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?)
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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.
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.”