By Thomas A. Parmalee

Chris Rose, founder and president of Cairn Partners, wants to make one thing clear: He does not run a preneed marketing company.

“We work in the death-care profession and work with independent, family-owned funeral homes and cemeteries to help them defend, grow and protect market share,” he said.

That involves outreach on both the preneed and at-need marketing sides of the business, and in some cases, it means working with funeral homes to enhance their sales development process.

“It’s not just the marketing side, but the processes that allow you to be sure the marketing is properly executed,” said Rose (pictured at top). “It doesn’t do any good to do a Facebook advertisement or conduct a direct mail campaign if you don’t have a process on the back end to capture that information and follow up with those people to turn it into more than just an activity – there has to be a follow-up process, even if it’s not sales oriented.”

So, who is Chris Rose and how is Cairn Partners helping funeral homes succeed? We reached out to him for some answers. Edited excerpts follow.

When and how did you start Cairn Partners?

I founded the company back in 2009 after buying a company that was essentially a shell corporation. What it had, however, was a commission schedule with insurance companies based on the volume it had previously done. There was no revenue stream, but the fact that it had a commission schedule was a very valuable thing, as I could earn commissions from other companies that were higher than if I had started a company from scratch. The first year in business, we worked with only a handful of funeral homes and generated $700,000 in preneed volume. Within three years, we were at over $25 million in volume.

I was previously a regional director at Forethought Life Insurance (Now Global Atlantic). The company was founded because after serving at Forethought for eight years, it was clear that independent funeral homes really needed more assistance in marketing strategy and outreach. At the time, there were marketers that were focused on the preneed aspect of the funeral profession and there were consultants that provided marketing services on the at-need side of the business, but there did not seem to be a model that focused on both as well as general business development.

We have over 20 full-time employees and a significant number of contractors. Our organization is built on a co-op model, which gives our partners skin in the game. Our partners have the opportunity to buy into the cooperative, so they are their own organization and use our services, but they can be independent, as long as it’s not detrimental to Cairn.

Where does the name Cairn Partners come from?

Originally the company’s name (the shell corporation Rose acquired) was Northwest Planning Partners, and the company was formed in 2002. It was a small insurance agency servicing funeral homes in Washington State. After purchasing it in 2009, we focused on building the business and found quickly that the name was not consistent with our footprint or our focus. While attending ICCFA events, I ran across a small boutique brand development company that was a married couple. I talked with them about my company and brand, and they convinced me that utilizing their services to rebrand the company was the right path to take. It was a very impactful decision that changed the trajectory of the organization. We locked ourselves up in an Airbnb in Northern Kentucky, and they put me through quite the interrogation process. Through that experience, we defined our customer base, our services, our focus, our mission and of course the brand that would reflect those aspects of our company culture.

A cairn is a simple stack of rocks. Which is reflected in our icon visible on our website. Cairns are some of the oldest monuments known to man. Historically, cairns have been placed to mark the location of a significant event like a battle, or celebration or a burial site.

If you have ever spent time hiking outdoors in the backcountry you may have noticed that cairns often mark a path that is difficult to see, and these waypoints guide us through rocky and dangerous ground.

We use this theme throughout our organization, including the process with our client BASE, CAMP, Trailhead Training, Gide Training, Waypoints, Stepping Stones and Trail Markers.

It seems to fit our company culture and add a little excitement to an otherwise relatively boring process built of programs, processes and standard operating procedures.

How many funeral homes and/or cemeteries do you work with? Are you strongest in a particular area of the country?

We work with over 250 rooftops in 20+ states. We literally rose from the ashes of the cremation trend on the West Coast. And that is the epicenter of our business. Because of our experience with cremation and what works and does not work, we have a particular advantage as we work with firms in the Midwest and the East. We work with standalone funeral homes, clusters of funeral homes, combos and standalone cemeteries. We only work with independent firms. Our goal is to keep independent funeral homes independent.

How much preneed are you responsible for writing in a given year? How has that number been tracking over time?

The amount of preneed we write per year is only one metric of many by which we define our company because we have services that are not directly related to preneed sales.

Preneed volume is akin to asking a funeral home their case count. Although that is the metric that most use to identify the success of a firm, I have found that this metric is a falsity. A more discernable metric is the net profit per call or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization of the firm. Or perhaps the rating of the firm by its customers. Lots of firms have big case counts, are not very profitable and have poor reviews from their customers.

Although we do not consider ourselves to be a “third-party marketer,” which is where we are commonly pigeonholed due to our focus on marketing and outreach, we are a medium-sized player in the third-party marketer realm. We spend a significant amount of our time on consultative activities in relation to at-need marketing, customer experience and training. We also have a cemetery division that works with stand-alone cemeteries and combos. Over the last 10 years or so, we have had a steady growth rate of between 5 and 10% per year either by helping existing firms grow or adding new clients to the Cairn Network.

Do you work with multiple preneed insurance companies or are you exclusive to one or two? Explain.

We do work with multiple preneed insurance firms as well as trust providers. We have found over the years that clients have a certain proclivity toward a specific insurance or trust provider. Often, it is based on the avoidance of change. Other times, it is a relationship with a person or an entity and other times those decisions are based on events or circumstantial information. It is our contention that preneed insurance products have become commoditized. We have little interest in spending an excess of time convincing the client to use blue ink rather than black ink. We educate them on the attributes of the different offerings by insurance companies and let them make an educated decision. We try to focus on the services Cairn provides that fill the gap between what the insurance company provides and what the funeral home needs to maximize the customer experience and attain their goals, which usually are to defend, grow and protect their market share. We would not be able to provide our services and value to many firms if we did not use the financial vehicle of their preference.

What makes you different from your competitors?

I think that any marketing company can claim to have the basic tools that we have at Cairn Partners.  The tools are very important to fulfill the needs of the client. And by “tools” I mean, direct mail programs, digital marketing programs, aftercare programs, training programs, recruiting, etc.

One way we are different is in the consultative approach we take and the customization that occurs to serve our client. We do not just focus on preneed. I don’t agree with separating out the preneed program as a different entity. I think that is a short-term solution to a long-term problem. A symbiotic relationship is preferred.

I am convinced that the best retail customer experience occurs when the at-need and outreach teams work together. That is also true when working with a combo. The customer can tell the difference when a combo tries to separate their services into “the cemetery side” and “the funeral side.” It seems like an obvious goal to strive for and yet it is rarely achieved. Although most combos are set up as separate business entities, it does not mean that the customer sees them in that fashion.

In addition to that difference in strategy and approach, we also have several proprietary tools that allow our firms to meet remotely with the consumer and still provide the very best experience. These tools are available to all arrangers – preneed or at-need. Our goal is to help the firm be better.

There are sales and marketing companies that have some of these tools, all these tools or what I would call “better than nothing” tools. What differentiates us at Cairn is that we take a holistic consultative approach to provide what the firm NEEDS based on what it would like to accomplish. We have a process we call our Business Approach and Strength Evaluation (BASE) by which we identify the gaps in an outreach program. After discussing our findings with our client, we then provide our Client Assessment and Marketing Program (CAMP). This is focused on the action items we plan to execute with the firm. We can then identify the firm’s willingness to collaborate in achieving the goals that have been mutually determined.

We are very focused on market segmentation and strategy based on that segmentation. We spend time focusing on the market that is being targeted: traditional, alternative or low cost. This is imperative in terms of the marketing approach. Each segment should be differentiated. For example, if a traditional funeral home client has an outreach program that is price focused like a low-cost provider, that model will fail. Conversely if a low-cost provider markets like a traditional provider, they will not be successful because their marketing budget will exceed their profitability. This natural business model concept is often lost on owners because they are very focused on case count rather than net profit per call.

For new firms to the market or alternative disposition firms (alkaline hydrolysis or natural organic reduction), we follow a similar process, but we must be cognizant that their model is not a traditional funeral home model. That means our goals derived from the BASE process may be very different and often more assertive.

The Cairn Partners team enjoying time together.
How have your clients’ needs changed in the past 36 months?

That is an interesting question. Their needs are relatively the same as they have always been, but the tools we use to accomplish their goals have changed. For example, the need to have a focused succession plan has always been there, but only recently has it become imperative.

It has been said before, but the funeral profession is slow to change for many reasons. Change itself is difficult, but if an operator is financially successful with relatively low execution expectations, this diminishes the incentive to get better. That has been the story for as long as I have been in the profession and before. The nature of the business, the barriers to entry and the family focused generational business mindset of independent firms in this profession ensures that sweeping technological and ideological progress in this space has been stunted and likely will continue to be unless massive change occurs.

There certainly seems to be more independent firms looking to sell rather than pass the torch to the next generation within the family. There is also the phenomenon of simply letting the business dissolve over time without taking a succession plan into consideration.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect your business, and did you make any lasting pivots as a result of the pandemic?

There are two phenomena that we have witnessed. Rapid adoption of technology and burnout.

The pandemic changed so much in terms of how funeral homes work with their clients. It required many of them to adopt technology and made them reassess how they serve clients and their market position. Some firms were inundated with both at-need cases and preneed opportunities and were simply treading water. Others did not have the capacity to assist everyone and sent at-need cases to their competition, which ultimately changed the landscape in some geographic locations. Still, other firms took the opportunity to expand and help more families by ramping up. Some small firms continue to embrace the technology they adopted due to the pandemic while others have abandoned it, which is unfortunate.

Post-pandemic, I see more funeral homeowners looking for an opportunity to slow down or transition.

Prior to the pandemic, Cairn had already adopted a business model that operated almost exclusively remotely. Except for our yearly sales meeting, we operated in the cloud with Zoom meetings and a cloud-based business culture. When the pandemic hit, we didn’t see much of a change to our operations other than our ability to meet with our customers in person. We had been working on a remote-visit platform for our advance planners that would allow them to meet with clients remotely or in person regardless of an internet connection and complete the arrangement process with more efficiency and higher customer satisfaction. We launched that tool immediately and then started to train advance planners how to use the AP Dashboard in conjunction with Zoom.

Chris Rose enjoys outdoor team building activities with Cairn team members.
How do you think the pandemic affected preneed in general/overall? Are there any opportunities as they relate specifically to preneed that you believe came out of the pandemic?

Preneed certainly saw a spike during the COVID crisis. For some, there was an immediate drop in preneed, because they didn’t know how to work with the preneed customer. After they figured it out, there were years of increases. This occurred, of course, for preneed and at-need business. I think both have normalized a bit now, and we are seeing regular numbers return. I suppose that preneed will continue to be relevant in that people conclude that life is fragile and any of us could die at any time from any ailment.

Post-pandemic, some funeral homes are simply less accessible. Some are no longer fully staffed, and others are by appointment only and still others simply lock their doors and only let in customers. For those firms that have adopted this closed-minded approach, I think long term it will stunt their business and the growth of their business because they will be even more isolated from the knowledge that vendors and peers in the professional can provide.

For the profession, the opportunity is to realize that change can be positive, and that technology is not something to fear, rather it can free up time for the small mom and pop firms. It can be liberating and can provide better customer experiences while freeing up time for the owner and staff. Technology, if utilized properly, can reduce paperwork, double data entry and enhance the customer experience. Consumers want a better experience in a shorter amount of time. That is the trend. They want it their way and they want it now. Independent funeral homes can accommodate consumers if they embrace technology. If they do not, corporate entities and consolidators will continue to grow, and the independent funeral homes will become a less desirable option for consumers.

What is one big thing you wish more funeral homes and cemeteries would understand about preneed?

Funeral homes are a business. Yes, they provide a much-needed service to the community and most independent funeral home owners are empathetic and caring individuals. Most funeral directors are as well. But if you do not run your business with the intention of creating a net profit of which a portion will be put back into the business, negative consequences will ensue. Customer satisfaction will erode. It is equally damaging to take all the profits out of a funeral home and disperse them to the owners as it is to undercharge consumers for services provided and let your funeral home erode into shabbiness with cookie cutter services. There is a sweet spot. That is to use proper business tools to establish a budget and set aside profits for deferred maintenance and technological upgrades or better customer experiences. Preneed is a key component of this concept.

Preneed should not be an afterthought or treated as its own separate entity. Just like a small specialty food manufacturer is focused on manufacturing their specialty food products and getting them to consumers’ needs to have a marketing budget and go to trade shows and work with distributors and customers and the community, the funeral home should also pay attention to similar aspects of community and top-of-mind awareness. That outreach should include educating the customer about the benefits of planning ahead. Preneed is often treated as a necessary evil. It may have arrived on the scene that way and probably ruined many marketing plans upon its arrival. But that was so long ago … it is time to embrace the necessary evil and make it part of the business plan, the marketing budget and the cost structure. It is not a necessary evil anymore; it is an opportunity to serve more customers. And if executed properly, it can feed itself as the engine to defend, grow and protect the business.

How has the interest rate environment affected preneed and or your business in particular, if at all?

The interest rates are what they are. We work with multiple insurance and trust providers with multiple products, so that the customer can see what the differences are and the implications of their product decisions. Ten percent of our funeral home customers do not guarantee their preneed funeral arrangements. They have decided that they do not want to manage their shortfall exposure and prefer to simply not guarantee. We are OK with that decision if the funeral home understands the competitive implications.

Our funeral home clients can be very sensitive to interest rates as they see growth rates as the main culprit of preneed shortfalls. Funeral home owners who see shortfalls tend to complain about growth rates, the fact is that shortfalls may be mitigated in many ways, one of which is through choosing a product that has a reasonable growth rate. We have a very thorough Stepping-Stone that includes a shortfall analysis that walks our clients through the reasons why shortfalls occur and their options to mitigate them. The shortfall analysis that we have performed clearly shows that growth rates are not the main culprit for shortfalls.

At the top of the list for reasons for shortfalls include:

  • Preneed discounts.
  • At-need discounts.
  • Uncharged at-need upgrades.
  • Inflationary increase management.
  • Errors on the preneed Contract.

Interest rates will fluctuate, and of course, inflation typically has a direct correlation with interest rates. These are economic market structures that we do not control. The other reasons for shortfalls, a firm can control and just needs to take responsibility to do so.

Tell me about the Cairn Coin and why Russell and Kelley Weeks, the owners of Weeks’ Funeral Homes in Washington, were this year’s honorees.

The winner for 2023 was the first time that a married couple has been honored. In 2023, we honored Russ and Kelley Weeks as co-owners and employees of Weeks Funeral Homes. The details about the Cairn Coin are on our website.

The Cairn Coin was born from a weekly team meeting wherein we were looking for the opportunity to thank specific individuals in the profession that had an impact on one or more of our team. We identified several individuals who had been mentors or just outstanding people that exemplified the traits that we aspired to gain. We worked on that project for far too long trying to identify how to show certain professionals how inspiring they are to our organization. We did not limit the nominations to funeral professionals, in fact we encourage nominating individuals outside the profession or on the fringe of the profession. It took us such a long time to develop HOW we wanted to honor them that we had three winners in the first year based on the time we had taken to make those decisions.

Our team nominates individuals and then presented why their nominees should receive the honor. We then vote and present the award at our annual reception at the ICCFA Dead Talks in January.

Russ and Kelley were honored because of their commitment to the profession and how passionate they both are about the funeral profession and the customer experience. Russ purchased the funeral homes from his father and could have easily made a living on that legacy, but instead they decided to build a larger legacy and acquired multiple funeral homes and manage or own multiple cemeteries. Together, they built a business that not only serves the community but also employs a significant number of professionals in funeral service. Russ and Kelley’s passion for serving others and doing so in an ethical and unselfish way is the cornerstone of why they were selected. Russ is very intentional about what he would like to achieve and how to achieve it.

What is a book you have read that you’d recommend others read and why?

I read way too many trade magazines as opposed to books. That is a bad habit of mine. I like to know what is going on in the now.

There are a few books over the last couple of years that I have chosen to purchase and physically read as opposed to “listening” to them through Audible or Spotify. The one that has been most impactful and that I have purchased and sent to others in the profession isStaying Alive in the Funeral and Cemetery Profession: Building a Business, Weathering Change and Finding Growth by Jake Johnson, the president and CEO of Johnson Consulting Group.

Jake Johnson’s book gets two big thumbs up from Chris Rose.

When I first started reading the book, I thought that Jake was simply stating the obvious. But I found that his insights are brilliant in their simplicity. This is a “back to business basics” book that needed to be written and should be read by all in the profession. So much is missed by the funeral home professional who is just doing things the way they have always done them. Or perhaps the firm is on the cutting edge of marketing but is not paying attention to the look and feel of their funeral home or chapel. Or the funeral professional does not listen to the client. In some cases, they choose not to ask the client for feedback in fear of having to change.

What makes Jake uniquely qualified to write this book and simplify the business process is his experience in the profession. One could look at Jakes’s success and attribute it to Tom Johnson’s legacy and Tom’s efforts to build a business in the funeral profession. That assumption would be a mistake. Jake took the opportunity to learn the profession from inside out and then reinvented Johnson Consulting Group to provide services that Tom originally intended, in addition to services that filled a gap in accounting and customer experience among other service fields. It is an easy read, and I think should be mandatory reading for all funeral and cemetery professionals.

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Comments (1)

  • Number one marketing idea Knock on thousand dollars a month

    Paul Coe | June 4, 2024 at 10:33 pm
    Reply

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