My first car was a worn-out 1972 Toyota Corolla with a four-speed manual transmission. 

I was sixteen years old and had saved my money from a summer job. A neighbor was selling the car, and I bought it from him.

The problem is that I didn’t know how to work a manual transmission. No one in my family was inclined to help me learn, so I had to master it on my own. It was not a pretty sight!

After months of practice and ruining the clutch, I eventually mastered it. Shifting gears became second nature, and my worn-out old Toyota felt like a sports car as I revved the engine, applied the clutch, and changed gears.

My wife had a similar experience growing up. She learned on a 1968 Volkswagon Beatle with a busted 3rd gear and no reverse. Ah, the joys of first cars.

Over the years, we’ve owned plenty of cars with manual transmissions. They were more fun to drive and gave us more control when faced with bad driving conditions.

When our children reached their teen years, and it was time for their first cars, we decided that it was important for them to learn how to drive a stick shift. So with that in mind, I bought a used Toyota Yaris with a five-speed manual transmission as their starter car.

The kids weren’t happy with us because their friends were all learning on cars with automatic transmissions. But they went along with our decision once they realized that no amount of whining was going to change our minds.

Eventually, all four of our teens mastered the skill and learned to shift the gears smoothly (or close enough). Their friends were in awe of their newfound skill, but no one ever asked to borrow their cars because they couldn’t work the transmission.

In 2022, only 18% of American drivers can use a manual transmission, and less than 5% of new cars sold in the US have a manual transmission. They’re still very popular in Europe and Asia, but most North Americans buy cars with automatic transmissions.

I hate to see them go…

I’ve lived in the Detroit area for decades and have many friends in the auto industry. One of them works in product planning for Ford and is part of the team that decides what vehicles Ford will be building for the next five to ten years.

Years ago, I complained to my friend about the demise of manual transmissions. His response was….

“John, it’s simple…we sell what people will buy. We’d be out of business if we only sell what our product team likes to drive.”

Traditional funerals are like manual transmissions. They still serve a purpose, and some people prefer them. But there are not enough people buying them to keep a funeral home in business.

Here’s what I mean by a “traditional funeral.”

  • Evening visitation at the funeral home with a receiving line and rows of chairs facing a casket.
  • Church service the next morning.
  • Procession to a cemetery for a graveside service.
  • Reception at the church hall.

Most of my clients have told me that there is no such thing as a traditional funeral anymore, or at least not at their funeral homes. They estimate that less than 5% of families want what I’ve defined as a traditional funeral and that everyone else wants a more personalized style of service that celebrates the life that was lived.

If 5% of families still want a traditional funeral, there’s nothing wrong with offering one. But you won’t be in business very long if you do not have something to offer the other 95%.

Unfortunately, most funeral home owners still focus on the 5% and ignore the 95%. They’re fighting over a shrinking market, which is why most owners struggle to make ends meet. 

Funeral home owners call me for help when they are ready to focus on the 95%. Working together, we create something to offer families who do not want a traditional funeral but still want to do something. We then use appropriate marketing strategies to attract families to the new offering.

More often than not, this game plan works out well. It’s not easy, and it’s not a quick fix, but my typical client doubles their business in a few years. We get those results by focusing on the growing part of the market, not the shrinking part.

2023 will mark the 20th year I’ve been helping funeral home businesses grow. Throughout my tenure in the funeral industry, I’ve followed the same advice as my friend at Ford “sell what people will buy.”

If 2023 is the year you are committed to turning your business around, contact me and let’s see if we’re a good fit.

If you’re not convinced that focusing on 5% is a bad strategy, I recommend you review the Funeral Service Foundation report from 2012. You can find it online by googling “2012 Funeral Service Foundation report”.

The report is ten years old but still very accurate. The authors did a great job of summarizing the problem and the solution.

When I first read the report in 2012, I was a little puzzled because I thought they were stating the obvious. But over the years, I’ve realized that most owners are either unaware of the study or still need to change their business accordingly.

If your business is struggling and your market share is shrinking, study the report. It will show you what 95% of the market wants, and you can decide whether or not you are willing to change to serve the larger market or if it’s time to sell.

I’ll always love driving a car with a manual transmission. If I buy a hobby car that I’ll keep forever, it will definitely have a stick shift. But if I’m buying a car to use for the next few years and then sell, it will have an automatic transmission. 

Whether selling cars or funerals, it’s always easier to sell what 95% of people will buy.

Until next time


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