Employees Are Key and I Really, Really Mean It (Finale): Lessons From Starbucks

Chaucer was right. All good things must come to an end. This is our finale in the Death and Coffee series.

Today, we are revisiting the most important issue of the series: the value of key employees. It bears repeating. Your employees are your most important asset. Your employees are the face of your firm. Too many business owners (in all industries) think of your employees as interchangeable cogs in a big machine. They are wrong. Good employees are essential.

This article is our finale in a series for the Funeral Business Advisor applying the successful principles of Starbucks management to the funeral profession. The history of Starbucks should be required reading for every service profession. Starbucks started with a single location and now have 20,000. They revolutionized the world of coffee.

Let’s summarize the previous lessons. In the first article, we talked about how Starbucks made their customers the center of the universe. In the second article, we discussed Starbucks emphasis on high quality employees. In the third article, we explored the dilemma of price versus quality. In the fourth article we asked: What do you sell? You are a professional service. If you emphasize service, your business will succeed. In the fifth article, we addressed crisis management (or how to adapt when things go wrong). In the sixth article, we discussed the importance of feedback. In the seventh article, we discussed finding your passion for public service (aka “avoiding partisan politics”).

In this final installment, we are re-emphasizing the importance of employees. If you only take away one idea from this series, this one is key. Good employees make your business succeed. Surprisingly, not everyone is “100% pro-employee.” You have heard these comments before.
“If one employee leaves, we can easily find another…”

“I was looking for an employee when I hired you…”

Do not fall into this destructive mindset. Your funeral home professionals (employees) are your key asset. Let me repeat that. Your employees are your key asset. You need to act accordingly.

Think about it. Why do families choose your firm? Hint: Not because of your shiny cars or your well-lit showroom. The families choose you because of your people.

Kara is a CPA. Who does your taxes? Does he/she have the best yellow pages ad, or the nicest office furniture, or the best parking lot? Does that really matter to you? No. You have a professional relationship, and that relationship is based on the person. Your CPA could change to a new office, new phone number, new website, new décor, new part of town, with different office hours, and I bet you would follow your CPA. The person is what matters when you are dealing with professionals.

Marty is a lawyer. Who is your lawyer? I bet that relationship is based on trust. Are you impressed by all the books, the big desk, or the fancy ink pen? You might be impressed by these office toys, but I doubt you choose your lawyer based on his/her briefcase. The relationship is based on trust, personal trust. The person is what matters. When he/she retires, you will panic trying to find a new lawyer, because the trust has not developed yet.

Would you select any doctor to do your heart bypass surgery? doubt it.

Would you pick any dentist… Okay. That is a bad example, because everyone hates going to the dentist, but you get the idea.

Professionals are different. Professionals are much more than workers. They are the life-blood of a professional service business. They are not interchangeable cogs in a big machine.

The impact of a professional relationship on the businesses’ bottom line is huge.

When Howard Schultz (Starbucks CEO and founder) announced his retirement in December, 2016, the stock in Starbucks dropped 2.5% (a loss of over $1 billion in the value of the company). This is Howard Schultz’s second retirement. He originally retired in 2000, and then the company stock dropped 28% in seven weeks. This phenomenon is not unique to Starbucks.

When Steve Jobs retired from Apple, the value of shares in Apple dropped 5% (over $20 billion lost in market value and it was not because of his $1 salary).

When Bill Gates retired, Microsoft shares dropped 3% (billions lost in value).

These companies did not cease to exist. Their products did not change. The key employees did not leave to start a rival firm. The key employees did not leave and take the “secret recipe” with them. Just the loss of one key employee had huge repercussions for these businesses.

The same is true for you. Your funeral professionals are the face of your business to your families. They are not interchangeable. They are invaluable. Your employees are your most important asset.

Howard Schultz of Starbucks, is famous for saying that anyone can try to compete with them. Anyone can sell the same product. However, Starbucks does more than sell coffee. Starbucks provides an experience, and that experience is not the same without key employees.

The same is true for funeral homes. Your business is a professional service. Your people are the service. You should strive for the best people, not the cheapest employees.

Critics would claim finding employees is easy. You will hear “The job market is saturated…” and similar sounding comments. Yes, you can find lots of inexpensive employees who can drive a hearse. Your funeral home is much more than hearse drivers. Much, much more.

You offer a professional service, and your key employees are what give that service value.

You deal with consumers during a very difficult, heart-wrenching time. The personal relationship you forge with the families is essential. Employees your families can trust during times of crisis are priceless.

Trust takes years to develop. A new employee, no matter how well trained can replace that trust instantly. Trust takes time to develop, and your business will suffer waiting for that trust to develop. Starbucks, Apple and Microsoft all rebounded with new CEOs but that took time.

Your funeral home professionals are your most prized asset. You are performing a service, not selling a product. The more professional the service, the better your business will be. Starbucks knew this and created an empire. Use the model of Starbucks as a guide for your funeral home. Best wishes on building your empire. FBA

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Essential Reading List

These four books should be required reading for everyone in the service industry:

Pour Your Heart into It, Howard Schultz (CEO of Starbucks), 1997

Onward: How Starbucks fought for its life without losing its soul, Howard Schultz (CEO of Starbucks), 2011

The Starbucks Experience, Joseph A. Michelli, 2007

It’s not about the coffee: Leadership principles from a life at Starbucks, Howard Behar (former president of Starbucks International), 2007


Professor Marty Ludlum teaches business law at the University of Central Oklahoma and is a licensed attorney. He has made numerous presentations on the funeral industry at state and national conventions and had articles in national and state funeral magazines. Professor Ludlum has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in economics, a Master’s degree in communication and a Juris Doctor, all from the University of Oklahoma. Professor Ludlum is the Education Director for Osiris Funeral Home Software.

Kara Gray Ludlum is a CPA and licensed Funeral Director in Oklahoma. She operates Funeral Director’s Resource, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in providing Osiris computer software and funeral home accounting. She has made many presentations to state and national conventions. Kara has Bachelor’s degree in accounting from the University of Oklahoma and a Master’s degree in Business from Cameron University. Kara has taught accounting at Cameron University, and has owned and operated her family’s funeral homes for over 15 years.

By |2018-03-16T13:30:32+00:00March 16th, 2018|Editorial|Comments Off on Employees Are Key and I Really, Really Mean It (Finale): Lessons From Starbucks

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