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Cemetery sales from the inside—an employee’s story

It’s not just consumer families who complain about the sales practices at the nation’s largest funeral home and cemetery chain, Service Corporation International (brand-name “Dignity Memorial”). Many current and former employees have contacted us over the years to say they’ve been pressured to produce sales at the expense of ethical treatment of grieving families.

But it’s not just SCI that pressures their employees and customers. Funeral director D.J. Fone worked for other cemeteries, too, and shared this story with us. 


 

I’m a 5-year veteran of the funeral-cemetery industry in southern California. I moved last month to north-central Arizona.

When the public thinks about sales predators by whom they fear being hustled, certain industries come immediately to mind, often unfairly. Even the most principled used car salesmen and women suffer from this stigma, for instance.

That’s only because everybody has bought a car, but not enough people have had to deal with funeral-cemetery planning and costs, and very few people ever talk about the one thing that WILL happen to everyone. Once they do, they might finally take used car salespeople off the “most predatory” sales hook.

I had three stints of employment with the 10,000 lb. gorilla in the death care trade, Service Corporation International (SCI), also known as “Dignity” Memorial (DM). The company was fictionalized in the HBO series “Six Feet Under” as the predatory “Kroner Corporation”, which kept threatening to put the Fisher Family Funeral Home out of business or buy them out against their will.

I also worked, at two other family-owned death providers, for execs who previously sold or managed for SCI/DM.

My last stint with SCI/Dignity Memorial, which turned me off forever from being associated with the company as either an employee or a client, ended in June 2013. Never again.

Not only does the company aggressively push wildly overpriced goods and services at a gullible, vulnerable public that knows nothing about the inside workings of an industry; they also rip off the people they hire.

And SCI/DM, every month, recruits (by trolling online headhunter and “job wanted” sites) untold numbers of desperate, out-of-work people as “community service advisors”, paying them $10 an hour for four weeks of classroom training, then putting them out there on straight commission with the intent of the newbies excitedly getting granny and grandpa to buy a plot and policy before discovering the rest of the public wants nothing to do with them.

The benefit to SCI/DM in this churning of straight-commission sales hopefuls is that the constant door-knocking, phone-calling, and other contacts result in curious potential prospects checking out SCI/DM on the web, where they SCI/DM website allows you to preplan for yourself, with no pesky salesman involved….or his/her commission paid.

Thus, the hundreds of hours so many sales hopefuls put in on SCI/DM’s behalf are unpaid, and only a very small percentage ever end up covering even their own job-related expenses, not to mention making enough to live on, despite the many promises and exaltations of success and riches promoted by motivational posters and sales managers at SCI/DM locations.

Just to give you one tiny sliver of the many reasons I quit in disgust:

The super-hard-sell market director lectured us weekly about how to make sales in the home…..only in the home. The cemetery itself was gorgeous, and sold itself once people saw it. However, he insisted on selling in the home, because “If they come to the cemetery, they can always look at their watches and say they have to be home, and you’ve lost the sale. Inside their home, they can’t tell me to leave.”

He was so arrogant he actually believed that. In the same breath, he noted how Dignity Memorial pays a nice benefit package to sales reps provided they maintain an AVERAGE commission income of $2,000 per month, which the Market Director dismissed as “Well, if you’re making ONLY $2K a month, you’re probably in the wrong job.”

Here’s the punchline. At that moment, he was less than 25 feet from the Board Volume “scoreboard” for that month, which was only a few days from the 31st. On that board were the names of his 25 Community Service sales reps, all on straight commission. Only one had earned more than $2K for that month (but not for 3 consecutive), and more than 15 of the 25 reps had ZERO income for that month.

After a solid month of being told of Dignity Memorial’s corporate ethics and morals, my sales manager told me “Just do whatever you have to do to make the sale.” This was the same week my cemetery had staged its third open-to-the-public seminar on preplanning, complete with free foods and drinks. For the third straight time, not one single person attended.

Earlier, I had worked for 3 1/2 years at Singing Hills Memorial Park in El Cajon CA (not owned by SCI), where the General Manager and Sales Manager were both fired after a disgruntled customer told the local TV consumer bulldog (Michael Turkoof KUSI-TV) what happened when he went to the cemetery to bury his wife in the mausoleum crypt he had purchased as preneed eight years ago

The crypt was not ready for the man’s wife’s body even though the cemetery had completely sold out the mausoleum; they hadn’t even started building it. Yet the cemetery was preparing to mail out thousands of postcards to promote their second (unbuilt) mausoleum’s preneed sales.

The GM of that cemetery—who was booted out of the job after the parent company got wind of the TV exposé—was not only the former cemetery manager of the SCI/DM property Greenwood Memorial Park in San Diego, but his father was the longtime GM of that location. He enraged the widower who wanted to entomb his wife by saying not only can we not entomb her where you bought a crypt years ago, but we won’t give you your money back, either, since you still own the space…which was nothing but AIR.

KUSI’s consumer pit bull Turko got the GM to finally refund the man’s money. And Security National Financial Corporation (SNFC), Singing Hills’ Salt Lake City-based owner, finally fired the unethical bosses, which could not have been easy. They had been so cozy that the top officials at SFNC flew in to San Diego to attend the GM’s sons’ weddings at the cemetery, because Singing Hills was, the GM often said, “SNFC’s only profitable cemetery”.

And who were the GM’s four favorite salespeople at Singing Hills? Was it the four dedicated, highly trained industry professionals who provided the most sales and best customer service? No, it was his two older sons and their roommate; the oldest was 26; and the GM’s longtime neighbor, whom he made Sales Manager, and who dismissed the GM’s sons and their playmate as “the kids.” The Sales Manager later hired his own brother for the sales staff.

And both the former GM and his oldest son fled San Diego for Florida after the TV bust, leaving behind at Singing Hills the massive bronze sample memorial that was not labeled “Singing Hills”; it was labeled with the GM’s family’s name and featured images of his own family.

During my final day at work at Singing Hills, the GM, James A. March Jr.,  took me out to lunch at the nearby Savanna Grill.  It was there he told me “I’m glad you’re staying in this industry; it needs people like you.” 
 
When I told him my new employer, a startup funeral home, had already my OK’d my also selling property for March’s cemetery (Singing Hills)—provided I didn’t STEER funeral business toward March’s cemetery, which would be unethical—and that my funeral home prospecting would generate lots of new cemetery business for him, he
declined my offer.
 
Why?  “It would take business away from the kids.”  Meaning his sons and their roommate/best friend, all in their early/mid 20s.

Two years later, under new (and ethical management), I was offered my old job back at Singing Hills, but by then I had already moved to Los Angeles, and could not afford the apartment and utility deposits and moving costs to go back to the San Diego area.

After my time at Singing Hills, I was hired for sales by the owner of La Vista Cemetery in National City CA, the poorest city in San Diego County. LaVista was not only in the poorest community in the area, but was known as the burial ground for San Diego’s indigent. Not exactly a selling point, particularly at their high prices.

The owner of LaVista told me upon hiring that she attained her career goal of making “her first million dollars” by selling preneed at Greenwood Memorial Park in San Diego. Yep, SCI/Dignity Memorial yet again. LaVista was tucked away in National City, hard to find even on a map, and directional signs on major nearby roads made no mention of the cemetery, but freely noted its location as a LiveScan fingerprinting service, which is pure profit, certainly more so than the cemetery. High priced plots and memorials at LaVista were marketed with hype-laden “Special!!” flyers like used cars. The only thing missing was colored flags and 30-ft. inflated creatures flapping in the wind.

The LaVista Sales Manager—yet another SCI grad—recruited new sales commission suckers every other Tuesday with so-called “hiring fairs,” telling prospects how much money they’d make. His schtick was “Your life is going to CHANGE with all the money you’re going to make!!” His own sales board showed his best sales reps earning less than $600 per month.

What did all of these unethical, lying managers, owners, and execs have in common? They learned the funeral-cemetery ropes with Service Corporation International/Dignity Memorial. The question must be asked: Did they advance into management/ownership positions despite their ethical/legal flaws? Or because of the additional sales their questionable methods generated? Strictly of my own opinion and personal experience, I believe it’s the latter.

I will no longer taint myself with the association of Southern California funeral-cemetery predators, since SCI/DM dominates the industry there.

 


 

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