business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Her name was Beverly and she told me she was into the death business. I’m not kidding.

Ordinarily on hearing such an opening line, I’d probably find a convenient excuse to get very, very far away. This was not an ordinary experience. I was in seat 10c and Beverly in 10a on a long flight across the country. So I decided the best course of action might be to figure out where she was going. I’m glad I did.

It turns out that Beverly works for one of the nation’s largest operators of funeral homes and had just finished a week of running training classes on emerging issues in the funeral home business. The more I listened, the more I realized that virtually every problem Beverly and I discussed had a direct parallel with sessions I was running at the NGA and IGA co-located events in Las Vegas this week.

Consider three: recruiting, social networking and logistics.

• Recruiting: We have a problem in the food industry when it comes to attracting new talent. For far too many people the jobs they take in our industry are just that - jobs, not careers. And many companies continue to struggle to attract the kind of talent who can run a store at a higher level or be positioned for future growth. Whatever shortcomings we might have though, it can’t match the challenges in the “death business” as Beverly put it.

She told me her degree was in graphic design and honestly she never saw herself working with funeral homes. But she started with her company as a consultant and saw the benefits of working with them. Now she’s a full-blown trainer, running around the nation to conduct seminars. As the students on a panel I ran at NGA explained, the food industry has opportunity at a time when people are looking for jobs. The question becomes, how do we help people see the range of possibilities in the industry so that a job can turn into a career. If you need thoughts on this, just ask a student at one of the universities with food management programs. Trust me, I heard loads.

Social networking: Now I’ve been talking about the impact of this for a while and, as I wrote in my extra column Monday, the newest section of the Coca-Cola Retailing Research Council report on social networking is now available.

Visit to get the latest chapter, or click here to download the introduction and first section of the report.

And in the interest of full disclosure, let me once again note that I am the research director of the project.)

But if you want a clear sense of how much social networking can influence decisions, think of death. Obviously it is a horrible time for families. They are dealing with loss and sadness on an epic scale and suddenly they need to interact with an industry they have never before used. They don’t know services, products or pricing.

Social networking, Beverly said, changed all of that. Now people know where to go for advice in even their darkest hour. Now they come into funeral homes armed with information on pricing and what they should and should not do. If you doubt the human need or the power of social networks to influence decisions, simply consider that. And understand that a person willing to reach out for help at the time of a family death will find it very easy to seek advice when it comes to recipes, prices and opinions on items in your store.

• Logistics: Like every industry, supply chains make all the difference in success and failure. Poor logistics in the food industry can lead to out of stocks, inefficiency and higher prices. In the death industry it leads to horrifying errors of people being buried in the wrong graves, bodies being mishandled and businesses losing their reputation. As Beverly told me, many of her training sessions are about using emerging technologies to streamline systems and make certain everything is working as best it can.

And just like that I found myself rethinking my apprehension at sitting with the merchant of death. There really was so much to learn, especially about keeping a business alive.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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