The Partnership Podcast

An online SAIF presidency with Mark Porteous

July 09, 2020 Golden Charter Season 1 Episode 10
The Partnership Podcast
An online SAIF presidency with Mark Porteous
The Partnership Podcast
An online SAIF presidency with Mark Porteous
Jul 09, 2020 Season 1 Episode 10
Golden Charter

Mark became National SAIF President in spring 2020, as COVID-19 was approaching its peak. He tells Malcolm how a presidency works during lockdown, the benefits of engaging with families and other professionals online, and how Government engagement has been kept up.

Show Notes Transcript

Mark became National SAIF President in spring 2020, as COVID-19 was approaching its peak. He tells Malcolm how a presidency works during lockdown, the benefits of engaging with families and other professionals online, and how Government engagement has been kept up.

Malcolm Flanders [00:00:05] Welcome to the latest Partnership Podcast. Today, I'll be hearing from the new national SAIF president, Mark Porteous, about what that role looks like in the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak, and what the ramifications have been for running a funeral business in general. As ever, we're in the midst of change, whether through the internet, regulation or families’ changing needs, and Mark will be giving his insight as a funeral director and as a president into what the future holds. 

Malcolm Flanders [00:00:39] So welcome, Mark. Delighted to have you on this podcast. So perhaps I can start with the inevitable: this far into COVID-19, how are you and your business holding up? Are the challenges now much different to what they were in April? 

Mark Porteous [00:00:56] Good morning, Malcolm. First of all can I thank you for inviting me along to carry out this podcast. I'm happy to do so. To be honest with you, within my own business, we have probably coped very well so far. At the very beginning, our priority was obviously the safety of our staff. We decided to take our time and implement some of the guidelines. And the reason for that is we were approached by our staff, who also had an input and wanted to make sure that our families were looked after in the same way they normally are. 

Mark Porteous [00:01:31] So we implemented the guidelines, not by the letter, I have to say, from Government or from SAIF, but we felt what was good for our region and for our business. And so far it seems to have worked very well. I was proud of my staff that they came and approached us in the first place. 

Mark Porteous [00:01:48] We still had to put in restrictions, but in the main, we have coped, I suppose, remarkably well since then to now, the only difference being that volume has decreased, I don't think we’ve had a COVID case in the last two weeks. We're probably generally a bit quieter than we would normally be, but not by much. But we are a bit quieter. But the challenges are still the same, keeping our staff safe. That's for sure. We monitor it daily, really, to be honest with you. We've now got in temperature measures, and we also have a form that they fill in at least once a week about any change to the way they're feeling, whether it's a cough, and so far we've not had any issues, but we will keep monitoring that. 

Malcolm Flanders [00:02:31] Excellent. Thank you, Mark. Now, you became national SAIF President in the very early stages of the crisis. So what does a SAIF presidency look like in this time of lockdown? I mean, how do you find meeting online? 

Mark Porteous [00:02:46] Well, first of all, I can tell you, how does a president look? Well, after three months, I can tell you the president in the morning has a hairstyle like Ken Dodd. So that's the first thing. The only positive from that, Malcolm, is that I've now got enough hair to have a comb-over over my bald patch at the back of the head, but apart from that I'm looking okay. 

Mark Porteous [00:03:10] It's a good question. I realised early on that compared to other presidents and their years and what they would experience, my year was going to obviously be different. Not being able to go out to meet members face to face in regional meetings and going to kindred associations’ banquets, which obviously will help my waistline, but that's all part and parcel of being the SAIF President, you're an ambassador, and I was honoured to get that position. 

Mark Porteous [00:03:36] However, we do do online meetings. That, I think, has been very worthwhile. As you know, because you've attended them, we've had four regional meetings up to now. And every week they have been getting better attended. And I would like to say to members that have not attended a regional meeting as yet, please do. You don't have to wait, necessarily, till it's your region. We're having them most Wednesdays, just contact the business centre and get registered and we will let you know when the next one is going to be if you want to join us. 

Mark Porteous [00:04:05] It's a good opportunity to meet myself. We have had James Carcary, our Scottish President, on as well. And Terry is obviously there as our CEO. We have a number of associates. You don't have to wear a shirt and tie or whatever uniform, you can come on with jeans and a T-shirt, a cup of tea, or in some cases a glass of wine. So it doesn't have to be formal. So just come on. And if you don't want to ask any question, that's fine. But come on and listen and hear what's going on in the country. 

Mark Porteous [00:04:35] We meet with our families online. I mean, I think that's probably the new way now. Older people, elderly people, they don't seem to have an issue meeting online. So I don't find a difficulty with that. I quite actually, in a bizarre way, I quite enjoy it. It can't be face to face, but I do quite like still having that interaction with people online. You know, I've met a huge amount of people online that probably wouldn't have met, because of COVID. So, yeah, online is not an issue, but yeah, I would prefer next year, hopefully, if all goes well, I'll be up and about meeting members. 

Mark Porteous [00:05:05] It's been a bit of a stressful period; we actually created a COVID task force, which involved all the officers, so that was myself, Jo Parker, Mark Horton and our CEO Terry, along with Mark Binnersley our PR guru. So although I was getting out and about round the country, I was certainly involved with what was happening in SAIF and the guidelines that were coming out. 

Malcolm Flanders [00:05:27] Now let's turn a little bit more to formal business matters. We talked regulation with Graeme McAusland at the FPA last month, and he talked a lot about the change we would soon be seeing both at-need and pre-need. Now, with COVID-19 an ongoing issue, do you think the funeral profession is prepared to meet the change that regulation could bring? 

Mark Porteous [00:05:46] We're prepared in the sense that we know we're going to have regulations, but with the CMA, we just don't know what the final outcome's going to be, and I think that's probably a concern for many funeral directors throughout the country. 

Mark Porteous [00:06:01] In Scotland, we have obviously dealt with the regulation issue for a number of years. The CMA has now gotten on board and that's making things a little bit more complicated because it's put things on hold in Scotland, and they are working to a statutory timetable, which in the present climate, I think Government should be looking at that and whatever needs to be done on a legal basis to delay that, I think should be done as quickly as possible. 

Mark Porteous [00:06:26] However, we are where we are. Companies that have maybe said to themselves, "this isn't going to happen," I can assure you it is going to happen. And if you're not sure about regulation or you're worried about anything, then again, contact SAIF. We have representatives that go to CMA meetings all over the country. So we have members that can advise them or help them. 

Mark Porteous [00:06:51] But yeah, regulation is going to come, it's just in what format because there is this talk about a price cap, whatever you want to call it, and that is probably a huge concern for many of us. However, we don't know how that's going to look. And I would hope that the CMA realise that independents have a slightly different outlook on how they price, compared to some of the national companies. And I think that's important that they take that on board. 

Malcolm Flanders [00:07:18] Thanks, Mark. Now, in particular, as we know, the funeral planning industry will definitely be regulated by the FCA in two years’ time. But in the meantime, we come under the auspices of the Funeral Planning Authority. And one of the initiatives coming through is that we're going to have a formal agreement with all our selling funeral directors around the UK. How do you feel about that agreement? 

Mark Porteous [00:07:42] Well, without knowing exactly what's in the agreement, it's hard to really give you a full answer, but I don't really have an issue with it. I mean, I think as Independents, the fact that the regulator may be the FCA – is that right Malcolm? 

Malcolm Flanders [00:07:53] Yes. 

Mark Porteous [00:07:56] So, I think taking that on board, I think we're going to have to have some agreement in place so that we can operate and sell plans or offer plans to our families. You know, when I speak to my families, I talk about maybe them buying a plan online through a faceless company, if you like, you know. And that's why we always say, and you know this, that we always say the expertise is with your local funeral director, they're the guys that you should approach. 

Mark Porteous [00:08:22] What I would say is the COVID situation, because of technology, people are getting more comfortable – all these groups are getting more comfortable using this, especially the older age group – online selling of plans, I can see that being something that we need to look at as individual companies. Maybe through Golden Charter, but certainly to have a digital platform that's separate from your website, or you can link it from your website, to access plans and information on plans and actually purchase a plan online rather than coming to our offices. I think that's something we're going to have to look at. 

Malcolm Flanders [00:08:57] Yes. Thanks for that, Mark. And you're absolutely right. The customer experience, in terms of that digital platform, is something that's close to our hearts and we're putting a lot of work and effort into that. 

Malcolm Flanders [00:09:09] Now, we know from the number of plans being purchased, from families contacting us directly, and from our survey work, that the public is still very much interested in planning ahead. And for some, COVID-19 has understandably been a prompt, and you referenced that just now about pre-planning. So have family still been making plan enquiries with you? And how have you managed to meet the needs? 

Mark Porteous [00:09:34] We've seen a little increase in the last couple of weeks, Malcom, families seem to be more comfortable now to actually contact us and talk about that. It's difficult for independents, because we always think about, you know, market and what's the best time, is this a good time?

Mark Porteous [00:09:50] All I would say is, if you're at home, you will see that nothing's changed in terms of the funeral plans getting sold over to the television every day. We are still running our business at the end of the day. So we've got to consider a market not just for pre-need, but at-need. 

Mark Porteous [00:10:09] We normally do about two or three funerals a month that are plans, plans that we've sold. Over the last three months, we've done 30 funerals that were plan related, you know, that we had sold. There are actually, I never thought I would ever consider this, but I now have to look at that and say, you know, these are deaths that have been premature, if you like, a lot of them probably shouldn't have happened just now. So we have to really think about replacing these plans and to do that, we have to think of a marketing campaign, which Golden Charter I think is already working, on where you're going to help us to put something together, and I'm talking about all members, that is not taken in a way that's insensitive to what's going on.

Mark Porteous [00:10:46] But I think also COVID has made people talk about death, and that actually can only be a good thing. And I think people are more willing now than ever before to probably put something in place. It is difficult because no funeral director wants to be seen to be pushing a funeral plan probably during the COVID period, but the competition out there are certainly doing it, that's for sure. 

Malcolm Flanders [00:11:09] Indeed. Thank you, Mark. Right, now, I visited your website earlier, and it's clear from the immediate message there on COVID-19 that you've been careful to make sure your families’ online experience is the best it can be at this very time, and particularly as more people are going online. And you've also used online reviews very effectively and they're a big part of your site. Can you just share a little about how you've been using digital options over the last few months, in your business, and why you think that's more important going forward? 

Mark Porteous [00:11:39] I think I touched on that with the funeral plans as well, you know, at the end of the day, everybody is going online, whether it's through your mobile phone or your tablet at home or whatever the case may be. So people are certainly seeking information. It's now part and parcel, it's not going to go away, it's here to stay. So digital advisory online platforms or anything that you want to do online is very important, and that's something that we will continue to do as a business. 

Mark Porteous [00:12:02] The reviews are also very important to our business. There was all this talk a few years about branding companies with gold stars, five star this, and four star that. That I disagree with, but online, whether we like or not, it's all changed, and we find the reviews actually help our business and get families to recommend us through the reviews, because that's what happens, they read the review, they think, "okay, somebody's taken the time to write that review," and they'll then use that to come and speak to us. It's an opening conversation, on occasion, where they'll mention the review that they've read, and that's how they come into the meetings. 

Mark Porteous [00:12:39] So reviews are, I think, very important to our businesses now, and I do know of one or two funeral directors that still don't have a website, which surprises me, and SAIF has that support there. We have a company that can help them. And, you know, it doesn't matter what size you are, you need to be more aware of how families and the general public seek information, and that's through digital platforms and online. And they will read reviews and they will also write reviews, so we just need to all be aware of them. 

Malcolm Flanders [00:13:12] Great. Thank you, Mark. Right, last question. So if this was a live broadcast to all your SAIF members, what key message would you like to finish this podcast on? 

Mark Porteous [00:13:23] Well, there's a couple of things I would like to leave them a message on, Malcolm, which is, at the end of the day, you know, this country has had tens of thousands of deaths. And I think Independents carry about probably 70% of the deaths, that they've probably coped with, and I think the Government and the CMA should look at how we've coped. Because unlike other European countries, we've not had the army on the streets and we've not had bodies piling up. And everybody in the profession and particularly SAIF members should be very, very proud of what they've achieved during this period. 

Mark Porteous [00:14:00] Also, within our membership, we have a huge amount of experience, and innovators, and people skills, that we have and that can be called upon. So going back to the regional meetings, you have access to these skills, so don't feel you are alone. We're in it together. Remember, we do this for a reason. And I think, in my opinion, SAIF members are the best in the profession, and they need to remember that. 

Mark Porteous [00:14:25] I would also say, though, that during this period, Malcolm, there's probably been some dark days for our members and we have SAIF support, confidential, and if you speak to someone, please do not hesitate to use that service because it is a free service. But in general, I think our profession has coped well, I think SAIF members have been absolutely fantastic. They lead the way and I'm happy to be their president. And it is an honour, as I say. 

Malcolm Flanders [00:14:52] Excellent. Thank you, Mark. And yes, I'd like to add my thanks, and also all of Golden Charter, for the fantastic job that all our partner funeral directors have done over the last few months. It really has been a magnificent effort. 

Malcolm Flanders [00:15:05] Mark, thank you very much for your time. Really appreciate that. 

Mark Porteous [00:15:08] Thanks, Malcolm. It was a pleasure to be here. Thank you. 

Malcolm Flanders [00:15:17] Thank you for listening to another Partnership Podcast. Look out for more from Mark in SAIFInsight. The upcoming magazine will also be hearing from our last episode’s guest, Graeme McAusland, about what exactly the FPA rules look like. We'll continue looking for ways to bring you information, so do contact me on [email protected],uk, if there's anything you'd like to hear about or to contribute. And as always, you can find all our episodes on Until next time, stay safe and I'll talk to you again on the Partnership Podcast.