How to Implement Change in the Funeral Home: An Interview with Jeff Harbeson, The Funeral Commander

Posted February 24, 2016

8 min read

We sat down with Jeff Harbeson, a retired military Captain and funeral home owner/partner, also known as The Funeral Commander, to get his insights on how funeral directors can follow best practices to implement change in their firm. Read on to also see what Harbeson recommends to funeral home leaders who are looking to help their staff better empathize to have greater perspective with grieving families.

Jeff Harbeson: I am a retired as Captain with 20 years of service, including deployment to Operation Desert Storm and a TAC Officer at Officers Candidate School where I taught over 400 non-commissioned and enlisted soldiers to become leaders. I began my funeral industry journey first as a casket sales rep taking me to today as a funeral industry leader operating multiple businesses within the industry.

Those businesses include two successful funeral homes, the TouchPoints Six Sigma funeral home operating platform, an online cremation service, an at-need payment company, a successful consulting company and co-host of the Funeral Nation show. I felt that The Funeral Commander would provide a perfect description of my military and funeral leadership experience.

Q: What is your advice for funeral directors who are looking to implement change? What can they do to support desired change in their firm?

Jeff Harbeson: Before implementation of any change, one has to acknowledge that a problem exists and understand where to initiate correcting the problem. When I first started this journey in the funeral industry, I wanted to learn everything I could about the processes, operations and costs of a funeral home. However, I could not find consistent or credible information simply because no real training existed to find the answers to my questions.

Before implementing any sort of change, my advice is to understand the process or problem and determine if change is necessary. The next logical step is seeking solutions to take corrective actions. Then rebuild the process, train and implement.

One factor to consider is identifying the audience that will be affected by the change. If it’s the funeral consumer, then you also must take into account that behavior modification (training of funeral directors) and monitoring of the process has to take place.

An analogy would be if you’re a baseball player and striking out frequently. You would have a coach analyze your swing so that he could teach you to take corrective measures. After modifications are made, then the hard work of practice and implementation takes place.

My team and I created a complete, alpha to omega six sigma based funeral home operating platform called TouchPoints. TouchPoints identifies every possible step that a funeral director and staff take, and we train multiple times per week to follow those processes. This system allows us to manage workflow and easily identify problems when they occur to take quick corrective measures. Again, back to the baseball analogy: there is a process in place for professionals to follow and they are in continuous improvement mode even practicing before a game.

Unfortunately, the funeral industry has hurt itself simply because once a funeral director gets out of school and gets hired to work, the general funeral home training program consists of: follow me and do what I do. The “trainer” may not have the best route to follow thus perpetuating the problem for the new director. Our system actually provides such great training that new hires, even if newly licensed, are making funeral arrangements on their own in a matter of weeks.

From a funeral industry training standpoint, we have CEU’s however in many cases are a colossal waste of time and resources. Many CEU’s have no intrinsic value to a funeral director and no “teeth.” Many times a funeral director is basically sitting in a session for an hour simply to sign off on a paper and get credit for attendance. No measurement of proficiency, just pay a fee and get credit. TouchPoints has a series of training programs so that our funeral professionals are performing to standards proficiently and are continuously sharpening their skills.

Returning to the question: you have to train to make change—just like professional baseball players take batting practice before a game. Making change takes intentional leadership effort and consistent relevant training for provide a solid foundation.

I can’t think of one issue or subject in the funeral industry that could not be corrected, addressed, or changed without training. From my point of view, training is behavior modification and it’s impossible to make corrective measures nothing is in place from the start. The majority of funeral homes have no training program or process in place to make changes.

Q: When looking at the entire experience a family has with a funeral home, it can be valuable for funeral home professionals to “see” that experience from the family’s perspective. How can we teach or train our staff to see this perspective?

Jeff Harbeson: Funeral directors meet with families during a time which most agree is very difficult. Part of our funeral director using TouchPoints for arrangements includes roll play. We actually get the funeral director to plan their own closest loved ones’ funeral. On top of that, we also have the role-playing director to make choices based on their own financial resources to pay out of pocket. It’s a valuable training session and enlightening for those that are fortunate enough receive. Without ever “wearing the shoes of the next of kin,” the anguish is only observed and not experienced.

Jeff Harbeson: Funeral home operations, in general, have not changed at all and many funeral homes are still serving the consumer the way they did 50 years ago.

However, the consumer has made a tremendous shift in several different directions. For example, consumers know more about our business simply because it’s readily available on the Internet. Twenty-five years ago, consumers had to actually visit a funeral home if they wanted information. Also, the way we communicate has completely changed. Therefore, the consumer is researching and making decisions however many providers have not adapted to using technology to reach the “undecided” consumer with relevant messaging.

In the past, a funeral home was in a community and if someone died or needed to make inquiry, they would physically visit the funeral home to get information from a funeral director. Today a consumer sits in front of a computer and conducts their own research without leaving the comfort of their surroundings. If a funeral home website or social media provides the information sought after, the consumer may then inquire. However, if the website is too “funeral-esque” (like playing piano music when you land, or funeral-wordy), the consumer moves on to other sources.

The trend of people separating from organized religion is a factor that requires attention. If a family is not affiliated to a particular faith and does not think that ceremony is necessary, that’s a problem for many funeral homes with significant investments in real estate as well as recovering revenue from funeral services, visitations, and wakes.

Another significant yet not widely addressed trend is how we are serving financially struggling families. The typical American worker earns less than $50,000 per year. Forbes recently posted a story about how 63 percent of our consumers don’t have $500 cash to pay for an emergency. As a general rule, funeral homes provide no training to their directors how to address the needs of financially struggling families.

Everything comes back to training: how do we address or how do we adapt to emerging trends? We need to know what we offer meets the demands of consumers. Identify those gaps, create a solution, train, monitor and refine.

About Jeff Harbeson, The Funeral Commander

Jeff Harbeson is Founder & CEO of The Harbeson Group which provides leadership on the battlefield of funeral industry innovation. By developing strategic alliances and relationships with other influencers to execute his visions, several successful companies were launched. Jeff is one of the Founders of Family Choice Funerals & Cremations™ brand as well as the Select Cremation™ brand of funeral service providers. Additionally, Harbeson and team developed a proprietary Six Sigma based funeral home operating platform, TouchPoints™. Also creating At Need Credit™, the company became the funeral industry leader providing loans and payment plans for consumers to pay funeral expenses. As a funeral industry entrepreneur, Harbeson pens the well-known blog, The Funeral Commander and he is also co-host of the Funeral Nation TV web show with social media expert Ryan Thogmartin.

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