Recently I read something that triggered an insight.  In my Funeral Home Consulting practice it is clear that businesses don’t just suddenly spin out of control.  Except in the rare case of disruptive innovation like an unconventional competitor, calamity does not occur overnight.  “Things” start happening well before the challenges are apparent. Almost all of these “things” are correctible and most are the result of benign neglect.

Over the years I have seen patterns that I now realize are clear indicators that trouble is ahead. Here are 4:

1. Preoccupied Leader– Some years ago a casket company Exec asked me what I thought most funeral home owners wanted.  Without thinking and to my utter surprise I said, “Based on their behavior I think most funeral home owners want to not be there.”  After I got over my shock I realized that answer had come from my subconscious and it was true.  Whether from boredom or frustration too many owners spend a lot of time away from their business.  Fortunately or unfortunately in a small business it is the owner that has the primary responsibility of being a hands-on leader. In order to lead you have to be there.  While it sounds simple it is a common problem in most organizations. Too many owners like to brag that they have forgotten where the prep room is and don’t know how to fill out the paperwork any more.   Yes, you have to work on the business.  But mostly I see owners escaping the business under the guise of working on the business.  You can tell because there are always lots of ideas and never any execution.

2. Lack of Clear Expectations – The owners of the under-performing funeral homes are absurdly unclear with their employees about what is expected, in everything from how they should greet customers to what they wear to what their specific job responsibilities are. I have never been able to reconcile the claim by owners that their market differentiator is “service” with the knowledge that almost none of them train or monitor the practices of staff.  These owners are reluctant to place specific demands on their people, often in the spirit of giving them freedom. But like any business plagued by a lack of clarity, what they get is an organization without a culture, plenty of employees who don’t belong, and, worst of all, inconsistencies around what customers experience. Basically, people show up and apply their own definition of what is right in a given circumstance in a self-defined effort to provide good service.

3. Lack of Focus – Typically, funeral homes do too much or too little. Most often, if it’s a new initiative they don’t finish what they start. They never get to the “Goldilocks level” where it is Just Right. Employees don’t understand what is expected and struggle to sell what the business has to offer. Interestingly, if you challenge them you quickly learn they aren’t sure what that is. Or, worse, they are pretty sure it’s just one more thing to line the owner’s pockets.

The drive to be all things to “all people means we are nothing to everyone.” No one takes risks because the fear of losing one customer overrides the opportunity to gain five.

4. Lack of Attention to the Right Detail – During the 70’s I worked for a firm that had service contracts with big city school systems.  Part of my job was to call on school principals.  It got so I could tell what kind of principal I was calling on within 5 feet of the front door.  The same thing is true of funeral homes.  Sometimes you can tell before you drive in the driveway.  Paint peeling, failing to have a greeter at the door, taking too long to answer the phone, a dirty prep room are all signs things are going from bad to worse because someone is asleep at the switch. “Funeral service is in the details” is a saying I haven’t heard in too long. We all have anecdotal stories.

My worst was attending a visitation on the night a local funeral home had two too many. I stood in line while the guests tried to sort out which way to go in the crowded foyer while being watched by the morbidly obese employee in his shirtsleeves eating a foot long subway sandwich behind the office glass window sipping on his “Big Gulp”. The epiphany for me at that moment was that some owners don’t care and can’t be helped.

We all get comfortable in our work environments. I recently told a couple of clients that they should get a video camera and video their building inside and out and then watch it. You will see things on video that you don’t see when you walk in every day. Sometimes it’s just good to have a brutally honest friend or consultant who isn’t afraid to tell you the truth about what they see. More importantly, we all need to be reminded that keeping things simple and focusing on the basics is the best place to start a turnaround and sustain a healthy organization. If you own the business maybe it’s time for you to pay attention.