From the September 2004 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

September 1, 2004

Toast of the Town

When it comes to throwing spectacular client-appreciation events, Ron Carson is truly a force to be reckoned with. Granted, anybody can invite a magician, hire a couple of clowns for the kids, and whip up a tailgate party or backyard barbecue. But fireworks? Trampolines? Marching bands?

"It's actually not that hard to get the high school band to come," says Carson blithely, as if the sight of two dozen uniformed band members marching around his office parking lot and blaring the University of Nebraska fight song at top volume is the most normal thing in the world (not to mention the giant goalposts, full-sized hot dog stands, and multiple big-screen TVs dotting the huge swath of

special-ordered Astroturf covering the parking area). "What?" his tone seems to say. "Doesn't everybody do this?" His annual Fourth of July bash is just as extravagant as the football fest: Not only are there magicians, balloon sculptors, snack booths, golf-related games, and a giant trampoline to keep the kiddies bouncing with glee all evening long, there's even a full-scale fireworks display to entertain the more than 650 guests gathered in Carson's capacious backyard.

This is clearly a man who takes his parties seriously--and he doesn't just host them once or twice a year. In between the full-scale events, Omaha-based Carson Wealth Management also hosts wine-tastings, holiday brunches, and educational seminars, and takes clients on road trips to University of Nebraska home football games. (Kinda makes that Holiday Inn chicken dinner you were planning pale by comparison, doesn't it?)

Ah, you say, but isn't all this hubbub a little bit much? Wouldn't most clients, who have busy lives of their own, rather skip the froufrou and just get good, solid financial advice? Actually, says Carson, no. "Our clients love it. It's a lot of work, but it's a great way for my staff to interact with all of our clients, so that they become comfortable not just with me, but with all the members of my team," he says. "We provide really great financial planning services--taxes, estate planning, college planning, etc.--but those are commodities: A lot of advisors do that stuff really well. We want to wow the client, no matter how long they've been with us, with our service and how well everybody on the team knows them."

The events are designed to support the idea that the clients are all part of one big happy family: Clients are urged to bring their grandchildren, and most events have activities--from games to crafts to hot dog stands--designed to appeal especially to kids. Since Carson actively pursues clients who share his hobbies, unlike many advisors who seek out clients on the basis of their occupations, such as retiring dentists or up-and-coming executives, his clients are naturally attracted to events that he also enjoys. "If you look at my top 30 clients, I like to fly airplanes and so do they; I love to golf, and so do they; I like to drink and collect red wines, and so do they; and we all enjoy college athletics. So almost every event revolves around one of those interests," says Carson, 40. "I have to tell you, it is so much fun getting together with my clients because we have so many things in common to talk about that have nothing to do with their financial plan."

While the nifty shindigs strengthen the firm's relationships with existing clients, they also provide a perfect venue to acquire referrals. Clients are encouraged to invite friends and family to the events, and while they're there, they naturally introduce their guests to the host of the party. The festive atmosphere encourages conversation, and a few weeks later, that casual introduction often yields an appointment at Carson's office. The events require a great deal of time and effort, but you can't help but think that Carson is onto something: He has been the number-one revenue-producing advisor for independent broker/dealer Linsco/Private Ledger for the last 14 years straight.

First Impressions

The parties are only part of this planner's strategy. Carson has other tricks up his sleeve to help strengthen clients' personal relationships with him, his staff, and his firm. One secret weapon is a staff member he calls the Director of First Impressions. At first glance, she appears simply to be a receptionist: She sits at the front desk, answers the phones, and plies clients with coffee when they first arrive in the office. But there's more to it than that, says Carson. This staff member is also given the job of maintaining an incredibly detailed database about every client, and then using that information to make every client feel like the center of the universe; Carson calls it his "love-affair marketing" program. Want to know when a client's birthday is? It's in there. Their grandchildrens' names? No problem. The kind of car they drive? Yup. How about their favorite restaurant, favorite television show, their pets' names, how they like their coffee, and whether or not they like chocolate? No problem. "Heck, we even know what kind of chocolate they like," says Carson with a smile.

Armed with this information, the director of first impressions provides all kinds of "random acts of kindness" for clients--it's just that they aren't random. When clients arrive in the office, their coffee just happens to be fixed just the way they like it, and their favorite cookies just happen to be in plentiful supply. Their grandchildren, and perhaps even their pets, are inquired about by name; conversation generally revolves around the client's specific hobbies and interests. On their birthdays, wedding anniversaries, and anniversaries with the firm, they receive cards signed by all staff members. If they have a special event in their lives, a bottle of their favorite wine or an arrangement of their favorite flowers is likely to turn up on their doorstep. "There are so many different directions you can go with this information," says Carson. "It can really be fun." Some of the information can be useful in a more subtle way, too. "If you have one client driving a $250,000 Lamborghini and another driving a 1983 Mercedes, and they both have a net worth of $10 million, that tells you a lot about the person," says Carson. "You communicate differently with those two people."

Of course, one can imagine clients getting a little creeped out by the staff's apparently superhuman memories ("Good morning, Mr. Jones! How is your red-haired six-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter Mackenzie enjoying her advanced-beginner Mayan pottery class? How is your six-cylinder 2002 hunter-green Volvo with leather seats running? Did you celebrate your wife's birthday on Thursday, July 22, with a Delmonico steak, cooked medium-rare? Here, would you like a raspberry-chocolate-mint Milano cookie?"), so the staff tries not to overdo it. In addition, either the director of first impressions or Carson simply explains to the client why they're collecting so much information. "We just tell them that one of our team goals is to provide them with so many random acts of kindness, and to do that, we really need this kind of data," he says.

Tracking all of this detailed information is handled by a database that Carson helped to develop for this very purpose, and he's built it to function as a sort of caller-ID on steroids. "When a client calls, the program recognizes the phone number and automatically brings up their information, right down to the last act of kindness that someone on the team did for them," says Carson. Not only that, but staff members can customize the program so that the data most relevant to their area of expertise pops up first. "The director of first impressions would customize her screen so that all the personal data pops up, my trading person would set it up to flag the client's most recent transactions, and my staff person who handles transfers would flag the current status of the transfer," he explains. "Everybody can customize it for the kind of work they do."

The secrets to a successful "love-affair marketing" program, says Carson, are having a complete, up-to-date database and a great director of first impressions. "A lot of advisors make the mistake of simply hiring a receptionist, but you need to elevate the position, and give it a new name," he says. True, he says, you have to pay the person more, but you can also ask that person to take on additional responsibilities, such as managing the "love-affair marketing program," managing the client database, and handling payroll. "Most advisors, in general, are understaffed," says Carson. "They're still doing the little things that they should have someone else do, and the quickest way to get your life back and improve the level of service you're providing is to bring on an A-plus staff."

Carson takes his own advice about staffing: His firm includes five wealth managers and 11 administrative staff members, and the firm also owns several small subsidiaries that provide services such as estate planning and tax preparation. In addition, he spends about 15% of his time running a separate 12-employee consulting firm called Peak Productions (www.peakproductions.com), which assists other advisors with marketing issues and is housed in the same building.

Survey Says...

So what do the clients think of all this attention: the chocolates, the wine, the holiday bashes? Thanks to a system of regular client surveys, Carson knows exactly what they think--about the attention they receive from the staff, the level of service they're receiving, and about the firm in general. Each week, several clients receive a survey with questions, and the results are tallied each quarter. Questions include: Are you getting the service you believe you should? Do you believe you're paying too much relative to what you're receiving? What makes our firm unique? Why do you like working with us?

The survey also asks clients to rate the firm's level of service from one to 10. "Then we ask, 'It's the goal of our firm to provide you with the highest level of service you've ever received on a consistent basis. Are we doing that?'" says Carson. If the client says yes, the firm gets a bonus point. "So potentially, we could get a rating of 11 from a client," he says. Any client who rates the service level below a seven gets a phone call from Carson, who asks what the firm can do to get a higher rating next year.

Carson proudly reports that the firm's average rating has only fallen below a 10 during three out of the 16 quarters they've tracked the numbers. What's deceptive about client surveys, he cautions, however, is that the markets can affect clients' responses, even to questions unrelated to performance. "My team will tell you that my clients are much tougher graders on service in a bear market than in a bull market," says Carson. "During down times, I think our team worked even harder at returning calls faster, tackling the little things, and really going above and beyond for clients. But clients will even tell you that when they're in a better mood and feeling better about their money, they're easier graders than when they're depressed because their accounts are down 10% for the year."

A Rewarding Experience

Staff members take a great interest in the clients' "report cards," since their quarterly bonuses are tied, at least in part, to the grades that clients dole out. "My staff is compensated in part on a system that I call 'results-based pay,' and 20% of [their quarterly bonus] is based on the clients' satisfaction index, which comes directly from these surveys," says Carson. The second 20% is based on how close the team is to achieving group goals set at the beginning of the year, "so 40% of their bonus is tied to how the team, the office, works together," he says. The remaining 60%, which is divided into three elements worth 20% each, is tied to how the staff member performs as an individual. The three elements differ from one staff member to another, depending upon their job responsibilities.

Carson's trading assistant, for example, is evaluated on the basis of the frequency of trade errors: "If the average for our B/D is one trade error per 100 and my trader's rate is lower, he's costing me less money and providing higher client satisfaction, and therefore providing a valuable service to the firm." The director of first impressions, on the other hand, is evaluated in part on her ability to keep the database of personal client information up-to-date.

From picnics and parties to care packages and surveys, Carson's extraordinary focus on client communication had paid significant dividends for him and his firm. "When we ask our clients what makes our firm unique and appealing, they normally say one of two things: They like the level of communication, or they feel like they're a part of a family." While extravagant client-appreciation events may not be every advisor's style, Carson's experience certainly suggests that such events could pay off in spades.

Besides, it would be fun to get that marching band, wouldn't it?

Assistant Managing Editor Karen Hansen Weese can be reached at khansen@ia-mag.com.

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