We’ve all heard the stories of advisors who have successfully grown their firms with dramatic strategies: radio shows, seminars, a newspaper column, referrals from accountants or a tight niche focus (executives at a large local company, vineyard owners, dry cleaners, widows, etc.).
Now, don’t get me wrong: these are all great, successful strategies. The problem is that for the most part they are either based on a skill that most advisors don’t have (broadcasting, public speaking, writing, etc.), shared experiences (a former dentist working with dentists, etc.), or resulted from an opportunity that presented itself, rather than by design (most client “niches”).
What about advisors who don’t have “media” skills or haven’t discovered a client “niche”? Basically, they’re stuck with the old standby: referrals from existing clients. We all know that’s how most successful advisory firms were built. As we also all know, there are many strategies for getting more client referrals, with “just ask for them” at the top of the list. While there’s rarely any harm in asking, we’ve found a very simple strategy that virtually guarantees client referrals.
But before I tell you the secret to unlimited referrals, let me warn you: you’re going to hate this idea, and most of you won’t even try it. In fact, I can divide my advisor-client list into two columns: those who do this (and are turning clients away), and those who don’t, and have anemic referral rates and/or fired me over the recommendation.
Okay, are you ready for the secret to life, the universe, and advisory firm growth? Here it is: client perks.
Well, get over it. (In "The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy," the answer was “42,” so it could be worse.) One of the fundamental truths of life is that people love free stuff. The more affluent they are, the more they love it. Keep in mind, this doesn’t have to make sense to you; it just has to work.
And work it does. What’s more, the perks don’t have to be expensive: They can even be free. In fact, you don’t even have to give free stuff yourself: you can just help your clients to get free stuff. Here are some examples of client perks that advisors have offered, which we’ve seen produce huge referral results:
- Identity Theft Protection
One advisor contacted one of those identity theft protection companies and negotiated a flat fee to provide their service to his entire client base. The cost was negligible, but the message was clear: here was an advisor who truly cared about her clients’ financial well-being. This is the kind of thing that clients tell their friends about at cocktail parties and on the golf course. I think all advisors should offer this perk.
- Account Aggregation
This is a big one these days. A number of my advisor clients have cut deals with online aggregation sites or phone apps (like from mint.com) that enables clients to download all their financial accounts—bank, brokerage, credit card, etc.—into one easy-to-access site or app. Again, the cost is very low, and clients love it.
- A Platinum American Express Card
The clients have to pay the annual fee, but the advisor’s office works with American Express to fill out the applications and gets his clients approved with minimal hassle for them. Then, the best part, the advisor (or someone in his office) has become an expert on AmEx card perks, and gives a class to their clients about all the free perks, rewards, and discounts that are available from American Express, and the best ways to take advantage of them. It’s hugely popular client perk (kind of like a concierge service) at no cost to the advisor, other than a bit of employee time and effort.
- Subscriptions to Kiplinger’s Personal Finance
There's a discount deal to this respected magazine that allows you buy a gift subscription for 12 issues for $12 for up to 100 clients, or $10 for 12 issues for more than 100 gift subscriptions. Recipients can get a gift card announcing the subscription, and when each magazine arrives the mailing label will read “Courtesy of [your firm here].” (For more information, email circulation director Roseann Ciccarello)
Afterward, and if you wish, you can follow up by sending a monthly email pointing out articles of particular interest to your clients.
- Casino Rewards Cards
One advisor in Kansas noticed that, like many local folks, a lot of his clients like to visit the casinos on the Missouri River. (Being Kansas born and raised I understand this. Kansas folks work a lot with nothing to do with the extra cash.) So he contacted Harrah’s casino and got all his clients their “rewards” cards, which track their chip purchases, give them free perks such as free meals, shows, and hotel rooms. The advisor tells her clients how to maximize their points, and how to get their free stuff. The clients love it—and it costs her nothing.
- Berkshire Hathaway Shares
This is my favorite client perk. This advisor lives in Nebraska, as do his clients. He recommends that all this clients buy at least one share in Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRK.A BRK.B). Yes, the A shares are in the stratosphere, but owners of B shares (trading recently at $121/share) get the same benefits. Not only do this advisor's clients get to attend the BH annual shareholder meeting in Omaha, which is just cool, but as BH shareholders, they also get significant discounts from many of the companies which are wholly owned subsidiaries of Berkshire Hathaway, including GEICO, The Nebraska Furniture Mart, Mrs. Sees Candies, RC Willey Home Furnishings, Borsheim’s Fine Jewelry and more.
And our advisor clients come up with new perks all the time. Why does any of this work? Here’s my theory: The financial services you provide to your clients—while enabling their happy retirements, health care, children’s and grandchildren’s futures, etc.—are what they are paying for. At least, that’s how they see it.
Perks are unexpected extras: they’re what they’ll tell their friends about, who, of course, will want those free perks, too.
I know, these perks seem silly, compared to what you actually do for your clients, professionally. But ask yourself this: Does it really matter why your clients come to you, if it costs you little or nothing, and it enables you to really help more people? If not, just try a perk or two, and see if it doesn’t dramatically increase your referral rate. The worst that can happen is that you make some of your existing clients happier.
Call me crazy or hate the recommendation, but I guarantee it works for firms of all sizes.
For additional insights on successful referral strategies, check out these ThinkAdvisor articles:
How to Become an Advisor of Influence, by Jane Wollman Rusoff
To Succeed With Referrals, Become Politely Aggressive, by Scott Wood