By Thomas A. Parmalee

George Owens, the president of SoCal Approach Marketing and Consulting Group, got his start at one of America’s most iconic companies: J.D. Power & Associates, a global leader in consumer insights, advisory services and data and analytics.

The firm was only about 25 years old when he signed on to the team in 1995. He stayed for about 12 years, working on everything from building and managing proprietary measurements for brands, to conducting automotive studies and serving as a director of diversified industries.

Eventually, his work at J.D. Power brought him into the orbit of Service Corporation International, which is the largest death-care firm in the world.

SCI was increasingly looking at themes such as loyalty and customer engagement, and J.D. Power had a staff that could glean the type of insights it needed to boost market share and provide more value to families.

“The company has always had a great focus on how to build a great culture and enduring relationships, as well as how to engage customers – and that has come right from the top,” Owens said of SCI.

By 2007, Owens found himself being invited to join SCI as a full-time employee, and the idea was so intriguing that he did what some thought was unthinkable: He left his job at J.D. Power and made the trek to Houston for what he thought would be a two- or three-year stint.

“But it turned into a fabulous 11 years in the SCI marketing department,” he said. “I was able to work on customer engagement, customer loyalty and other marketing programs. It was a fabulous time for me and certainly a time of growth for SCI.”

While in Houston, Owens prided himself on doing all he could to create great customer experiences, and just as importantly, to make sure those experiences were measured, so SCI could gauge what it was doing right and what it needed to improve.

“The main reason I went there is I wanted to take what I learned at J.D. Power and put it to work,” Owens said. “SCI said if I had a good idea, they would fund it – and they were true to their word. We did all kinds of things that I think were game changing and that the industry still follows.”

For instance, Owens was intimately involved in a customer engagement program that sent surveys to at-need families – a program that still exists today. Owens also helped develop a customer excellence program to recognize individuals in the field based on their performance. “All of the success that comes to any of these firms comes from those individuals caring for families at their worst time,” he explained.

He worked with great mentors, such as Phil Jacobs, who he called “a visionary marketer.” Others that stood out during his time at SCI include the late Steve Mack; Jay Waring (now the company’s chief operating officer); Dan Garrison, a senior vice president; and of course, the late Robert L. Waltrip, the company’s founder.

Waltrip provided Owens with lasting lessons that still resonate with him today.

“Mr. Waltrip talked to everyone, whether it was someone cutting grass at one of his locations or someone who was cleaning up the funeral home,” Owens said. “He loved his funeral directors – he loved all of his employees. What I took away from him was that this is a business of people helping people – and he lived that every day.”

Owens also has the utmost respect for Waring, who he says comes from a long line of funeral directors and from a family who operated firms that were a mainstay of Boston and the surrounding area. “Today, Jay runs SCI with the same principles that his father believed in, and that Mr. Waltrip and Mr. Mack instilled in him,” Owens said.

Looking back at his time at SCI, Owens said he appreciates that the company always looked to the data in deciding what it needed to do next.

George Owens
Launching SoCal Approach

Owens launched SoCal Approach in 2018 with a former J.D. Power colleague, Michael Cooperman, who serves as the company’s chief marketing officer. The two men launched the firm to bring a different style to measurement and engagement in the death-care space – one steeped in data.

After 11 wonderful years in Houston and with his son going away to college, Owens said it was the right time to return home to Los Angeles and make a big move. As for the name of the company, Owens said every once in awhile when he was in Houston, he’d get homesick and fly back to Los Angeles.

“And the pilot term is the ‘SoCal approach,’” he said, explaining how they referred to the route home. “The other reason I liked it is that Southern California is the home to lots of things … in the design, automative, fashion and entertainment industries. So, it’s sort of a play on that, too.”

Cooperman added, “Southern California is up for change, and we want to be that agent for change. We want to help people improve their businesses operations and revenue. Southern California is doing a lot of that around the globe – that innovative mindset is real.”

When he teamed up with Owens to launch the company, he wanted to help those who wanted to help themselves, Cooperman said. “Whether it is improving operations or protecting and improving an online reputation, those are all things we are passionate about,” he said.

Most other marketing firms that serve the profession tend to be specialists, Cooperman observed.

“But we are more like general practitioners,” he said. “We are going to look at your business holistically and recommend strategies … sometimes digital, sometimes not digital.” He added, “If you go to a surgeon, they are going to want to do surgery, and if you go to a digital marketing firm – and there are some fantastic digital marketing firms that specialize in the death-care space – they are going to tell you to do something digital. We want to help shape your success, and digital may be part of it, but it may be more traditional, or it may be doing events or more mailers. We are going to look at your business holistically.”

No matter what approach they take, funeral homes should pay attention to customers, Cooperman said.

“They are what drives loyalty,” he said. “We know if customers have an outstanding, top-notch experience, 90% of them are coming back. But if they have a slightly less-than-optimal experience, loyalty tumbles.”

The bottom line is that customer experience drives new business, he said.

Owens agreed, adding that when a customer has a negative experience, the harm can be substantial.

“There is nothing scarier to a small business than a bad review on Yelp,” Cooperman added. “You feel like you have no control … and it is really scary.”

Today, the company has several other key team members, including:

  • Andy Lopez, chief revenue officer.
  • Lisa Gonzales Minnehan, chief operating officer.
  • Chance Parker, chief research officer.
  • Eric Germansky, creative director.
Michael Cooperman

Several other important employees round out the team.

One of the wider known projects that SoCal has worked on has been the annual “Funeral and Cemetery Consumer Behavior Study” that it has conducted on behalf of The Foresight Companies.

“Chris Cruger (also formerly with SCI and now the CEO of Foresight) has always been a personal mentor of mine,” Owens said. “Foresight has been a fabulous adviser and partner and has given us really good advice.”

The study is in its fifth year, and findings from the latest installment will be released in the coming weeks, Owens said.

Cruger will be reviewing the latest findings in detail when he speaks at Funeral IQ, an event is co-hosting with Sympathy Brads, Sept. 20 at the Live! Casino & Hotel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Listening to the Data

The new approach to data and measurement that SoCal takes is embodied in its CXP solution.

“It examines at-need and preneed,” Owens said. “it is much more than a survey – it is a measurement tool.”

On the at-need side, the tool explores everything from the initial communication a funeral home makes with a family as well as the process. It also looks at the preneed experience a family has with a firm.

One of the tool’s selling points is that it looks at people a funeral home has touched who have not turned into customers, such as seniors who may go to a seminar or program. It can help funeral homes and cemeteries determine why those families didn’t convert and whether they are still in the market for services.

When Owens and his team were developing CXP, they thought it was critical to gather data and information from more than just one person – the tool gleans insights from every single individual that may have sat in an arrangement conference.

“We send a survey to everyone,” Owens said, noting that when his grandmother died, both he and his brother made arrangements, “so why only send one survey?” He added, “What if everyone had an opinion? With SoCal CXP, we allow them to touch other folks.”

CXP includes calls to action via the survey that is sent to families, allowing a customer who may still be interested in making prearrangements to request more information. “We provide all that data, and all that advice and counsel,” Owens said.

Specifically, CXP helps firms to:

  • Know how your customers are responding to business operations and understand what they expect in the future.
  • Assess your operational effectiveness and diagnose which business processes need immediate attention.
  • Get ahead of negative reviews to prevent brand assassins and drive positive reviews to your preferred ratings platform.
  • Uncover opportunities to drive incremental revenue and turn data into profit, with a customer experience program that generates positive return on investment.
  • Understand which employees to reward and which employees to coach and train.

SoCal launched the tool with NorthStar Memorial Group which it has worked with in introducing multiple solutions to the market. SoCal also has a great relationship with Carriage Services, Owens added. “Two of the largest funeral and cemetery companies are part of believing in our story,” Owens said.

Funeral service has a tremendous opportunity in converting at-need families into customers that preplan, Owens said. “How do we approach these customers?” he asked, noting that “sales” should not be a dirty word.

“Protecting their family with a prearrangement is one of the most important things they can do,” he added. Moreover, a funeral home that has a robust preneed program can sustain and boost market share by taking families that are fair game for competitors to serve out of the market.

Other than promoting preneed, the only other ways available to a firm to enhance their footprint is by growing through acquisition or by differentiating themselves in the marketplace, Owens said.

Focusing on Death Care But Available to Help Others

While the majority of SoCal’s clients are funeral homes and cemeteries, it is happy to serve businesses in other verticals as well – and has done so – in areas such as hospitality, entertainment, government, transportation and logistics and even a beverage company.

“But we are very fortunate and proud to say that the bulk of our time is spent with firms that help people on their very worst day,” Owens said, noting that customers in other industries typically hear about SoCal through word of mouth.

“We talk to everyone everywhere,” Owens added. “I could be sitting on an airplane and start talking to someone, and it may turn into something. We are all about outreach and talking to people.”

No matter what the industry, SoCal prides itself on providing firms with the same type of expertise they’d love to get from a company like McKinsey or Boston Consulting Group but at a price they can afford. “Our specialty is underserved markets and verticals,” Owens said.

The ideal SoCal client, Owens said, is anyone who believes in looking at data and understanding what it is customers have to say.

“If I learned anything from my time at JD Power, it is that customers will tell you – they will tell you when you are good or not, they will tell you what they want, and they will tell you what they don’t want. They determine how strong your brand is,” he said.

SoCal’s ideal client understands the value of measurement and looking at data to guide what they do – and those can be independent funeral homes, or they can be large businesses, Owens said. “There are visionary leaders that understand that who come from 50-call funeral homes, and they may be at SCI, at NorthStar and at Carriage … they exist everywhere,” he said.

Cooperman said, “If you are looking to grow your business and improve operations, those are the clients we want. There are locations that are very satisfied with their business and don’t want to rock the boat … but if you are looking at business and thinking you can do better, we can help you improve operations.”

Owens added, “We don’t do acquisitions and divestitures, we don’t do valuations or advise you on pricing. We concentrate on teaching you to understand what your customers are saying … those other things are critical, but this is the area of our expertise.”

Learn more about SoCal Approach.

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