Earlier this year, the National Funeral Directors Association hosted the 2023 Future’s Forum, which offered valuable insights into what the future of the funeral service profession could look like and how those who work in it can thrive in a rapidly changing environment.

Held in mid-May, the NFDA Future’s Forum brought together 70 individuals representing the spectrum of the funeral service profession, along with allied professionals.

The event was professionally facilitated by two experts, Paul Schoemaker, Ph.D., who previously facilitated NFDA Future’s Forum events, and Jim Austin. Schoemaker is a pioneer in the field of decision sciences and was among the first to combine decision theory, behavioral economics, scenario planning and risk management into a set of strategic decision-making tools for managers. Austin is a former senior executive at Baxter Healthcare and is currently an adjunct assistant professor at Brown University where he teaches leadership and marketing in the School of Professional Studies.

“The NFDA Future’s Forum was an extraordinary gathering of some of the brightest minds in funeral service including funeral directors, association executives, suppliers and allied professionals, among others,” said NFDA Vice President Education & Meetings Patty Neuswanger. “They were passionate and engaged in thoughtful discussions that will help this profession grow and adapt to create a bright future for funeral service.”

“The presentation prompted me to challenge my own assumptions about both my business and my market and encouraged me to look at the reality of where we are at in the industry,” said Julia Prout of Prout Funeral Home in Verona, New Jersey. “Our table was so engaging, and the discussion was rich with ideas on how to innovate and stay ahead of the curve. I came away with a solid toolkit to help me examine what lies ahead for my business and strategize so I can confidently face the future.”

“We are clearly in one of the most pivotal times in our profession, yet one of the most exciting,” said Chis Cruger, CEO of Foresight. “The opportunity is significant, but it will only come to those who address the changing dynamics of the consumer we serve today.”

To date, NFDA has shared highlights of the event in the September 2023 issue of The Director.  During the 2023 NFDA International Convention and Expo in September, the Closing Session featured three forum participants and the exceptional outcomes they’ve experience incorporating AI into their business models.

NFDA will continue to leverage the learnings from the 2023 Future’s Forum during the coming year. The January 2024 episode of NFDA’s A Brush With Death podcast will feature a discussion with Future’s Forum facilitators Schoemaker and Austin.

“So many incredible discussions and ideas came out of this event,” said Neuswanger. “We want to share the very best thinking and knowledge around organizational vigilance and visionary thinking with the funeral service community. We will continue to explore topics discussed and issues raised during the event throughout the coming year by integrating those themes into our educational offerings. We intend to host another Future’s Forum in the next three to five years.”

Setting the Stage  

Previous NFDA Future’s Forum events identified winning strategies to help funeral businesses succeed in an uncertain business climate and offered a forum to identify, discuss and prioritize critical issues impacting the development of the profession’s future workforce.

The 2023 event was planned to develop new growth and innovation strategies funeral providers could use to overcome current revenue challenges, increasing costs and staffing shortages.

In recent years, seismic shifts in the funeral service landscape created greater challenges than imagined such as transformative funeral-consumer preferences; the ever-increasing cremation rate; competition from non-traditional providers of goods and/or services; and the rapid integration of mobile devices and the internet into everyday life across all age groups.

Prior to gathering, attendees were surveyed to gauge their perspectives about the challenges the profession is facing. The top external challenges noted by attendees, in order of importance, were:

  • Shifting customer needs
  • Changes in technology
  • Economic conditions
  • Changing government regulations
  • Emergence of new, low-end challengers
  • Shifts in competition

The most significant internal challenges, in order of importance, were:

  • Lack of affordable talent in market to assure smooth, high-quality operations
  • Lack of vision, strategic thinking and risk-management strategy
  • Trapped in “this is how we’ve always done things environment”; little innovation is happening
  • Too internally focused; not looking around the corner for opportunities/threats
  • Wrong incentives for staff/managers; short-term, risk-averse, transactional
  • Insufficient attention given to “weak signals” about opportunities/threats

The 2023 Future’s Forum participants explored many of these challenges as well as demographic and psychographic shifts; a funeral service business model still relying on physical assets; mixed consumer views about the reputation of funeral directors; licensing and regulatory requirements for firms and staff; and digital innovation and an increasingly tech-savvy clientele.

Rethinking How Funeral Professionals Think  

After exploring decision-making biases and limitations people face and exploring the many forces acting on the funeral service profession, Schoemaker and Austin led participants through a discussion of the three strategic imperatives facing leaders and organizations today, including those in the funeral service profession.

  1. Fostering Greater Organizational Vigilance 

    Being vigilant requires business leaders to have an awareness of what is happening around them, both in their business and in society, and to translate that alertness into timely action to ward off threats or to seize opportunities. Organizations that are highly vigilant tend to be highly successful; that vigilance starts with leadership. Vigilant leaders tend to:

    • Have a deep sense of curiosity, an openness to diverse inputs and a willingness to play the long game
    • Adopt a flexible, adaptive process of strategy making that involves an outside-in perspective and future-back thinking
    • Invest more in foresight activities and adopt flexible approaches to contain uncertainty
    • Have clear coordination and accountability for acting on weak signals, enabled by an organizational culture of sharing information quickly

In reflecting on whether their organizations and the profession operate under a high or low level of vigilance, participants observed that COVID-19 made some regress to a low level of vigilance, while others increased their level of vigilance. They also noted that while some organizations may be ahead within the profession, outside of funeral service they are behind, particularly when it comes to technology.

Attendees also discussed barriers to becoming more organizationally vigilant. They observed that funeral business owners don’t do a good job of listening to customers and younger staff. They tend to be set in their ways and need to do a better job of getting out of their comfort zone. They also noted: funeral directors frequently fail to act after development seminars and training; there is a lack of communication throughout all levels of an organization; there is a perception that working harder is enough to get ahead; and owners and managers fail to find time to do what really matters in the long-term because they are “too busy.”

  1. Rethinking and Reevaluating Existing Business Models 

      Schoemaker and Austin discussed how uncertain business conditions often demand modifications to an organization’s current business       model to remain relevant and viable. In fact, in recent business history, companies have been built around a need to continually evolve.

One example of this is the “lean startup” model that began in Silicon Valley and spread far beyond. In these businesses, the ability to pivot – test, discard and replace ideas and models that do not work – is prioritized.

Additionally, in the new sharing economy, filled with companies like Uber and Airbnb, the ability to save on capital enables businesses to share risks with contractor partners and enhances their ability to adapt to market changes and uncertainty.

After exploring real-world examples of innovative business models that took advantage of uncertainty and fundamentally transformed existing industries, Future’s Forum attendees brainstormed ways in which the existing funeral home business model could evolve to surpass current challenges.

Many ideas revolved around the current staffing shortage, such as hiring event planners and recruiting students from hospitality management education programs; increasing reliance on non-licensed staff or freelancers; and assessing what tasks can best be handled by seasoned licensees and those best handled by junior personnel. Other ideas included being more intentional about gathering input from consumers and acting on it; normalizing green funeral and burial options; using artificial intelligence to reduce work burdens; investing in community outreach; and developing partnerships.   

  1. Embracing New Innovation Methods that Move Beyond Incremental Change 

The final strategic imperative, according to Schoemaker and Austin, involves finding market spaces with unmet needs where others cannot easily compete – the so-called “blue ocean strategies.” Often, these spaces enable businesses to offer more value to consumers while incurring less cost and encountering fewer rivals. Blue ocean strategies rely heavily on realigning resources, incentives, processes and systems to achieve an organization’s goals.

Conversely, according to the facilitators, “red ocean strategies” are spaces in which rivals compete in established industries, hoping for incremental gains while relying the same strategies and tactics. This generally results in less value for consumers with high costs and few gains.

Operating in a place where a business employs “blue ocean strategies” begins with two questions: What are the main issues customers and others encounter when working with us? and How can we more innovatively solve those issues and make things easier?  

Future’s Forum attendees then discussed several pain points that funeral consumers encounter – such as being new to the area and not knowing local providers; payment concerns and budget constrains; anxiety about what to do and say; and managing grief – and possible blue ocean strategies to them into pleasure points.

Transforming Ideas into Action 

Once funeral professionals begin to employ the three strategic imperatives in their organizations, they may find themselves with an abundance of ideas. Taking action on those ideas becomes the next challenge they must face. According to Schoemaker and Austin, while there are many approaches to strategic implementation, the best rely on balancing priorities that meet short-term budgets and goals with longer-term, more transformative objectives. Maintaining a balance between immediate needs and goals and long-term aspirations positions businesses to succeed no matter what the future brings.

Schoemaker and Austin suggested that organizations divide ideas into three categories:

  • Core Ideas – These initiatives keep current operations running ever more efficiently. Core ideas should comprise 70-80% of an organization’s focus and will also pay for more transformative initiatives that meet medium- and long-term goals. Examples brainstormed by forum attendees included an intentional approach to meeting true consumer needs; improved accounts receivable processes; and owners and managers incorporating staff into decision making processes.

  • New Ideas – Over time, these medium-term, moderate-risk priorities – such as a new service or improved product – can replenish or expand a firm’s core initiatives. They should comprise 10-20% of an organization’s strategic investment. Ideas in this category that were discussed by forum attendees included using artificial intelligence for writing obituaries and other backroom tasks; following trends in the hospitality and hotel industry; growth through acquisitions; and online pre- and at-need planning.

  • Wow Ideas – These initiatives, which should represent no more than 5-10% of an organization’s resources, comprise long term experiments. These “moon shots” are often associated with a high rate of failure; however, when successful, they can transform, not just the individual business but an entire industry or profession. Some of the Wow ideas discussed by attendees included live chats through the funeral home website and rethinking and repurposing the funeral home’s physical space for life events and other public gatherings.

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