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  • Six Feet Under: a look back at a series that defined an era, and its contribution to our insight into the service culture

    4 November, 2016

    By Academie du Service UK

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    By Benoît Meyronin, Associate Director of the Service Academy and Vice-President for Marketing and Development at the Grenoble School of Management

    Back in the late 1990s, the cable channel which brought us Sex and the City, The Sopranos, The Wire, Rome and now Game of Thrones, namely HBO, broadcast a strange soap opera starring the Fishers, a family of undertakers. The father’s sudden death triggers a chain reaction of events including the return of the prodigal elder son, who had left to escape the family business. The series questions death and the changes it entails for the survivors. The series sparked much debate[1], although never from the standpoint of the Service Academy and service marketing. This is what this post attempts to achieve.

    Six Feet Under, or how to keep your feet on the ground?

    We have often referred to the remarkable work of a sociologist by the name of Arlie Hochschild. She is especially well-known for her writings on “emotion work”. Bereavement and the social comedy involving the survivors is very much what we call emotion work given the strict codes applied – it would be most inappropriate to burst out laughing at a funeral.

    In the series, one of the two brothers, David, has always worked in the family business, and seems to have built an inner dyke for self-protection, while his older brother, who only came back to the business after their father’s death, still takes the customers’ situation very much to heart. To wit the episode in the first series where he gets heavily involved in helping to exercise the rights of a young soldier to a military funeral.

    This is indeed a delicate line of business, like working in a hospital, social work and other service professions requiring workers to dispose of a vocational spirit while performing their everyday work. The line of business requires tact, yet tact is not the preserve of funeral parlors. Those answering the phones and recording serious claims in an insurance company’s call center need a great deal of tact as well.

    From this viewpoint, the series does show that it is indeed a service profession, with its own codes (that we will look at more closely later), expertise (handling suppliers, understanding the expectations of the bereaved, “repairing” the bodies and especially the faces of the deceased etc.), thus, its own relationships and emotions.

    From appearance to experience: miss a train and you might as well miss more

    In fact, you probably need to exercise varying degrees of tact in all service professions involving customer contact. The series naturally exaggerates this aspect since the issue here is the passing away of a loved one. The sincerity of professionals handling pain and the situation are often more complex than it might initially seem – for example, for a Hispanic family, mourning a son who was part of a gang, who was shot, in the presence of the gang leader and other members. Apparent, legitimate pain conceals another layer of suffering pertaining to the immoral choices the deceased son made, and the weird situation for the parents of sharing this mourning process with his second family: the gang.

    What matters here is not just dealing with pain but the context it occurs in: i.e. a form of intelligence in which the professional must quickly understand underlying issues in a mourning situation that will heavily impact the provided support.

    We know that situational intelligence is still a pillar in any service relationship. At the Service Academy’s annual conference, on 2 October 2014, Charles Ditandy reminded us of a story about a passenger at Metz railway station who had missed her train and would maybe arrive late for her brother’s funeral. In a generous move, the station manager arranged taxi service for her. This move was well in excess of what might be expected when a passenger misses their train. He was doing his job, i.e. making sure people who live far from each other can meet up, regardless of the circumstances.

    Likewise, a customer needing to untangle various bank accounts when going through a divorce is not just any old customer. It is essential to step back from each profession to contemplate what the profession is at its very root, looking well beyond the mere technical aspects and the situation as it appears on the surface. The bank’s customer expects efficient service, and a modicum of empathy for the tough situation they are going through: they need to feel that the bank is supportive.

    Death scenarios and rituals

    The series is underpinned by leitmotivs, such as the viewing ceremony. Prior to viewing, the corpse needs to be embalmed. In the case of a violent death, the family needs all the more to see the resemblance to the person they have cherished memories of: it is a moment of truth if ever there were one in the services industry.

    This is why the moment is carefully scripted: the coffin is left half-open, background music is chosen to recall the deceased, flower arrangements are set out, as is a Book of Condolence too. The family are invited to venture forward in turn. Ritual dictates every move and while this does induce a certain sense of “mechanization” of an important moment, this very mechanization makes it easier to get through. Everybody knows and follows the script. Contemplation and farewells, supportive words for the family, this all takes up time, making the experience more acceptable. The familiar setting and strict adherence to rituals help us to cope despite emotions that might otherwise prove even more painful. At such times, the professionals work to ensure the smooth running of the ceremony. The rituals are a source of comfort for them too.

    Customization of service, making it tangible

    In the services industry, the benefits are often hard to demonstrate in tangible terms. In the Fisher’s family business there are two moments of truth that make the value of their work truly tangible: when they prepare the corpse – which often involves repair work in the case of a violent accident – and the climatic viewing ceremony, that we have just discussed.

    This ceremony can be customized, with specific music, coffin, flowers, speeches (eulogies) and/or prayers. The family often feels the need to make the moment special, choosing the outfit of the deceased for the funeral. A football player, for example, will be dressed in his team’s colors. Choosing the last outfit the deceased is to wear helps to give the heavily ritualized ceremony a more personal and even private touch to offset the more public nature of the ceremony, which can sometimes lead to feelings of dispossession. Approaching the deceased is a way of taking charge somewhat, and asserting our choices. The person continues to exist beyond their last breath.

    The Fisher family provided a showroom where the family can choose the coffin and touch the materials of both the coffin and its interior, the handles etc. At such a painful time, being able to focus on such tangible points and taking decisions based on touch, procures a sense of serenity for the person who is able to make the right decision for their deceased loved one.

    Conclusion

    We have addressed three major principles underpinning management and service marketing via an offbeat series and a very special profession:

    • Provide a careful scenario for the service end to end, with the physical support and the care taken to perform certain rituals. It is far from being the only profession to rely heavily on ritual.

    • Authentic relations, taking care to avoid over-exposure: the Fisher family run a successful business because the family members are completely sincere when dealing with people in distress. This requires emotion work to avoid becoming swamped by situations that are obviously hard. Service customization is taken a long way, underpinned by well-honed discernment regarding the situation, making each ceremony truly unique.

    • The ability to make it tangible, to nurture the customer experience with physical markers helping the positioning of the company. Expressing the procedure in words and above all in objects, as a means of providing comfort.

    [1]Fans of the series might be interested in a recent publication by Brett Martin: Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad (published by Penguin Press, 2013).

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