Interview: Training to Help Operate a Successful Funeral Business

In today’s ever-changing market conditions, funeral service professionals need to develop and implement innovative practices to ensure their businesses’ success long into the future. By participating in relevant learning opportunities, you can learn business strategies that yield results.

Matthew Mitchell, Drake UniversityHomesteaders has collaborated with Drake University to offer the Certificate in Strategic Business Management course for funeral professionals. The three-day classroom experience provides strategies and best practices that funeral home owners, managers and candidates for succession can immediately begin implementing in their firms.

Matthew Mitchell, Assistant Professor of International Business and Strategy at Drake University, helped develop the Certificate in Strategic Business Management class in conjunction with Homesteaders. Mitchell, who is also an author, consultant and guest lecturer for organizations around the globe, will serve as a facilitator for the course. He recently shared his insights on professional development for funeral directors and how this learning opportunity can help you develop a plan for the future of your funeral business.

What is your personal philosophy when it comes to ongoing education and professional development?

I would characterize myself as a lifelong learner. Whether I’m in an educational setting or working with businesses, I take every opportunity to learn about my clients, about my customers, about their needs and about the business environment in general.

I believe we’re always learning no matter what we’re doing, and I want to be intentional about how I can make that learning align more effectively with my goals. I’m always working to make the most of every learning opportunity.

How can business owners evaluate training opportunities and decide which ones will truly benefit them and their organizations?

In funeral service, like any industry that undergoes change, those shifts can be perceived as threats or opportunities. Investing in yourself and your staff to learn about the necessary changes you need to make is an important thing for you personally and for your funeral home.

Many funeral home owners, operators and managers know inherently what their needs are. If we are honest with ourselves, many of us know where our strengths and weaknesses are. It’s important to pay attention to both. You should invest in weaknesses to improve in those areas if they are truly relevant to your success. Make sure the training you choose aligns with your needs and the areas that are most relevant for your market and the timing of your market. If an owner or manager doesn’t yet have a good understanding of their weaknesses and strengths, an introduction to fundamental business processes would be a very appropriate first step toward improving how they run their business.

I’d also recommend considering what you’re passionate about. You’ll get the most out of experiences that align with your passions. Select programs that are affiliated with a good brand, have a good reputation for understanding your industry and have worked with people like you in the past.

What would you say to someone who is concerned they won’t receive enough value for the time they spend participating in learning experiences?

Businesses that don’t invest in their staff don’t tend to survive for the long term. I would strongly recommend engaging in intentional training opportunities. Consistent investments in training over time yield results.

We are all in an environment where we want to attract and retain the best people for our businesses. If you consider the cost of training versus the cost of replacing a good employee, the benefits of training outweigh the lost time and productivity in allowing those individuals to participate in those opportunities.

You don’t want to waste time, so making sure you select the right training is absolutely critical. Also, make sure you select the right people for those opportunities. Balancing the timing of the training opportunity for your business and for individual employees ensures you’ll have the payoff you’re hoping for.

Through your work with Homesteaders developing the Certificate in Strategic Business Management program, what topics have emerged as being critical for funeral professionals to monitor in the coming months and years?

The most important trend that we’ve identified in collaborating with Homesteaders and in our own independent research with funeral professionals is the changing external environment. The fundamental business model of the entire industry is being challenged by factors that require funeral professionals to focus on how they can continue to deliver value to customers through the unique services they provide.

Many of our past course participants have had questions about succession planning and how they can plan for future generations to operate the funeral home. They want to be sure they can not only equip the future owners to handle the transition, but also give them the tools they need to be successful into the future. They want to pay attention to traditions, but also embrace the opportunities of the future.

We’ve included other topics to help funeral home owners and managers develop skillsets they’ve identified as areas they’d like to improve, such as marketing analytics. The course includes discussion on understanding the future needs of customers and how to meet those changing expectations.

We have taken all of these things and many others into consideration in the development of the curriculum. The Certificate in Strategic Business Management is a cohesive program that provides strong topics for discussion for a range of participants – from prospective or new owners and managers to seasoned owners and managers.

We recognize the content we’re delivering is only a part of the value participants receive. A large part of the value comes from participants’ ability to share experiences in a structured environment with specific goals. We encourage interaction, in-class activities, discussions, debates and research. We draw upon the experience of facilitators and content experts and also experiences that are resident in the room. Participants will be working on their own strategies and setting their own goals, bouncing ideas off of facilitators and, depending on their comfort level, other participants.

What do you think are the most significant headwinds facing funeral home owners working to secure their operation’s success long into the future, and how does the Certificate in Strategic Business Management course address these challenges?

The funeral service industry is one that is particularly sensitive to the national economic health. Current economic indicators suggest that we are experiencing reasonable and sustainable growth. However, we always need to be aware that economic hardship will affect the ability to provide services and generate revenue.

The course addresses this and many important strategic issues within the industry, such as pressure on margins for funeral homes, increased costs and changing consumer preferences. One of the most valuable things we’ve done with this course is to work on tangible outcomes. Participants leave with real tools to help them measure progress, which I think says a lot about the value of the program. Not only do participants get information from facilitators, but they are also engaged in the process. We approach the course as a strategy boot camp – participants will walk out with concrete plans of what they want to do with their businesses in the future.

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