenges as funeral service? What can we learn from them?

Alan Creedy: Yes. The medical community has similar challenges. Anytime that a medical professional, whether it be a nurse, an assistant or a doctor—when they are going to do any kind of procedure, they create a frame for you.

I go in for allergy shot every two weeks, and I’ve been doing this for well over ten years, and every single time that the nurse is about to give me my shot she says, “You’re going to feel a little prick.” They are telling you what’s coming.

Compare that to our industry: People come in to a funeral service arrangement and they don’t know what to expect. The funeral directors knows, but the families do not know.

When I turned 60, I entered into the time frame in one’s life where people are starting to think about death and funerals. I’ve had the privilege of sitting through many pre-arrangements, as well as at-need conferences. What I encountered was an absolutely abysmal experience on almost every occasion.

Here’s what I mean by that, almost every single time there’s been a lack of establishing any kind of framework. There’s no warm up, absolutely none. There’s no getting to know anybody. The experience is just: sit down and we start taking vital statistics. “Give me the date of death,” or “What’s her name?” And that is it. That’s what many funeral directors start with.

What should happen is to establish a framework to say, “Okay, now here’s what we’re going to do. Here’s about how long it’s going to take, and these are the things you need to be aware of. This is what you should be thinking about.”

The funeral director knows what’s going to happen, but the customer doesn’t know what’s going to happen. John Horan, says it well: “Every arrangement conference begins with the pencil down, the eyes up and we’re in conversation for twenty minutes before we start anything.”

The challenge is that you have a professional responsibility to say, “First of all these people are nervous, they don’t know what to expect, they have lots of reservations and myths going around their heads that you’ve got to stop and calm them down.” John Horan always begins the conversation with the question, “What happened?” He’s not the only one, but there is a lot to be learned from that.

That question gives families the right and permission to tell their story. They just need to tell their story. When you begin with their story, you are building a relationship. You can’t do anything without a relationship.

Q: You’ve talked about being a Futurist. What’s the future of funeral service?

Alan Creedy: I see it unfolding. I’ll give you the good and the bad.

First, I really think it’s important that we realize we are at a point that we have come to an inflection point. This inflection point is probably similar in magnitude to the inflection point the profession faced when embalming became a common thing. Up until that point in the late 1800s, they had been furniture stores and undertakers. Then they came to this divide in the road, and some people went and developed into a full-fledged funeral service that did not make furniture or caskets or coffins. The rest went in the other direction and the furniture/undertaker business disappeared.

We’re at a similar point. Some will unfortunately miss the signals and find that they are going down the hill of the direct disposers.

Others are beginning to experiment successfully with a new approach. They’re moving away from the casket-centric mindset into the service mindset. They’re understanding that this is in fact theater. They’re actually staging things and helping people come to the realization of the value of commemoration.

People think that my generation, Baby Boomers remain the same. We don’t. I tell people how when we get into our 60s, our values move from things to relationships we start talking about grandchildren and we’re talking about legacy.” Isn’t that interesting?

Boomers’ greatest fear is being forgotten—the fear is that they live this life, and they didn’t accomplish anything meaningful. “Meaningful” has to do with other people. Many of the pre-planning people are missing this.

To them, death is not an event, it’s a process. It starts with pre-planning. For Boomers, the pre-planning is not about, “What kind of casket do I want?” Instead, it is, “What kind of message do I want to leave? How can I craft a message?”

When you look to the future, what Boomers want is the opportunity to first plan it, participate, and collaborate. If you know anything about mega-churches you know that they’re participative. Boomers want to participate in some fashion in their own funeral.

Secondly, when the event actually occurs, they want it to be their final message—their final teaching moment. Thirdly, they think, “How can I leave a physical memory of me that will enable those that were at least in my social network never to forget me?” Cemeteries are really missing the boat on this. These in-ground markers do not work for Boomers, period.

I don’t know how much the direct cremation trend was driven by people who survived the depression. When I look to the future, for my generation, if you can help them tell their story and then you can help them figure out how to plant their legacy, they’re going to do something. It just isn’t as likely to be a conventional funeral.

This is anecdotal, but when I talk to people in my cohort group, they don’t talk about direct disposition. Sometimes they’ll mention, “I don’t want to do anything,” because they don’t want to think about it. But most of them, will say something to the extent that they don’t want the conventional funeral. When they do that I’ll say, “You know, I’ve got this friend, who, he’s decided what he wants is a wine and cheese party. If it’s in a good weather time, he wants outdoor tents and a string trio. He wants people to get up and share about him.” Almost every time people respond, “Hey, that’s a good idea. I like that.”

Getting back to the raw facts, people are going to continue to die. People will always form relationships that they care about. The people that care about them, and the people that they care about, will want to have some meaningful way of remembering.

I’m optimistic that there will be the need for funeral directors that can deal with the complex customer. I am not optimistic about the conventional funeral director being able to survive. I’m pretty brutal about that.

Read the second part of the interview here

About Alan Creedy

Alan Creedy has been active in the funeral service community for more than 35 years. He has served as President of a large funeral home cemetery operation, a third party preneed marketer, and as past Chair of the Funeral Service Foundation. His expertise and experience span a wide variety of disciplines—finance, mergers and acquisitions, exit planning, market strategy and organizational dynamics. He has degrees in both psychology and accounting, and is a Certified Exit Planner. Creedy is accredited with both the Center for Creative Leadership and Hyman Synergistics. Find his website that offers resources for funeral practitioners at funeralhomeconsulting.org.

Categories: Industry


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