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Winning Over Clients with Events

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When Deborah Rhodes Van Buskirk left her teaching career to join her father, Bruce, at The Rhodes Group of Raymond James & Associates in Boca Raton, Fla., last year, one of her main goals was to bring in new clients who were young professionals like herself. A key strategy—throw great parties.

"We want clients to trust us and see us as real people, not just hammering investments," she says. To that end, Van Buskirk has helped spearhead several events since she joined, including a seminar on identity theft and an upcoming cooking class. She presents about one event every other month and will consider adding more as she determines which are most successful.

Client events can yield big returns. Some advisors report that up to half their annual referrals come from them. Doing an event right, though, is not easy. Pitfalls lurk at every step of the process, from sending out invitations, to the awkward question of when (or whether) to talk business at the event, to how to follow up afterward. And even with excellent execution on the details, serving up the wrong mix of sales pitch and entertainment can quickly erase the goodwill that events generate.

Certainly, there is no one right way to do an event. But advisors who do them often and well say that the idea of relationship-building has to take center stage, with any sort of sales pitch a very distant second. "You have to think of an event as giving people a gift, rather than trying to get a lead right away," says Robert Sofia, co-founder of consulting firm Platinum Advisor Strategies.

Gotta Have a Gimmick
The first step is deciding what type of event to host—pure fun, pure education or a hybrid—and finding a topic that will engage the clients or prospects you want to attract. There is no shortage of good ideas, but it's important to choose one that involves some type of unique, or at least unusual, experience.

"You've got to offer something they couldn't do on their own," says Jim Hennessy, senior vice president of investments at the McDonough Hennessy Group of Wedbush Securities in Roseville, Calif. Along those lines, Hennessy has arranged an expert-led tour of a Napa Valley wine cave and rented a boat to view the U.S. Navy's Blue Angels air show along the San Francisco waterfront.

Across the country, there are plenty of opportunities to make an event special. Nannette Nocon, an Ameriprise private wealth advisor based in Rochester, N.Y., invites clients to an annual theater performance that features local celebrities rather than actors. Stephen Johnson, a Raymond James branch manager in Draper, Utah, hosts an annual dinner at a fancy resort that gives clients invested in an exclusive fund access to the fund managers.

Many good ideas don't depend on geography, notes Cameron Diehl, a marketing strategy manager at Raymond James who helps advisors plan events. He has seen shredding parties, where guests are invited to bring their outdated records (some complete with a thematic barbecue lunch), invite-only sessions in which an expert from an Apple store shows baby boomers new tricks for using their IPads and on the educational side, advisors who get local government officials or well-known professors to present on topics such as Social Security or online fraud.

Details, Details
Once the event topic and venue are locked down, it's time to delve into the when and who of the event. Jeanne O'Connor, executive director of field and loyalty marketing for Morgan Stanley Wealth Management, finds that many advisors struggle through the invitation process when they first start planning events.

Among the must-dos—give people at least six weeks' notice, make it easy for them to RSVP and always confirm their attendance closer to the event. Hold events on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday for best attendance. "And avoid the World Series," O'Connor says, along with more obvious conflicts like religious holidays.

The number of people to invite is another big question. Lori Whitney, a financial advisor with The Whitney Group of Morgan Stanley in San Francisco, says she and her husband David (her partner in the practice) generally aim for four other couples—clients and their friends—to attend their quarterly events. Others, like Hennessy, feel comfortable with up to 50 or 60 people, including spouses and prospects. Johnson opens up as many as 300 seats at a local baseball game to clients and families. Every advisor has his or her own comfort zone (and budget), but in general avoid casting too wide a net and ensure that the people who come will enjoy each other, advisors say.

Most importantly, you need to know what you're getting your guests into. Whitney, for example, is hosting some clients at an America's Cup event for the first time, so she is planning to climb the bleachers to see how accessible her seats are and where they are located in relation to parking, restrooms and food.

Where's the Pitch?
Stopping a party to give an elevator speech is rarely effective. But how do you connect the good times you create to your business? The best way, experts say, is to have a follow-up strategy that starts at the event but continues far beyond it.

At smaller social events, a pair of ears may be all that's necessary. "There's so much that comes up when you're outside the office. People reveal more," says Whitney, who listens hard for follow-up topics when she's at an event. Afterward, she might send an article on a relevant topic to prospects and ask if they'd like to have coffee to discuss it or invite them to a lecture she is going to. "You're looking for a series of meaningful interactions, a way to stay on their radar screen," Whitney says. An event "can't just be a one-off thing."

For larger events, a more standardized approach is essential. "Even at a social event, there should be a call to action of some sort, like an evaluation form," that yields contact information for attendees, says Kristy Gusick, a marketing consultant with Professional Services Marketing. "So often advisors do these events and just expect people to call, but that's not how it works in reality."

Depending on the audience, that call to action could be an electronic survey in an e-mail inbox, a phone call or paper cards that people fill out at the event (and that can be used for a raffle, to make the collection even less awkward). Van Buskirk, for example, passes out forms with a long list of topics such as college planning and elder care, and asks people to check off what keeps them up at night. Later, she'll use that information to focus follow-up conversations, keeping notes in the firm's CRM system so that all of the practice's employees can intelligently handle a phone call from the client or prospect.

Taking pictures at the event and inviting attendees to view them on your firm website can also be a good way to remind people of your professional presence. "We help advisors with their website analytics, and they tend to see spikes in their site traffic when they post pictures," Diehl says. For a less digitally-inclined group, printing out select pictures and sending them in the mail can produce a similar effect.

Hurry Up and Wait
As expensive as events can be, advisors are confident they will get their money back and more from the new referrals and expanded business with current clients. "But it's the kind of thing that can't be rushed," says Hennessy, who saw more than $10 million in new assets from his wine cave event alone. Most of his events cost between $100 and $200 a person, and he generally sees no immediate return. Instead, the referrals usually come in between six and eighteen months later.

"It's really hard to track ROI on events, because what they do is move people along a continuum," Gusick says. "If they're an existing client, it maybe solidifies the relationship a bit more; if they're a prospect, it might eventually persuade them to call." And eventually can be a long time. Whitney is still getting new clients from a panel discussion on college admissions that she offered to a large group of parents and teenagers in 2007.

Making events successful takes patience and time. But there is one aspect of events for which rushing may work out well—the end of the party. Once a client event is over, Van Buskirk says she and her colleagues make a hasty exit. "If we stay around and answer questions, then they have no reason to call us."

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