From the August 2008 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

The Donut-Eaters

Back in the early 1800s, when I started my financial career as an advisor, we prospected for clients the old-fashioned way -- by knocking on doors. The folksy firm I worked for actually required that you knock on 1,000 doors before you could open your office. Today, that very same activity would have the local SWAT team descending on you with stun guns and hand grenades, before subjecting you to the always dreaded cavity search.

So what are financial advisors supposed to do if they want to spend a leisurely week of prospecting? I guess they could pick up the phone and start calling people . . . oh wait, I forgot about the Do Not Call lists. Perhaps they could spam out 18 million e-mails or blast-fax the Eastern seaboard. Nope, can't do that either. Unfortunately, there are no simple solutions, unless you choose to wade into the world of the donut-eaters.

Early in my career, I learned that a great way to put butts in my seminar seats was to advertise the presence of food at my informational meeting. Nothing makes a wholesaler presentation go down smoother than a jelly donut and a scotch on the rocks. Especially if you can get the wholesaler to pick up the Dunkin' Donuts tab!

The term "donut-eater" doesn't necessarily mean "one who eats donuts." It refers to the legions of blue-haired old ladies and bald men (mainly senior citizens) who attend these very important life-or-death financial seminars for the grub. Most attend for the social aspects of it -- it's the senior citizen's version of Match.com, if you will.

To the savvy advisor, this comes as no shock. Donut-eaters have long been a thorn in the side of the prospecting rep. For centuries, advisors have put up with these people because you never know which donut-eater is a card-carrying member of The Players Club. This stud/studette could be the reason the entire nursing home shows up at your annuity seminar.

The challenge the advisor faces is in making his or her presentation interesting enough that, assuming the PoliGrip holds, attendees will focus more on what is being said than who has the Viagra.

So how do you pull this off? The answer is simple: props. If you don't believe me, watch the comedian Carrot Top sometime. Props kill, especially if you have no pride and will stoop as low as you have to go to get the job done.

A perfect example of this appeared on a recent Dateline NBC program. Risking life and limb, the reporter went undercover into the dangerous, drug-infested world of index annuities. With hidden cameras and decoy senior citizens, the reporter secretly infiltrated the world of the donut-eaters.

Our unwitting host, Mr. Insurance Man, started his presentation during the salad phase by announcing, "I'm not here to sell anything." This in itself should have started a stampede for the door, but, hey, who wants to waste good iceberg lettuce and ranch dressing?

Sensing uneasiness, Mr. IM reached for the coup de grace: a ratchet wrench. Yes, that's right. Now for me, nothing screams serious investment talk like a ratchet wrench. And although they were still nervously waiting for the waitress to bring more butter, the audience was riveted.

I could go into Mr. IM's whole pitch about how a ratchet wrench only goes one way and compare it to locking in stock market gains, but, quite frankly, I don't have the stomach for it. I found myself disgusted that the world of prospecting has gotten so crazy that our hard-working advisors have to turn into prop-performing monkeys. What's a brand-new financial advisor supposed to do today to gain new clients?

My advice is to take life into your own hands. Risk the SWAT team cavity search and start knocking on doors the old-fashioned way. Just to be on the safe side, though, you might want to bring along a big box of donuts.

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Once a mildly amusing comedian, Bill Miller now works as a recruiter for a top independent broker-dealer; reach him at writingbill@mac.com.

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