Cemetery sales from the inside---an employee's story

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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.

 


 

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 18 September 2013 13:12 )  
Comments (21)
1 Wednesday, 18 September 2013 20:52
Amy C
I strongly disagree with the above statements made. I worked for SCI for many years since 1991 and have found them to be a very reputable company. They offer great benefits for their employees and decent pay as well. Like any company regardless of industry the bottom line is important. Otherwise the business will no longer be in business! However, being involved with SCI for so many years I have found that customer service is the top priority. We care about the families we serve. Our employees are taught compassion and true sincerity. That's what sets us apart from other companies. I have worked in all departments of the funeral industry including "at need" families who have had a death as well as "pre-need" families who are planning in advanced. I have found a huge difference between those who have planned ahead and those who have not. With that in mind we strongly encourage people to plan in advanced. Not only saving the stress & burden from their families but being able to have piece of mind knowing that their wishes are secure. I know that the more people I can help, the more success I and the company will have. That's a given, it's a business... However, you must help people first. The "Service" in Service Corporation International is there for a reason. And many employees like myself take pride in that. I will agree that SCI locations are typically more expensive than other companies, but SCI is able to offer so much more than those other lower cost companies as well. Sadly the phrase "you get what you pay for" is also the case with this industry. I compare it to shopping at Walmart vs Nordstom. You will get a similar item, but the quality of product line and associates are certainly a vast difference. I know when it's my time to pass, I would prefer being treated with dignity by employees who are well trained and treat my family with respect and compassion rather than a company who pays less for their employees who may or may not like their job.
2 Wednesday, 18 September 2013 23:50
Jeff C.
Amy, after 22 years at SCI, you're so brainwashed with SCI "company speak" that you can't even separate yourself from the spin when you're leaving an anonymous post! That's pretty pathetic. Not once do you mention, or even acknowledge, that many SCI locations are serial abusers when it comes to preying upon vulnerable customers to maintain the "bottom line". I'm quite certain that customers who produce a low margin aren't treated nearly as well as those who produce a high margin. Let's face it, an SCI location knows they've really succeeded when a customer praises them for their great customer service and doesn't even realize they've been taken to the cleaners.
3 Saturday, 21 September 2013 09:13
Amy C.
I dont know what locations you may have experience with but the 8 or 9 that I have worked at all have put the customer first and have treated them with respect and dignity. Im sure there are locations that have people who may not care about their job or care about people in general. All companies have people like that. But You can not accuse an entire company of it based on a few rotten apples. All I know Jeff, is that for me.... and many people I have had the pleasure to work with truly do care about the people they serve. and We take pride in the job we do. I have worked in many other industries and have dealt with many other customers and there are always going to be people who complain or people who dont understand business. But I beleive that when you put the customer first, you will always have a successful business. I agree with you that SCI is much higher cost service than other places, im just saying that the higher service received justifys it. and when there are times that a family is not happy with something, I have seen first hand where itw made up for.
4 Wednesday, 02 October 2013 19:02
George L.
As a former employee of SCI and now an owner, (with my wonderful wife), of a small funeral and cremation service in Northern California I can say that my experience with SCI would lead me to tell all independent owners to stay that way.

The nicest way I can say this is they come into a community and proceed to overwhelm the employees, turning them from a caring professional into a salesperson that basically needs to produce the numbers or get fired. The employees are allowed very little compassionate discretion, if any.
5 Thursday, 10 October 2013 01:20
D. J. Fone
When I visited the Merkley-Mitchell Funeral Home near downtown San Diego, which had been in business serving families for nearly a century, I asked the staffer on duty "How's business?". He shrugged and said "SCI bought us out and tripled our prices. Now the families who kept us in business for five generations of heritage business can't afford us anymore."

Why does the Armstrong Family-Mitten-Malloy funeral home in Los Angeles charge less for EVERYTHING involved in a direct cremation than SCI/Dignity Memorial henchmen in the same market charge for a single night of refrigeration? The SCI/DM direct cremation is nearly 4 times the cost of the Armstrong-Mitten-Malloy services. Why? To keep the dozens of layers of SCI's national corporate sales, district, regional, market, and area managers in Armani and Lexuses?

SCI/DM has no one but themselves to blame for pricing today's consumers out of traditional services and burials and into low-cost, minimal cremation with its much lower profit margins.

I wonder what percentage of SCI/DM's sales hires, especially in Community Service, earn less than Federal Minimum Wage over the course of their employment. From the many I've worked with, I'd guess more than half spent more money trying to generate sales than they ever earned.

But, as long as they exhaust themselves as the free advertising arm of SCI/DM, driving curious prospects to preplan for themselves on SCI/DM's web pages, there's no need to pay a salesman hourly earnings or that pesky commission his prospecting generated.
6 Sunday, 13 October 2013 00:58
Boxer
This sounds similar to things at arbor memorial services up in canada
7 Sunday, 13 October 2013 09:07
Mary Nash
Sounds like it is time to start Coop funeral homes in California.
8 Thursday, 13 March 2014 22:54
Jane Doe
I have recently started a job with SCI in FL. Everything that JEFF mentioned seems that it is happening to me as well. I recently got hired for a sales positions. During my interview they spoke about how much a "sales person" makes. I have no idea what this jobs means when it comes to how much you earn. I will update you guys. I am a nervous wreck, I currently am working somewhere else and was asked to quit by Dignity. commission based jobs are SCCARYY! I hope that I can find a career within Dignity. It does appear to be a door to door sales job that has scripts on how to up sale, (as in any industry). But, I do not want to have to quit my job and fear that it was not the leap of faith I should have taken, ESPECIALLY after these warnings.
9 Tuesday, 25 March 2014 14:02
Florida SCI
Its tough to say that this particular "poster" was being forced to do his job, which is to protect families first through Dignity Memorials Core Values. Not everyone is cut out to make sales, and more importantly, to actually have the skill set to present to a family, whether before a death occurs or at the time they lose a family member. Any corporation has sales goals, so are you saying the Michelin Man only preys upon folks who have blown a tire?
Most employees that leave the sales arena are not being forced to prey upon grieving families, they are being forced to do their job which is to educate a family on the process and for them to make their own decision. Sales is not for everyone, and under these circumstances you better be ready or leave it to those that can be professional and caring (and by the way, we do sell stuff here!!!)
10 Friday, 30 May 2014 02:56
pro-sales
Interesting topic and conversation. I found this thread as I research about this pre-need sales career. I am a former realtor who switched to a government transit job when kids come around. Now kids are growing up. Transit job is getting dangerous and needs lots of real operational management experience to go up the ladder to management.
So, I came across this unique sales career, spoke to a few players in the market, SCI and Arbor here in Canada. I survived and thrived when I was in real estate sales. Prior to that I was in professional pharmaceutical sales. Did well there.
It seems to me that it is better to get into family service dept than community sales dept at SCI. Will someone enlighten me on that? Thanks for the feedbacks.
11 Sunday, 01 June 2014 12:57
Justin March
Dave you have several facts wrong in your "story."
12 Wednesday, 18 June 2014 02:20
Z.M.
My family used Smart Cremations, not once, but twice.
They delivered on all their promises for the price quoted.
13 Friday, 20 June 2014 11:01
Laura
I worked for SCI for five years, Bottom line is money money money. The caskets are at 3.7 % mark up, the ground is at 15.00% mark up. Really and then they want you to create lasting relationships by follow up sell spouse,children , brother sister and throw the friend in as well. They even say the best time to sell them next. close to deceased is within 10 days of death. I truly went in to help families. For the first three years, I could help my families. Then a new management team came in and I left feeling like I had no compassion or care for others. It took three years to come back to my true self. So bottom line they are awful to families they are to serve and care for in the worst time of families lives.
14 Friday, 20 June 2014 18:11
a son trying to move his parents plots
I believe everything the article says. My parents bought 2 plots in 76 for $750 at a cemetery in Florida and ended moving to Texas in the early 80's. The place where he bought the plots was private owned and when my dad call about 10 years ago they told my dad they were worth $1500. Now my mom is about to die and we really need them transferred. The cemetery we wanted is owned by dignity and we found out dignity now owned the one in Florida so we were excited that it would be free of charge to transfer the plots.......that's when the excitement ended. They said the plots are worth 300 and it is not worth transferring. They told us to sell them on Craigslist and want us to buy new plots for 3500 a piece. Dignity is not the place to buy a plot go to the places that are privately or family owned. They are buying every cemetery they can get there hands on to make grieving families grieve more. Very sad
15 Monday, 30 June 2014 01:28
Tony
Just by doing a little internet research it would appear that SCI probably owns less than 10% -15% of the "deathcare busness." When you talk about mega companies in an industry it's hardly comparable. If this company is so bad, there's no way it can survive? Your assumption is, people are dumb, and they just aren't. It sounds like maybe some bad apples and a bitter ex employee who didn't make the cut here. Just saying.....
16 Wednesday, 02 July 2014 12:31
Pete
SCI, Dignity, what ever name they want to hide behind are scum.

I just buried my 19 yr. old daughter in the Sorrento Valley Chapel.

My daughter was a gem, and SCI or Dignity will respect her gravesite.

They have driven over her gravesite, damaging it and having to repair it 4 times now. It is still in need of repair.

They failed to retrieve my daughters finger prints, then had the nerve to say I never asked for them, just to turn around and admit that they "screwed" up.

Does anyone know if it is standard industry practice to automatically collect the decedent's fingerprints before he or she is laid to rest?

Dignity however, refuses to turn over to me their fingerprint policy.

They refused to give me back my money for my daughters headstone, only until I showed up there with the police did they write the checks.

I want to sue them, anyone know a lawyer interested in taking my case?

I filed two complaints with the Funeral & Cemetery Bureau against them and one with the BBB. Just waiting on the "business" to respond.

I called and left Mike Turko a message, but he never called me back.

Any help?
17 Sunday, 03 August 2014 04:06
Jm
Pete
I work in this industry for an independent funeral home. State laws do not require funeral homes to take finger prints . You can ask if they would and as a courtesy they could . The markers in most cemetery are covered by a fee you may have paid called endowment care or perpetual care for the marker it's self. This is for damage repair or replacement and to raise it when it sinks down. Just tell them. When you visit look at the markers around the cemetery ? Are they neglected ,broken or sunk down, Does class action suite come to mind?
18 Thursday, 28 August 2014 13:45
Anne B.
I was never an employee, and I cannot speak to Dignity Memorial in southern California, but I can say that I am not happy with them in another western state. Right after my father died, the one DM cemetery closer to my father's residence tried stealing away our business from another DM cemetery in town with which my dad had a contract. After my father had barely been laid to rest, we started getting hounded by the sales folks trying to sell us pre-need funeral arrangements. As if that was not tacky enough, they don't even have the decency to let you visit loved ones in peace. I was visiting his grave over Memorial Day, and while trying to pay my respects, I was approached by another sales person. Right there, graveside, she was giving me her sales pitch and was trying to get information on my mom and in-laws also. Really tacky and inappropriate.
19 Friday, 12 September 2014 20:55
outside looking in
Well....I have worked for SCI as well as other companies, and I must say that in Texas, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, I never had any issue, and while yes, you must meet sales goals, there was none of this ridiculous drama that you speak of. It is a good, caring, compassionate company that offers many benefits and even offers a compassion helpline and support groups free of charge. From my experience, the bad eggs are weeded out at some point, which from your long dramatic list of jobs, you might be one...and the folks that do their jobs, well, yes they do succeed. If you are looking for a little something for nothing, then yes, SCI is not the company for you. Try the lottery or foodstamps. Stop whining, get it together and be responsible...Perhaps there is a bad manager here or there, but come on...every job you burned through???!? "just sayin..."
20 Friday, 03 October 2014 01:48
You can make a good living and care at the same time.
I too, have worked at two of the cemeteries mentioned in the article. I left both because I love the business and plan to help families prepare for death till the day I die. Working for them would prevent me from caring. One made me feel like a used car salesperson working under a jealous dictator who threatened to prevent me from ever selling insurance again if I left her. The other cemetery manager was a crook. He wrote insurance without a license and hired his girlfriend to do virtually nothing in exchange for her biweekly check. Since Turko hasn't made an appearance during his reign, at least not yet, the Utah owners still have him around. Funny thing is, he will bend over backwards to please you if you are an attractive widow, but if you're not, prepare to spend more.
My advice is, look for family owned mortuaries and when shopping for Preneed, consult with independent brokers. They don't care what Funeral Home you choose so they will compare and contrast plans for you. They have a more compelling reason to be fair and ethical because they have no one to hide behind and no one pressuring them to meet unrealistic sales quotas. If they commit a fraudulent act, they can lose their license and there goes their business.
I am on my own now, love what I do, and best of all, can sleep better at night.
Final thought... trust the individual more than the corporations.
21 Friday, 03 October 2014 14:11
Tom De Gruchy
Arbor memorial is no different than SCI, poor managers that want to hire as many people as they can to use them to get leads for the few sales staff that have no concence. It took me only 5 months to really see what they are about and it's not pretty. They will set you up on a payment plan that will last for about 10yrs, in the name of "piece of mind". The only care the reps show is for how much you can pay a d how much they will make off you. Being in a sales meeting where the movie " The Wolf Of Wall Street" is used for sales technique tips are used is appalling. People need to start buying from outside the funeral home for caskets and urns as they have unbelievable markups. The 24yr old manager I worked for bought a nice black on black Mercedes and would park In customer parking to show it off every day. Arbor has No care for employees or they would have how to help families through a tough time at need, but nope only training is memorizing scripts.

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