Technology Roundtable for the Funeral Professional

FrontRunner Professional CEO and Founder, Kevin Montroy, participated in a Technology Roundtable. The following article by Patti Martin Bartsche was published in the March 2014 issue of American Funeral Director Magazine.

There’s no question businesses – including funeral homes – are operating in a rapidly changing technological environment. What worked five years ago is now considered antiquated and not in tune with the times. But how do funeral professionals determine the right time to upgrade, what technology tools best fit their business model and how to protect themselves from security breaches? We turn to three industry leaders: Wes Johnson, president and CEO of Continental Computer Inc.; Kevin Montroy, founder and CEO of FrontRunner Professional; and Kimberly Simons, vice president of SRS Computing, to get the answers.

AFD Tech Roundtable

When is the right time for a firm to upgrade its system?

Johnson: There should be no time constraints when considering an upgrade. Though this often conflicts with readily available capital and depreciation considerations, time alone is not a relevant part of the decision process. The ongoing evolving need of the organization to accomplish its goals within its existing constraints is key. Is the current system meeting requirements? Will it next week? Does it give me a competitive advantage? We must ask ourselves: Do I have the ability to make a change, even if change is needed?

Montroy: This could be answered a number of different ways, depending on what the user defines as its “system.” To some it may mean its computer, to others it may mean its management software, website technology and the list goes on.

A management system often does as much today as it did 15 years ago, so there is little new here. Most firms find the learning curve when implementing new technology to be challenging and time consuming. Often the time it takes getting the staff to buy in and then actually start using it makes a change scary to think about. If you are looking to upgrade in this area, it had better be a major advancement.

I really think more of the key is the opportunity to get beyond  dealing with eight different pieces of software and look to find one that can handle all of the firm’s needs. This saves a tremendous amount of time and saves the firm money since it does not have to pay for multiple software, multiple support contracts and multiple  upgrades.

For employees, the familiarity of the user interface across all applications creates less stress and uncertainty and provides a smoother path for future upgrades.

Simons: The right time to upgrade is when your software doesn’t meet your needs at a high level of efficiency. Internally, we re-evaluate our systems annually, but that doesn’t mean replace. It simply means examine your processes, understand what advancements have  been made in the past year and decide if there isn’t a more profitable way you should be operating. We have a research and development team that continuously works to ensure our product offers the most progressive technology available. These features are designed to enhance our software as building blocks.

We build on the platform that Microsoft Windows is built on. Since 2008, we no longer have to do major overhauls on the program  because we use a programming language that has allowed us to be scalable.

How can a firm determine whether it needs to upgrade its machines or software?

Johnson: Simple: Does it do what I need? Caution needs to be exercised here as maybe the current solution does provide the answer; the user just does not like the answer, or does not know how to find the answer with the current system. If this is the case an upgrade does nothing to solve a perceived problem, as the problem was not the system, but the user’s ability to maximize existing resources. Then again, maybe an upgrade is needed. Evaluate with competency.

Montroy: As the cost of computers continues to fall and the portability of computers and tablets increases, there is really no reason why a funeral home today would be operating with five-year-old computers.

Today, a family will be more inclined to want to meet in the comfort of their own home with family around them to make arrangements than sitting at the funeral home. This new reality means that the funeral home needs to be where their families want them to be, not where the funeral home wants the family to be. And the more portable we are, the more advantageous the Internet and Web-based software will be to the funeral director.

In this rapidly changing market, there is no better time than today to develop a strategic technology plan that encompasses everything you need to successfully run your business. If you’re not, your competitor is.

Simons: It primarily depends on the speed of the computer. Typically, hardware may need to be upgraded after three years. A firm should consider cycling the computer down to another employee when speed begins to affect efficiency. An employee who uses computers most heavily should have the more powerful machine. This said, in the PC world, the minimum Windows operating system should be Windows 7. Anyone using Windows XP is out of date.

How important is a website to a firm’s overall technology plan?

Johnson: If the website is interactive with the back door technology, constant monitoring is required. I feel an attractive site that accurately represents the organization is better left alone. If the organization is evolving so should the site.

Montroy: Unfortunately, far too many firms have been programmed to believe that the Internet only means having a website. They completely lose sight of the reality that being successful online involves much more than a website. They need a comprehensive online strategy if they are truly going to be effective and succeed.

Today there is a new onslaught of “free websites” and obit posting schemes. The majority of them rarely do anything more than redirect millions of dollars in online revenue from the funeral home. Funeral homes’ lack of understanding make them particularly vulnerable to these schemes. Others only see a website as a commercialized way to make money and turn off families who end up going elsewhere to find answers to questions.

A website today is a responsibility – to your families and your communities. It is a living, breathing entity that requires constant nurturing. It is not a commodity that should be tossed around from company to company offering you savings of $10 per month or a “free toaster” if you’ll switch. Find a technology partner that can help you with everything you need to ensure your success.

Once you have the right Web strategy, it is always wise to keep your site fresh and content current. Some new technology providers offer the ability to completely switch out your website in seconds with the click of a mouse or set the change by date and time. This is much more sophisticated than simply switching out a background graphic. A great example of this is the transitions theme that allows your website to change automatically with the seasons.

There is an ongoing debate about keeping sensitive information on a cloud or secure server. What do you believe is the best choice for funeral professionals?

Johnson: Do not place sensitive material in the cloud. It is often good to allow access to some information through the cloud, but sensitive information should be on a secure server. If huge corporations and government agencies with virtually unlimited assets can’t protect sensitive data, what would lead us to believe an organization with constraints and limited capabilities can? As the keeper of sensitive information the organization is  responsible for all security. If it is jeopardized, it can’t be blamed on someone else. The thieves may have taken it, but you gave them permission.

Montroy: The sophistication and advanced firewall protection offered through Internet-based servers (clouds) far surpasses anything that a funeral home can provide in-house on its servers. In fact, if a firm is still running on an internal server, there is a
good chance it is being sold a bill of goods. So from that perspective, yes, Internet-based servers and software offer the most secure infrastructure.

The real answer, however, is much deeper. Today a number of older, antiquated management software programs still require the program to run on PC-based computers. In an effort to “sound” updated, many companies are trying to confuse funeral homes by saying that they operate in the “cloud.” Frankly, it is really only their heads that are in the clouds. The reality is, the data still exist on the PC computer, and by requiring a connection out to the Internet the data become even more vulnerable. Most modern software today runs completely on the Internet as Web based software. This solution opens the funeral home up to the proper platform to truly grow as a “business system” and truly excel in today’s market.

Simons: We appreciate that different types of clients have different goals, which is why we offer both. A single location funeral home that never needs to work from home and runs nightly backups might not need a clouded database. Otherwise, the cloud is the networking choice. It eliminates the need for a virtual private network, which creates expensive  networking. From a backup perspective, we’ve found that many of our clients who have a server don’t know if they backup nightly and probably don’t.

From a security prospective, SRS’ cloud offers far more security because of what we’ve instituted. We require strong passwords, and we encrypt social security numbers and credit cards. Our clients don’t have a remote desktop interface to the server but most server clients do. If you give an employee an interface to the server, you open the data to them. With the cloud, an employee can’t create a backup; therefore, they can’t take a copy of the database home. If they have a server, they more easily could.

Computer hackers continue to make headlines … how can funeral professionals best protect themselves?

Johnson: Train your staff. There is no firewall, cloud system or virus software package that can protect you if your staff is careless with their password selection and whom they share it with.

Montroy: Funeral homes cannot effectively run their businesses in today’s market without being connected with the Internet. Unfortunately any computer that is connected to the outside via the Internet or phone line will always be susceptible to being hacked.

There are a few things funeral homes can do to protect themselves. The first is to make sure their computers are equipped with up-to-date security software that is set to automatically run through the night and constantly check for updates. The next thing the funeral home can do is only visit websites that are trusted (many security software programs will automatically identify websites with a trusted icon.)

From there, we strongly recommend moving away from PC-based software that resides on your computer. The degrees of security/layers of  firewall protection and other forms of protection have most of the major software vendors like Microsoft, Adobe etc., moving to a complete Web-based solution where the software and data reside. And the delivery of software under this model makes it highly affordable and very secure.

Simons: First, consider a cloud solution. With SRS’ cloud solution, social security numbers and credit cards are encrypted, which is what most hackers want. Additionally, we’ve secured our cloud with several layers of protection. We have built four levels of defense. Most clients with servers will have possibly one level if they know what they are doing. Limit your exposure by determining what computer you want your data on. This is your initial layer of security versus a browser-based system. Recent hacks have occurred because someone leaves their computer open at a public place.

If you were to offer a Technology 101 course for funeral professionals, what topics would you cover?

Johnson: Self-improvement, creativity and goal development – as long as the person has a level of creativity combined with some intelligence and the desire to be the best at what they do. Mastery of these topics would eliminate advanced classes.

Montroy: There is no shortage of technology companies that will stand up and tell you everything they want you to hear to get you to buy their solution. Today there are literally hundreds of technology companies preying on the funeral profession, with new ones popping up weekly. Many are driven by a belief that funeral homes have more money than God and not a clue about what they really need.

One of our most effective presentations starts by first helping funeral professionals learn how to avoid the pitfalls when considering technology. By understanding what can go wrong, it allows them to be more vigilant and prepared to cut through the hype when the technology salespeople come knockin’ – and they will come knockin’.

Simons: How technology helps you become more efficient, organized and profitable. Utilizing mobile devices such as an iPad or smartphones can do this to quickly assist with a first call. It also allows you to search your database for preneed and at-need cases and view upcoming services. Tools we offer in SRS’ products flow tasks automatically to your email when a case is entered. These tasks organize your day and your staff.

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