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By Eric Layer

Death care has a bad rap. We all know the stereotype: a creepy salesman in a black suit, charging exorbitant fees and extorting people at their most vulnerable moment. A used car salesman for the bereaved.

It’s hardly fair. You don’t get into this business without a desire to serve people, and probably some personal experience with loss yourself. You’ve endured midnight removals, exposure to unforgettably disturbing sights, and even biomedical dangers. You carry the emotional scars of a career spent interacting with people at their very worst.

Still, the reality of the business today is that the stereotypes, cruel as they may be, are becoming true.

It’s a phenomenon seen often in business. My firm’s extensive research, which spans industries and decades, catalogs the crippling cycle that inevitably occurs when an industry begins to lose relevance. Companies take their eye off the ball. An initial focus on service turns to self-centered navel-gazing as organizations grow increasingly desperate to survive. As customers leave the brand, the brand panics and, through its actions, effectively leaves its customers. And the death spiral worsens. More customers leave, and an increasingly desperate company, looking ever more inward, continues to give them more reason to do so.

It was this scenario that almost killed LEGO in the early 2000s, just months after the legendary brand was named toy of the century. Video games presented a new form of competition to the seemingly unstoppable toy company. The real threat from Atari and Nintendo, though, wasn’t the customers they stole but the confidence they sapped. LEGO panicked, and instead of sticking to what it knew, went on a bizarre new product binge, releasing a tangled knot of increasingly erratic and irrelevant toys. It was bad enough that LEGO customers had new options, but LEGO made matters worse by confusing and abandoning even its most loyal customers.

Apple presents another example. After enjoying the unprecedented success of the iPhone, the tech brand has found new competitors nipping at its heels and chipping away at its market share. Rather than innovate and find new ways to serve its customers, Apple is doing the opposite: punishing legacy customers with updates that intentionally sabotage old phones in a desperate play to drum up demand for new ones.

Ten or twenty years ago, the management of your mortuary or cemetery was probably worried about its customers. How to build a new mausoleum to meet rising demand for alternatives to burial. How to offer products like LifeGem that presented unique opportunities for those looking for something a little different.

But today, it’s a different feel altogether. As sales drop year after year, perhaps you’ve turned your gaze inward. It might feel like you are rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, but you don’t know what else you can do. You’re having to make tough decisions about staff and overhead to protect ever-thinner margins. Overworked team members, desperate just to keep up, might say they don’t remember why they got into the business in the first place.

If that is you, you already know it’s not a fun place to be. But it’s probably worse than you recognize: Families can sense it. And if these days you’re more worried about saving your business than serving them, they have fewer reasons than ever to give you their money. That’s why internal focus tends to be a strong indicator of a company in the last stages of its lifecycle: when you’re in this position, you either change or die.

The good news, though, is that change is possible. The future of death care doesn’t look anything like we thought it would in the ‘90s, but there is a future for death care. It looks different, and it’s going to take some work to get there, but serving clients the way you want to is still an option.

You didn’t get into this business to take advantage of grieving people. If you’re not meeting their needs the way you used to, it’s time to rethink your business.


Eric Layer

Eric is the oldest millennial you’ll ever meet.

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For over a decade, McKee Wallwork and Company has been a leader and innovator in death care. The firm’s groundbreaking national market research is to this day the definitive consumer segmentation study on funeral care. On the creative front, MW+C was behind breakthrough work including the inception of Passare, “Scatter Day,” YODO, and the documentary The Empty Chair. MW+C has served as the agency of record for leading funeral homes, cemeteries, and death care brands from coast to coast. In addition, the firm’s robust research arm is responsible for developing the Death Care Disruption Index in partnership with Selected Independent Funeral Homes, and the Death Care Genogram in partnership with Passare. This fall, MW+C  will release its first book on the future of funeral service, The Right Way of Death, authored by partner Eric Layer.

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