The Time I Bribed a Russian Judge

True story….

The year was 1997. My wife and I were in a courtroom in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod, finalizing the adoption of our new daughter.

Yuri, our adoption facilitator, was pleading with the judge on our behalf. The judge had just stated that he wanted us to wait another two weeks before returning to the USA. There was no reason given, only an additional two-week delay.

Yuri asked the judge to sign our daughter’s exit visas. His response…Nyet (which means no in English).

As we walked out of the courtroom, Yuri said that he wanted to talk to the judge in his chambers.

Me: Why bother?

Yuri: To get the price.

Me: What price?

Yuri: John, this is Russia. There’s always a price.

To put this in context. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. In 1997 Russia was still very chaotic. Extortion and bribery were common, and the American $100 bill was the underground currency of choice.

I had $2,000 in hundred-dollar bills in my pocket. Our adoption agency had advised us to bring some extra cash just in case we ran into problems. This was one of those problems.

Yuri returned, shaking his head.

Me: What happened?

Yuri: The judge understands your problem; you want to go home. He also has a problem; he would like to take his family on vacation, but he can’t afford to. He says that if you help him with his problem, he will help you with your problem.

Me: How much? (reaching into my pocket)

Yuri: The judge says $200. That’s too much. I told him no.

I pulled out two hundred dollar bills and handed them to Yuri.

Me: Pay the man, get the exit visas signed, and let’s go home.

Within 24 hours, we were boarding a plane in Moscow for a flight to the USA.

Technically I wasn’t bribing the judge; he was extorting money from me. Nonetheless, he set the price, and  I was willing to pay it to get my family home.

I was thinking of that event this week while doing some updates on my website’s homepage. If you go to and page down a bit, you will see a growth pyramid.

It shows the four levels of business growth that funeral home owners go through, the symptoms they experience along the way, and the keys to success at each stage.

The keys to success column gives you one thing to focus on as you grow from a struggling firm under 150 calls to a thriving 500+ call firm.

The recommendations I make are the price you have to be willing to pay to get to the next level.

Under 150 calls, the price is that you must be willing to differentiate your business from your competition.

That’s a steep price for most funeral home owners, and that is why the vast majority of funeral businesses never get past the first level.

To get up to the 150 to 300 call range, the price is you must create a plan to guide your marketing investments. If you do not create a plan, you are gambling rather than making sound marketing decisions.

To get to the 300 to 500 call level, the key is to use educational events and community outreach programs to build your preneed backlog.

At 500 and above, it’s all about contributing to the community.

Every level has a price to be paid to grow your business.

By the way, I am not talking about growth through acquisition. I am talking about the organic growth of your business by doing a better job of acquiring new customers.

Growth through acquisition just requires a big checkbook. Organic growth requires you to be a better business builder. It’s very different skillsets.

One of my long-term clients was under 150 calls when we started working together. They had done an excellent job of differentiating themselves, so we helped them create and implement a marketing plan.

Four years later, they are approaching the 300-call level. Now, it’s time to shift strategies and start aggressively building the preneed side of the business. The owner is willing to pay the price, so I have no doubt that his business will continue to grow.

I see a lot of funeral businesses that have tremendous potential for growth. They have a great facility and provide families with a beautiful funeral experience. But they do not grow because the owner is not willing to pay the price.

There are marketing firms in this industry that charge less than I do, and there are some that charge a LOT more.

But the real issue is not price. The real question is, what are you getting in return. What is the “Return on Investment”?

Owners do not spend money with me; they invest money and expect a return. They continue as clients because I know how to grow their business. It’s that simple.

The starting point in my process is called an Initial Marketing Assessment. Here’s what’s included.

  • Website review: content, design, navigation, clarity of marketing message
  • Competition:   review their websites, positioning, strengths, weaknesses
  • Social Media: review your online presence and compare against best practices

One of the key things I am looking for is whether or not you have differentiated yourself in a meaningful way. I assess your situation and report my findings to you during a zoom call. If I think you have good growth potential, we can move on to the next step in my process.

The price for an Initial Marketing Assessment is a whopping $275. You can order one at this link.

It’s a small investment that may help you take the next step up the growth pyramid.

By the way, Yuri was a former KGB officer and spoke flawless English. We had many late night conversations, and I enjoyed hearing his stories about growing up in the USSR

Until next time


PS: In 1997, Nizhny Novgorod had 13 orphanages, each with roughly 500 children. That was just one city! It was heartbreaking to see what a total economic collapse can do to a country.

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