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The Corporate American Slavery Business Review

The Chains of Necessity

I can not pay my bills.  Nor do I qualify for bankruptcy.  I have two jobs and have made no money in the last two weeks.  I must be doing something wrong.

Working straight commission?  Is that it?  Could be.  But what else do you do when these are the only jobs anyone will hire you for?  What choice did I have?

Once the cemetery told me that my training pay was $300 a week instead of $500, the one bright, shiny glimmer of hope was that I would soon be selling.  At full commission.  16% on cemetery property.  8% on cemetery merchandise.  3% on pre-need funerals.  With funerals averaging $7,000 and property starting at $3,600, this is not a bad deal when you sell one every week.  But try it.  People do walk into the funeral home and make their own final arrangements, they certainly do, but not daily.  When it happens you’ve suddenly found yourself in awe of the circumstance.  Most times, they shop and leave and don’t come back.  But others do walk in and make firm commitments.  This is great business for two or three sales people sharing an office, but for eight, or nine or more, this is disastrous.  Many of your ups come in just to find a grave of somebody they may be related to just to view the headstone.  Most are from far away and are not planning any purchases at all.  Others are not even in the right graveyard.

So the days drip by.  Customers who die, the at-needs, are brought in by relatives, pre-need contracts in hand that were purchased years before, who now may only be paying for the opening and closing of the grave.  Sometimes paying over $1,300 for the privilege to place their loved one into ground that person bought themselves.  As a cemetery employee, you rationalize each line item and learn not to balk yourself when quoting a price.  This comes natural for most career salespeople like me.  I don’t mind telling anybody what something costs.  But we don’t get paid for the cemetery labor, so if they own everything, grave, marker, vase, casket, etc. and only pay for the opening and closing at the time of need, you don’t get paid for that.

But not everybody owns cemetery property, right?  Some people must need this stuff sometimes, right?  Sure.  It happens.  Once in a while somebody dies and the family comes in to buy a space and a funeral.  So, that’s a good commission, right?

I can see how you would think that.  The fact is that when a family is “at-need” the funeral sale; casket and service, goes to a funeral director, so you don’t get paid for that part.  And since the family is “at-need” the company finds it unnecessary to pay a full commission on property or merchandise they would have had to buy anyway.  The company’s viewpoint is that you haven’t done anything to earn that sale.  The family doesn’t get a discount, but the sales rep is paid half the commission rate – 8% on property and 4% on merchandise.

I am told “That’s just the way it is.”  Stewart Services has developed this method over decades of growth and figured out exactly how to turn sales personnel into administrative monkeys who complete legal documentation concerning the placement of the deceased with no incentive but the dangling banana of hope that a family will purchase some other piece of property or pre-need funeral.  All of the customer service comes with the job.  Salespeople garner the title “Family Service Counselor.”  They walk the grieving family through the at-need process with the Funeral Director, gather signatures of every family member legally responsible for the deceased, schedule burials, attend the funeral and stand at the graveside to see the burial take place. None of this is paid work.  It comes with the job.

For the first three months it wasn’t so bad because the $300 a week training pay acted as a base income.  I made a few sales and pulled down around $500 a week total.  Then the long awaited health benefits kicked in and the $300 weekly salary converted to a draw.  When that happened everything changed.  A week without a sale was no longer a $250 (after taxes) paycheck.  It was $107.  For the next two months my paycheck was a roller-coaster from $107 to a spike of $1,600 one week when I actually had a good run of sales.  But normally it bumped along at $107 and powered up to around $500 every couple weeks.  The whole time my draw balance rose steadily.

Then came the month when I had not met quota.  Do they fire you?  No.  Do they do anything to help you get a sale?  Not specifically.  What does happen to salespeople who miss the mark is they lose the 20 hours a week of funeral home floor time known as “duty.”  Without duty hours a salesperson is relegated to combing through leads such as Paid In Full Certificates.  These documents are generated when a family has completed their payments on anything purchased.  They are called Deeds and are nothing more than glorified receipts designed to get a salesperson in front of you again to see what else they can squeeze out of a family or beg for referrals.

Paid in full appointments are regarded by most customers as a waste of time because they already know what they bought, they know where they keep their receipts ad they just don’t understand what you are really doing in their house.  Twice, people who had made PIF delivery appointments with me called the cemetery to make sure I really worked there.  Many customers refuse the appointment.  It’s just as well.  I never sold anything to a PIF.

Other lead sources are call-arounds.  That’s where you pick a vacant space and call the families of adjacent burials to see if they want a spot near their loved ones.  The main trouble with call-arounds is that everybody in the records is dead and their relatives are unrecorded.  I never once got through to anybody on a call-around.

Then there are dinner leads.  Dinner seminars where attendees learn”Everything you need to know about  cemetery and funeral pre-arrangement.”  These dinners are held monthly at an area restaurant and guests are invited through direct mail.  Most are Platelickers; people who will sit through any presentation for a free meal.  Many attend multiple times.  Salespeople stand in line as the up system is employed and you get who you get.  the only reason I made my first two sales was because I knew the people and they would have bought what I sold from somebody else anyway.  All the other dinner leads but one turned out to be dead ends.  Most people say they just want to get information and ask for a brochure they can throw away later.  Sadly, a few who want to make pre-arrangements do not have the funds to move forward.  My last sale was from an almost year old dinner lead.  I sold a grave to a woman who attended an Outback Steakhouse dinner I did not attend.  She wanted to make sure her grave was in a nice spot.  I took her on a tour and got her as close to the lake as I could, where no other graves would block her view.  Even in death, people want the best seat they can get.

All of these lead sources still don’t beat being on duty.  A fair percentage of walk in traffic is in the market for purchase and you have to be on duty to meet them.  That’s all there is to it.  So without duty, you are sunk.  Even on duty, however, there are no guarantees, of course.

The one thing that keeps salespeople from getting sales here is the other salespeople.  Nobody is stealing clients.  It is not like that.  There is a finite number of people buying property and funerals.  When you have 10 sales people sharing business that 4 full-time people should be handling the shares are naturally diluted.  The mathematics do not always equate to everyone making 40% of a fair paycheck.  It becomes much more disproportionate.  Some reps find themselves handling a lion’s share of business while others beside them do not even have a bone to pick.

The month I did not make quota and lost my duty privileges, I assisted almost 30 families, attended 13 funerals and sold only $500 (an engraving on a monument) in merchandise the entire month.  Two of my families were the children of parents who died as a result of murder-suicides, where the father shot the mother, then himself.  Strikingly similar, they lived only a mile apart and did not know each other.  Each happened in the family garage and in both cases the younger sibling found them.  One couple were brothers, the others were step-sisters.  That month I also helped other families bury loved ones who died naturally, assisted those who needed guidance throughout the cemetery to find a grave and handled reams of legal documentation to find that my reward was piling on the negative balance to my draw at the rate of $300 a week, and because I had not earned the right to floor duty I would now have to go out and “find business.”

That same month, two other salespeople earned little awards for a job well done, selling thousands in property, funerals and merchandise.  Others did okay and maintained duty by a narrow margin and another lost duty and left the revolving door behind.

I had nowhere to go.  My wife has a job that pays well, but does not offer health insurance.  I have the job with the health insurance, but only bring home $107 a week.  For a late 40’s couple the safety net of health and life insurance is a psychological shackle.

So until I could find an escape route with a sensible option I found it necessary to embrace my chains.

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