I learned the preneed business from an organization that used the term “preneed counselor”. Consumer advocates, and many funeral directors, rail at that characterization, and insist a salesman is a salesman, no matter what you call them.

For purposes of debate, I would agree that all preneed counselors are salesmen. However, not all preneed salesmen are counselors. While both have to make a living, the counselor places an emphasis on education. But, the distinction between the counselor and the salesman is made difficult by the fact both tend to be compensated on the commission basis. This rubs the public and many funeral directors in the wrong direction; a fact not lost on proactive preneed sellers.

The Catholic Cemetery ran “Point – Counter Point” articles in its December and January editions on the advantages of commissioned-based programs and salary-based programs. Rich Peterson, of the Archdioceses of Seattle, led off with a description of how his “Pre-Need Sales Counselors” perform outreach to a Catholic population that is scattered across a large geographic area. Demographics and geography force the Pre-Need Sales Counselor to go to the families.

Richard Touchette, of the Dioceses of Albany, uses salary-based “Family Service Representatives” to perform outreach to an ‘entrenched’ Catholic population. In contrast to its Seattle counterpart, most of the outreach performed by the Family Service Representatives is done at the Dioceses’ cemeteries.

As Mr. Peterson explains in this article, all preneed programs have costs such as training, staffing and advertising. Mr. Peterson could have gone farther and addressed the costs associated with contract administration, regulator compliance and document development. However, the program that must seek out its targeted audience will always have greater costs per sale. These organizations must be more “proactive” in making their connections to families. The salesmen must spend substantial time away from the cemetery’s offices. Cemeteries and funeral homes with ‘heritage’ may adopt a more passive approach to preneed marketing, and can better handle preneed sales with a salaried staff that remains on the grounds.

Another factor in the commission vs. salary issue is applicable state law on trusting requirements. When a state sets its trusting percentage at 100%, or even 90%, the preneed program must be funded to some degree from the cemetery’s general revenues. Mr. Touchette’s cemeteries are subject to a much higher trusting requirement than Mr. Peterson’s. Consequently, the Dioceses of Albany cemeteries cannot recapture all of these preneed costs at the inception of the sale. A high trusting requirement is even more detrimental to a cemetery than a funeral home.

Funeral homes are not called upon to perform a preneed contract until there has been a death. When state trusting requirements prove too high to fund a preneed program, a funeral home can turn to insurance funding and use the commissions paid by insurance companies to pay counselors/salesmen and offset program costs. In contrast, cemeteries often deliver preneed property and merchandise prior to the purchaser’s death, which precludes insurance funding. Consequently, cemeteries must use trust funding or constructive delivery.

The proactive preneed program will always be distinguished by marketing and outreach that consummates a transaction someplace other than at the operator’s offices. While all cemeteries and funeral homes strive for the heritage that brings families to their door, most face challenges and competition that require them to reach out to their families. Few individuals have the personality and commitment to walk into a family’s home to discuss mortality. For better or worse, the industry has compensated these individuals on a commission basis.

With NPS, the worst was encouraged with commission rates that allowed salesmen to make six figured salaries at the expense of elderly consumers. As one of the states hardest hit by the NPS failure, Missouri’s legislators will be pressured to impose tougher trusting requirements on all preneed programs. Rather than punish all preneed programs by instituting 100% trusting, Missouri should consider a cap on the commission that may be paid to the preneed salesman.