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A recent article* discusses decision making errors in complex situations. Based on the research examined, it asserts that human mental apparatus degrades when stressed with a series of decisions and either puts off a decision or makes poorer decisions as fatigue sets in.
Some decisions involve a series of choices. For example:
* buying a car [or computer] (make, model, age, color,...)
Now let us consider funerals: venue, viewing, visitation, video/audio recording, casket, date & time, officiant, eulogy, music (choir, soloist, harpist, bagpiper, other instrumentalists), reception, announcements, programs, obituary(ies), register books, thank-you and prayer cards,.... Even a short, two-page general price list may have 30 items, although choosing one may rule out two or three others. One seven-page list has 78 items before arriving at the separate casket list that has another 51 choices. The lists for outer burial containers and urns are separate and take multiple pages each. More: most price lists offer several packages of goods and services (default choices). Is it any wonder that funerals are a prescription for perfect storms of decision stress?
By comparison, car buying is a piece of cake and not necessarily done at a time of stress!
How does the research reported in the Times article help us?
* Putting off decisions leaves our options open and conserves mental energy, but may increase stress later.
* Decisions take mental energy, which is used up in minutes, not hours or days. With energy depleted will power declines. The mind looks for ways to conserve its remaining energy. Mental energy is not the same as physical energy; the mind may tire before the body. Energy spent on one choice lessens self-control on later choices.
* As energy is depleted we try to conserve it; we become 'cognitive misers;' we move toward short-cuts, default options ("Whatever most folks do", the first choice in a list of alternatives, etc.). Or we become reckless (anything will do). Or we do nothing (Put off the planning that must, in the end, be done.)
* Decision fatigue is also called ego depletion. It does not have observable, physical signs, but emotions may feel more intense.
* Consider the WHOLE system first; focus on the overall outcome you seek.
* Eat something (but do not stuff yourself) before making important decisions.
* Choices are sensitive to the order in which they are presented; make the biggies when you are fresh.
* Big choices at the end are more prone to error than those at the start (Think quarterbacks at the end of a game.).
* Mental energy is restored by putting aside decisions for a few minutes and by a quick sugar fix (lemonade, hard candy, chocolate). But not artificial sweeteners; the brain needs glucose -- now!
* Know when NOT to trust your decision-making process.
All of this reinforces FCA conventional wisdom: plan in advance: make big, basic choices early: type of body disposition (organ donation, whole body donation, burial, cremation), type of service (funeral vs memorial), type of casket or lack thereof, etc.
Go to an arrangements conference with as many choices made as you can. Go with a family member or friend. Take break(s) in the conference. Walk around for a few minutes. Chat with a companion away from funeral home staff (preferably outside). Have little snacks with you.
If you can, buy time: leave the body in the home or at the health care facility as long as it will allow (Just ask!). Put off the arrangements until the next day. Act during daylight if you can. Know that transferring a body from one funeral home to another is expensive!
* Tierney, John, 2011. "To choose is to lose", The New York Times Magazine. 21 Aug. pp 33-37, 46.
Michael Rulison - Volunteer
Funeral Consumers Alliance of the Triangle (FCAT)
Interestingly, before the FTC required funeral homes to explain about all the prices and choices, you picked the casket (in a traditional burial situation) and the services were included any way you wanted them.
The FTC has actually made this much more difficult. When we in the industry had to sit down and actually itemize what it took to make a profit, we realized the profit on the casket didn't begin to cover what it cost to 'put on the service' and pay for the hearse, etc.
Right after the FTC rule was passed, most funeral homes raised prices and consumers begin to pay more. The government opened our eyes to what the real overhead costs were, and we saw we weren't profiting from the 'service' side of the equation, just the merchandise (casket and/or vault).
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Re: Decision Fatigue and Funeral Choices
30 Nov 2011 22:42 #677
As pointed out, the FTC did throw a wrench into the simplicity of unit pricing by requiring itemization and disclosures. HOWEVER, many funeral service providers are taking the intent of this too far and creating a detail overload funeral arrangement conference. While the FTC requires itemization, it does not require that funeral service staff cover each item in detail when presenting them to families. I have seen funeral directors present services to the families in such a way that at the end, they appear to be more intent on training the client to also present the price list than actually listening to the family and presenting options in such a way as to not be overwhelming.
I can more easily explain using two scenarios:
The funeral director, after listening to the family present their desires and needs, presents the family a GPL and taking their own copy, starts going through the items on the GPL that are required for the services the family has discussed. Starting with the Non Declineable Basic Services (which amazingly enough is not only the most expensive item on most GPL's but also the least discussed or understood by the director and the family), the director goes item by item detailing the family's need for that item and also the cost. At the end, the director totals up the item charges and presents the family with the total (after of course they have not only heard each item and its price but also seen it on the GPL with all the other items that are not needed). Information overload? That would be putting it lightly.
Now, take SCENARIO 2, where you still meet the FTC requirements but also show a little compassion for keeping the family from suffering information overload.
The funeral director, after listening to the family present their desires and needs, shows the family a copy of the GPL for the funeral home, explaining that it lists all services and merchandise provided and will be given to the family for their review and retention. In most cases, the desired services will be some grouping or package offered by the funeral provider. To continue, the funeral director points out that the family is asking for services that the funeral home has grouped/packaged called a "direct cremation/traditional funeral/memorial service with cremation/etc/etc." AT THIS TIME, the director puts the copy to the side and explains that for the convenience of the family, he or she will be reviewing that grouping of services and the overall cost of those selected items. Furthermore, if any other services or questions arise, the GPL can be referenced at any time to address those needs. Then the funeral director describes to the family what the funeral provider can do to provide the services requested and does so in a chronological order and style that is brief yet easily and thoroughly understood by the family. Then at the end, the director informs the family that all discussed services for the package/group total $xxxx.
What has Scenario 2 just done that Scenario 1 did not?
1. Only those services relevant to the family's desires are presented.
2. The family focused on the director's presentation since they were not given a GPL to hold and review. Ultimately, they will start multitasking and look at the GPL while trying to listen to the director.
3. Instead of a large quantity of individual prices, only one price is quoted at the end, and that is a "bottom line" type price (minus merch and cash advances of course).
4. The family has had the services presented in a chronological and logical order, unlike the order preordained if following the GPL item by item.
5. With no source of information available but the director's presentation, the family remains more committed to listening to the director and not get caught in irrelevant items and costs as they do when holding their own GPL during the discussion.
6. The funeral service professional in scenario 2 is given the chance to actually promote value to services rendered since they are not constantly trying to answer for the individual charges of all the itemized services.
In the end, the FTC did create some issues in presentation... and funeral directors also created more by how they interpreted those requirements to be followed. Through some simple, and completely compliant as well, changes in presentations, funeral service providers can go a long way in satisfying a client family's needs without pushing them into information overload. I know full well how much of a difference it can make. In case you may not have realized already, I am a funeral service professional myself who not only does consulting and trainings, but puts these ideas into practice with families I meet.
After almost 30 years of this funeral rule, we still have a lot to learn...both in pricing and presentation.
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Re: Decision Fatigue and Funeral Choices
30 Nov 2011 23:50 #678
Northstar - I'm alarmed to hear you suggest that funeral homes merely reference the GPL but then hold on to it. That's illegal. The family must be given the GPL at the very beginning of any arrangements discussion. And your advice to steer them toward the packages makes good sense from a sales perspective, but it's not in the consumer's interest.
The basic services fee is the most abused provision of the FTC Funeral Rule. It's merely a cover charge to get in the door. It buys you absolutely no goods and services, yet it's the most expensive single item on the GPL. The FTC never should have authorized it in this form as it allows funeral homes to inflate it to the point of absurdity. Since it's the one fee consumers can't refuse to pay, the fee lets funeral homes thwart the consumer's ability to fully control costs through itemization. Funeral homes should spread their costs out among the goods and services they actually provide, rather than using the basic fee as a guaranteed-employment fee. Sure, prices on individual items will rise, but the consumer can choose how to balance their spending through itemization.
FCA Executive Director
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Re: Decision Fatigue and Funeral Choices
01 Dec 2011 02:16 #679
I am not advocating not giving the GPL to the family. What I am advocating is not putting something in their hands that immediately sends them into information overload. The FTC is clear on when the GPL must be presented, so upon a triggering event, it must be done (i.e. if the client asks for one, you should immediately offer a copy to keep). To often funeral service professionals use this document as a crutch, turning it over to the client and running their presentation from it. The truth is, the minute you physically hand that document to the family, their attention is immediately transferred to it and what the funeral service professional is saying becomes background noise. Then, as mentioned, the first charge they see is the Non-Declineable fee, which as I stated, is the one fee that few funeral directors understand and even fewer can explain properly. Now, we have information overload due to all the items shown on the GPL and the shock of the large initial charge that is the non-declineable for many firms. What I advocate is knowing when the triggering event occurs and presenting the GPL in such a way that is both compliant and reduces the risk of the mental shutdown due to information overload. Granted, some will want to get straight to the price and focus solely on that, but those people are the exception, not the rule.
In reviewing the FTC Funeral Rule regarding the triggering event for when the GPL must be offered, the FTC specifically states (i):
"You do not have to hand out the General Price List as soon as someone walks into
your business. But, you must offer the price list when you begin to discuss any of the following:
•the type of funeral or disposition that you can arrange;
•the specific goods and services that you offer; or
•the prices of your goods and services."
The event I describe is indeed a triggering event per the rule, but only once the funeral professional starts discussing services. To this point, the family has been presenting their ideas, expectations, and needs for services which is not the triggering event. The triggering event occurs when I as the funeral service professional begin to discuss the types of services I can arrange, the specific services I offer, and the prices of such services. So by the rule, unless specifically asked about any of the above where I must answer immediately and present a GPL, I am compliant in my timing of when the GPL is to be presented.
Next, if you review the FTC Funeral Rule regarding how the GPL is to be presented, it states (ii):
"A verbal offer of a GPL is not enough to comply with the Rule. You cannot merely tell consumers that a GPL is available for inspection. You also cannot show them a GPL in a booklet or binder where it appears that there is only one copy available or that the booklet is solely for the funeral director's use. You must physically offer consumers a General Price List that they can keep and take home with them. If the consumer does not want to accept or look at the General Price List, you do not have to do anything else. However, you should do nothing to discourage customers from looking at the GPL, such as telling them that it is unnecessary or difficult to understand."
When I inform my client about the GPL, I disclose the fact that it is a compilation of all the goods and services we offer and is theirs to review and retain. The GPL is then physically presented to them by placing it on the table near them. I do not place it directly in front of them as an invitation to pick it up and look at it, but to the side within their reach while we continue our conversation. I do not stop them from physically taking it off the table nor discourage them from reviewing it. In most cases, however, my dialogue and presentation is engaging enough to my client that at that moment, they do not want to look at the GPL because the focus remains on our conversation, not the document itself. At the end of the conference, whether the client asks or not, if the GPL is still on the table I place it with the client's copy of the Statement of Goods and Services and physically give both to the client for retention. Again, in review of the FTC requirement, I have followed the letter of the rule.
Please do not misunderstand my intent or examples... in the interest of brevity and space, the scenario was somewhat vague and not intended to advocate non-compliance of the funeral rule. If a family wishes to take the GPL and review it, that is their choice and must be allowed. But again, most clients, if properly engaged, will instead prefer to remain focused on the presenter and not the GPL.
As far as the basic services fee goes, I agree that it is abused. I disagree on it being a cover charge that buys you absolutely no goods and services. The basic services fee covers all of the services and goods that are not expressly covered elsewhere in the GPL. With every death, the funeral home must generate documentation such as the death certificate and notice of death for social security. When a family calls the funeral home at 7 PM in the evening or 4 AM with concerns, questions, or needs, they are indeed getting a service. In fact, am still amazed that one of the ONLY businesses you can call 24 hours a day, any day of the year (including all holidays, whether government recognized or not), and get a LIVE person to speak to is a funeral home. That round the clock service is a service benefit you buy with the basic services. Those documents that are generated are tangible items and the preparation of them services that you get. Granted, their are many other elements in the basic services that are more the cost of doing business and considered overhead by any business operation. That does not discount or remove, however, the specific services exemplified above that each client still receives. I could go into all the pens, notebooks, facial tissues, jewelry bags, service bags, etc that are also provided with each service, but I think in the end, most clients could really care less about those and I would hardly call items given without need "goods". Why do I think that this basic service fee is abused then if I can show justification for it? Simple, look at how many funeral providers claim that this basic fee is their necessary expense recovery to stay in business on every call. Then, with those same providers, look at how many offer a direct cremation or immediate burial for LESS than the basic service fee? How many funeral providers have a basic fee of $2000 or more and then offer an immediate disposition option for $995? In the end, that basic service fee should be the same for EVERY client because it should focus on those elements every client needs. When you can discount it and justify it by saying a family requesting an immediate disposition does not need as many of the items in the basic services as a family opting for a traditional service, then your basic service fee is no longer "basic".
I am also glad you brought up packaging. Many people look at packaging from a sales standpoint, for it appears to be a way to load unrequired elements in with required ones and generate more revenue. But, in the end, you must review the package for the merits that it offers. Some funeral service providers (and I can think of one of the larger conglomerates that in particular does this) take the services and goods the family will need and package it with a lot of extra and non-critical elements the family does not. In the end, if the family were to itemize the costs of those elements they need, they will find that those elements, if itemized, are less than the package price and its inflated full retail value. Those packages are not in the consumer's interest.
Some providers choose to use packages to ensure the sale of their merchandise. The FTC specifically prohibits "tying" discounts and savings to merchandise purchases, but the area of this practice is so wide and gray that tying is still done, indirectly but intententionally nonetheless. Again, this is not in the consumer's interest if it reduces the ability of the consumer to save money by utilizing outside merchandise or services to save on costs.
Finally, though, you do have packages that are less than the itemized costs and refrain from the added extras referenced earlier. A common "package" that many overlook is the Direct Cremation service most funeral homes provide. If you actually itemized the services of a Direct Cremation (which would include the "Basic Services") you would find that total MUCH higher than most funeral homes charge for the Direct Cremation package and virtually no element of the Direct Cremation is an unneeded element. This is where packaging comes into definite consumer benefit. In the end (pardon the pun), if the needed elements of the package are cheaper as a package than they are itemized, you cannot argue that this is in the consumer's best interest (again, provided they are not "tying" which I addressed above). Going back to information overload discussed earlier, is not the single "bottom line price" packages offer also easier to understand and shop? I would argue that the problem with packages is not in the concept, it is in the abuse of execution by those who fill it with otherwise unnecessary items.
Will funeral homes ever get around to charging proper prices instead of the disproportionate recovery of profit on certain services and merchandise? Eventually they may, but in the end it is the bottom line of the statement that is important. Forget how much a funeral home charges for individual items. The best thing a consumer who is focused on the financial cost can do is take a look at the bottom line price and compare that to other providers in your area. Once you do that, then all of this margin allocation, packaging, and salesmanship become irrelevant. Remember, however, that reducing this to a commodity also removes the intangible elements of quality of service, reputation, trust, location, attention to detail, and even availability after the services are concluded. "Decision Fatigue" indeed....
Josh, as always, thank you for the insights and forum for discussing these concerns. I hope that this information serves to help people as they plan and prepare. All too often, people wait until the moment a family member passes away, which puts them in the poor situation of starting from the beginning while going through a very stressful life event. If our discussions here help make this time a little easier for just one person, then I have succeeded in the goal of my sharing and my participation.