From the January 2003 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

January 1, 2003

Let Me Entertain You

How can you fill the ears of prospective clients w

What if there were a simple, low-cost way to entice your best clients to introduce you and endorse you to their friends? I've got some good news: There is.

We all know that a good way for anyone to meet a professional service provider such as a financial advisor is through a referral. But in my experience, the tactic that works much better is an introduction. A referral is "Here is a name for you to contact." An introduction, on the other hand, is "Let's get together over lunch," or "Let me call my friend right now and introduce you on the telephone."

What's even better than an introduction is a recommendation, in which your client not only introduces you but also says complimentary things about you. Imagine you are the friend who hears, "If I had not been working with Jane over the past couple of years, I don't think I would have been in such good shape with today's difficult market." Or this: "John has done a lot for me and I highly recommend him. I believe he can help you as well." You would be intrigued, to say the least.

All right, then what's even better than one recommendation? Multiple recommendations, of course. And the easiest way to facilitate multiple recommendations is through special events for clients and their friends. If you can master the art of special events, you may never have to do any other marketing.

Getting Started

How do you start planning a special event? First, you have to decide what kind of event to host. Here are some options to consider:

  • A holiday open house
  • A client-appreciation dinner, including some entertainment
  • A small dinner party for one or two couples and a few friends, perhaps held at your house
  • A gardening seminar
  • A Valentine's Day dance
  • A special cruise to either Alaska or the Caribbean, where your clients pay their own way, but you are the sponsor
  • A celebrity event. You can have a private reception and invite an actor, politician, entertainer, or other celebrity
  • A holiday light tour. If there are certain areas of town that display impressive lights, arrange a bus tour for clients and their friends
  • A golf tournament
  • A wine tasting
  • A sunset cruise
  • A sporting event
  • A special screening of a play or movie
  • A birthday or retirement celebration for one of your clients

Once you have developed a list of events, create a survey and ask a few of your clients to rank their interest in each event on a scale of one to five. You may find that your retired clients opt for more social events, while your working clients prefer events that are unusual or business-related. At the bottom of the survey, be sure to include a category called "other," so your clients can suggest their own ideas.

Soliciting this type of feedback from your clients is critical. I once worked with an advisor who was planning a tailgate party. When I asked him how he decided on that type of event, he said that he and some of the advisors in his office enjoyed tailgate parties. He had not surveyed any clients to see if they enjoyed such parties, however, so we had no idea if his clients would participate. This is not the way to maximize the time and money you dedicate to an event. When you solicit feedback, you can plan events that you know will interest your clients. And since their friends likely share similar interests, you are laying the foundation for an excellent networking opportunity.

Once you have solicited the input of your best clients, it's time to analyze the results. Based on the feedback you receive, you can set up four to six special events per year. I suggest you schedule the whole year at one time, since that is the most time-efficient approach. You can hold events seasonally, if you'd like. For instance, in the spring, you could have a gardening event. In the summer, you could plan a golf outing. In the fall, you could hold an open house for the holidays, or a Thanksgiving event. In February, you could host a Valentine's party.

Another benefit to scheduling the whole year at once is that you can market the events more effectively. When you meet new people, you can invite them to your upcoming parties. This is a low-risk, easy way for prospective clients to get to know you and to hear more about you from your satisfied clients.

Rules for Success

There are a few "rules of success" when it comes to putting on a special event. First, focus on your top clients, and specifically ask them to bring friends or colleagues.

The location you select will depend on the nature of your event. In general, it is better to hold an event at a country club or some sort of fun, interesting facility, rather than a hotel. Based on my experience, I would recommend you reserve a room for about 85% of the confirmed attendees, since there will be a few no-shows. Remember, this event will reflect on your reputation, so be sure to arrange for enough staff to adequately attend to all the guests.

When it comes to the invitation list, there is no ideal size. Events can range from a small dinner party to a large open house, and either option can be effective. For instance, I know an advisor in Texas who doubled his production in one year by holding intimate dinner parties at his house. The important thing is to have a balanced ratio of clients and their friends. I recommend a ratio of roughly 50/50 or 60/40, but the overall goal is to have enough friends attend to make the event an effective business development opportunity for you.

During the event, your mission is to make sure people are having fun. You want the guests to be mingling and meeting new people. For this reason, you do not want to feature a "talking head," with people sitting in classroom-style seats. You are much better off having an event that requires participation, where people can laugh, interact, and get involved in some activity. This gives them an opportunity to get to know others, and it leaves a very positive impression on attendees.

It is also critical to supply name tags for everyone. The client tags should be one color and the guest tags a different color. Include pertinent information on your clients' tags, including their name, the town they live in and the year they became your client. Guest tags can just display the name and town. By capturing this information and by color-coding the tags, non-clients can easily approach your clients to learn more about you.

Because the event is a social gathering, it is important that you steer clear of business talk. If a prospective client tries to talk business, you can offer to set up a time in the future to meet with the prospective client, either an office appointment or something more casual, such as lunch.

While there is no ideal size for an event, sometimes intimate events can be more effective than larger events. An advisor I know recently held a cooking party at his house. He and his wife invited two of their best clients to bring their best friends, and the six couples proceeded to cook up a spectacular French dinner. Tom purchased chef's hats with his last name on them, and arranged for a photographer to take a photo of everyone dressed in cooking aprons and wearing the hats. The couples enjoyed a few bottles of wine together, got to know each other--and shortly thereafter the two couples who were not Tom's clients became clients.

Tom's example illustrates another important point: You want to look for opportunities to continue the conversation once the event is over. In Tom's case, the necessity of mailing or delivering the photo of everyone in their chef's hats provided a natural reason for a second contact. Think of your event as the first point in an ongoing conversation.

You can hold an event that you think is outstanding, but what really matters is what your attendees think. Thus, another key to a successful event is providing evaluations. Ask your clients and their friends to give you feedback about what they liked or what they didn't like and what could be done to improve. At the bottom of the evaluation, you can also leave space for clients and friends to note if they would like to meet with you.

Finally, be sure to take notes during the event. You will be engaged in numerous conversations, but since everyone will be wearing a name tag, it should be easy for you to jot down people's names or make a note in a pocket recorder. This will significantly help you with the next task ahead: following up.

After the Event

Once your event is over, you will want to follow up with any prospects who want an appointment. Don't wait too long to contact people. You want to capitalize on the warm feelings your event created.

What's the proper way to follow up? Let's say Betty is a friend of your client. At the event, she told you that she was thinking about retiring and she'd like to discuss this with you. After the event, call the client who brought Betty and explain that you spoke with Betty and she seemed very interested. Ask your client for their recommendation about how you should follow up. Typically, you will receive valuable information from the client during this conversation. Perhaps Betty has a million-dollar 401(k) rollover to handle, or perhaps she has complicated family issues to deal with.

Special events are effective because they are based on activities your clients enjoy, and, by association, activities that their friends enjoy. Events can be a fun, low-cost way to meet people who fit your client profile. Both your clients and their friends will receive endorsements from many people, and there is no marketing tool more powerful than these.

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