Undercover Boss – Funeral Home Edition

If you’ve not seen the popular TV show “Undercover Boss”, you should jump on Netflix and watch a few episodes before you read this article.

The idea behind the show is that a CEO of a major corporation goes undercover to work in their company at the ground level to see how well things are working or not. In some episodes, the company might be a restaurant or retail operation and on others it might be a pest control company or a paint manufacturer.

I think the reason the show is so popular is that it resonates with two groups of people.  Employees who feel their job or company could be better and executives and business owners who want to understand their company better from all angles.

To kick things off, the CEO puts on a disguise and hits the road (camera in tow) to go work on location.  To explain the camera crew following them around, he or she is introduced as an employee in training for a reality TV show.

For the next week, he or she is trained by existing employees or managers in different departments of the company.  During the undercover operation, the CEO might be trained as a front-line cashier, a warehouse employee, or even a termite inspector crawling under houses.  In each case, they show the CEO struggling to do the work and listening to employees share feelings that reveal a disconnect between the corporate office and those serving on the front lines.  For example, one employee might say they are routinely asked to work late but don’t receive overtime, or they’ve told the home office about issues that need to be addressed and nothing ever gets resolved.

In some episodes the undercover CEO might witness an employee not providing service to a customer that meets the standards of the company or another that might be putting the company at risk by not following safety procedures.  Because they don’t want to blow their cover, they remain silent and just observe, making mental notes of the changes that are needed.

At the end of the week, the employees in the episode are invited to a meeting where the CEO meets them and reveals his identity.  He then explains that because of what he has learned on the road, and because of what they shared, he will be making changes to company policy to fix what was not working.

The fact is that it’s a reality show that’s not so real. It’s scripted and predictable but it does have some takeaways, with the biggest being you can’t fix what you don’t know is broken.

What I like about the show is the premise that you really don’t know as much about your company as you think you do and your employees might not be as happy as you think.  The show builds up to the lesson we all know and that is you can learn a lot by getting in the trenches.

I started thinking about what it would look like if there was an “Undercover Boss – Funeral Edition”

Obviously, unless you’re one of the big consolidators, you can’t go undercover at your funeral home.  There’s no makeup or wig that would hide your identity but suppose you could – what would you find?  If you were the new staff member being trained by another employee or manager, would they train you the same way you would want a new employee trained?  Would they complain about management?  Would they say their voice isn’t heard or that there is too much focus on one area of business while other areas suffered? If you offered a suggestion would you be shot down because “that’s not the way we do it here?”  Would you find stuff that’s not just concerning, but alarming?

Because the show is centered around 3-4 employees that interact with the CEO, it becomes mostly about how they feel the company doesn’t do enough for the employees or that they can’t do their job because corporate doesn’t provide the resources, etc.

I wish the show would take it a step further and go undercover as a customer rather than an employee.

Leaders of successful companies understand the goldmine of insights found from spending time “in the trenches” or from using their own product.  They understand the immense value of empathy.  You can’t serve a customer without first understanding them.  You can’t lead employees without first caring about what they care about.  True empathy comes from being in the trenches.

Here’s a question: Has your family ever been the customer at your own funeral home?  Have you ever pretended like you were?

An exercise that I like to do is pretend I’m a potential customer and I’ve come to our website for the first time.  I will stare at the screen and write down all the possible motivations of someone who would be looking at our website.  Is it a funeral home that is just checking us out? If so, how can I help them see how much we can help them.  Do they have questions?  If so, what are the most common ones and how can I alleviate any fear they may have about doing business with us?  Are they ready to sign up? If so, how can I make that process easier?

It’s interesting because every time I do that I find something that can be improved.  If you can force yourself to look at your website, your funeral home, or your staff, through the lens of a customer, perhaps even a first-time family, you will gain insights into what can be made better.

Julie Burns, and others in the industry, do mystery shopping at funeral homes and the results are eye opening to say the least.  When inside the funeral home, it’s easy to feel like you’re doing a good job of communicating with a family but when you hear recordings of calls made to your funeral home, sometimes you see the opposite.

I’ve never shopped for funeral services, but I do call on funeral homes and I’ve heard the phone answered “funeral home” several times.  I’ve always thought; what funeral home?  Is the name of the company “funeral home?” Do these people not have competitors?  Of course, if you’re the one answering the phone by saying “funeral home”, you might not see the negative vibe it gives off.  For me, it makes it seem like I just dialed the dreaded place where they take care of dead people, as opposed to a caring voice ready to walk with me through this painful time.

Every time you metaphorically go undercover you become more empathetic and can craft an experience that is more aligned with the customer and their needs and not you and yours.  The CEOs in the program recognize that if they miss opportunities to listen to customers, empower employees, and act on the insights they gain, they stand to lose market share.   Of course, that truth is universal and is as applicable to any funeral home as it is with a fortune 500 company.

So, I encourage you to take a few minutes and stare at your website.  Write down all the possible reasons someone is on there right now and see if the messaging answers their questions and helps them with the next step in whatever they are looking for.  I encourage you to mystery shop your own funeral home.  Disguise your voice or get someone else to do it but, like they say in acting, get in character, and make the call as a grieving family who is lost. Don’t listen to the call as a director, listen as a family who has never done this before.  I encourage you to pull into your parking lot as a family that’s never even been on that street.  Is it easy to know where to go? Is there someone that greets you? Does it feel welcoming?

At the end of the day, if you get in the trenches you can start collecting the insights that will help you grow your business.