Golf, despite its overwhelming popularity, is one of life’s rarities. It’s one of the few pastimes that doesn’t have to be done particularly well to be enjoyed.

While the best players in the world compete on television every week and earn vast sums of money, the rest of the golfers in the world pay to play the game, and they do so out of the spotlight and on the fringes of the rulebook. A bad day golfing, the old saying goes, beats a good day working.

With so many people calling themselves golfers – and with many of them owing the game of golf an apology – it is little wonder so much business is conducted on the lush fairways and greens of courses everywhere. But business golf doesn’t have to be limited to the high-powered executives of huge corporations. Senior advisors can use golf as a prospecting and marketing tool, no matter how big their organization and no matter where they live. They just have to know some of the formats used by their peers, what to look for in a course, and what kinds of courses give them the best opportunity to find their ideal prospects.

In anticipation of many of the queries sure to arise, we’ve compiled a list of Frequently Asked Questions, complete with answers and tips to help advisors hit the course swinging.

Q. Why golf?

A. The short answer here is “Jeopardy!”-like – another question: Why not golf? According to the National Golf Foundation, there are nearly 30 million golfers in the United States, and in 2002 those golfers spent more than $24 billion on green fees and equipment. And golf isn’t the kind of game people have to give up as they get older. Many people actually swing a club for the first time later in life. How many times have advisors heard people say they want to retire and hit the golf course? It’s a dream for many Americans.

Golf is a highly social game, and it creates an atmosphere of camaraderie that is difficult to create in other settings. Prospects can get to know the planner in a no-pressure environment while doing something they enjoy.

“Basically,” says Gene Herscher, the owner of Strategic Planning Assistance in Del Ray Beach, Fla., “it’s a longer introduction with something we’re all familiar with. It’s all about golf instead of finances. We don’t talk about anything serious; we get to know them personally.”

Q. What are my options?

A. When it comes to implementing golf as a prospecting tool, advisors have a few different routes they can choose. They can make it a smaller, more intimate event; they can go with a medium-sized group outing; or they can go with a larger, more corporate-style occasion. Ideas for small and medium-sized events are offered below.

Small but powerful

One golf strategy employed by financial advisors involves a small group of clients, but it can yield big results. At the extreme, advisors invite one client to invite two friends; the advisor then joins them to round out the foursome. The group plays 18 holes in a relaxed atmosphere, getting to know each other better. Usually, the established client talks up the advisor to his friends so the advisor doesn’t have to talk about himself. For four hours, the group chats and plays golf.

Herscher and other planners in his office employ this small-group strategy regularly, with two or three advisors taking groups out at the same time. Keeping it so small allows each advisor to really get to know the prospects in his group, and, conversely, it allows the prospects to get to know the advisor in a much more friendly manner than at a seminar or in a one-hour face-to-face meeting at the office. For advisors who want more than just a transaction, time spent on the golf course with potential clients is an investment.

“This industry is all relationship-based,” Herscher says. “Everyone has product to offer.” So the stronger the foundation of that relationship, the more likely the relationship will last for the long haul.

And, Herscher adds, the expense of golf is less than conducting a seminar with a meal.

Medium blend

Setting out on an 18-hole round with a client and a couple of his buddies is the most personal way to get to know people, but advisors who want to get their name and face in front of a few more people can be just as effective on the course. A larger, but manageable, group can be brought to the course and treated a couple of different ways.

Wilma Anderson sponsors a golf event for her best clients each fall, and it is always a big hit. Clients talk about it all year. She invites her 10 best clients to each bring a friend to one of the Denver area’s nicest courses (she rotates her venues) and enjoy a free round of golf. And Anderson, president of Littleton, Colo.-based Senior Care Associates (www.ltccoach.com), doesn’t even swing a club at her event. So what does she do all day if she doesn’t golf?

“I drive the beer wagon,” she says. “That lets me meet and enjoy the day with everyone.”

She moves from group to group, offering beverages and getting to know the 10 guests her clients have brought.

“For new prospects, it’s important to spend time with them in a relaxed atmosphere,” Anderson says. “By the 19th hole, they have all met me.”

After the round, while everyone is enjoying hors d’oeuvres and wine or beer, Anderson tells everyone that this is a client appreciation event and that she would be happy to talk to anyone who would like to have his finances looked at. That’s all the pressure she applies. And to end the day on a high note, Anderson gives out prizes. She offers free golf lessons – with a pro, not her, as she calls herself a terrible golfer – gift cards for dinner, hot air balloon rides and more.

Herscher also conducts medium-sized events for his clients and prospects. He and his fellow advisors hold financial seminars at various country clubs in his area of Florida, and when they do these they put up flyers or buy ads in newsletters highlighting a free golf clinic they are going to offer at the club. Herscher pays for a group lesson so everyone can be taught by the club pro, and the club will usually offer a discount on the green fees if Herscher takes the group golfing after the lesson. It’s a good way to meet 10 to 20 new prospects and begin building relationships with them.

Q. When do I talk business?

A. In an industry where long-term relationships create the best client base, a four- or five-hour introduction is hard to beat – especially when that introduction takes place in a laid-back atmosphere where business talk is kept to an absolute minimum.

Advisors who have spent a lot of time on the course with clients and prospects almost all say the same thing: Let prospects be the ones to bring up talk of financial affairs. There is no faster way to go from magnanimous to petty than to ask, “So, who wants to talk about annuities?” – especially if someone is in the middle of his backswing. But don’t worry, talk of finances almost always comes up.

“They are the first ones to bring up money,” Herscher says.

Q. Where do I set my event?

A. Try to find courses that present an ample challenge, and look for courses that are well-known in a particular area but may be difficult for people to gain access to – private clubs, expensive public courses, etc. Herscher and Anderson both like to rotate their events. Doing so gives Herscher the chance to meet new people all of the time, and if Anderson has any repeat clients from year to year, they can play on a different track.

Q. Who do I contact to set something up?

A. At many courses, the head professional will be the best point of contact, especially for advisors who want to offer a free group lesson. The pro can come up with something for the advisor that will suit his needs in most cases.

Some courses are more prepared. Tustin Ranch Golf Course (www.tustinranchgolf.com) in Tustin, Calif., has a corporate clinic coordinator, Karen Tucker, who organizes large and small events for clients ranging from independent financial advisors to corporations as large as IBM. Tucker and the staff have created two offerings for their corporate clinic clients, each of which can be customized.

The small-group clinic consists of everything an advisor might want for his event: professional instruction, video swing analysis, high-speed launch monitor, golf clubs for those without, and the latest equipment available to test. And people like Tucker are available to coordinate it all, if the advisor puts in the time to research courses in his area.

Q. What if I want to offer lunch or breakfast?

A. Usually, the head pro or the clinic coordinator won’t be able to handle the food portion of the event, but they certainly will know who can. Again, a little bit of research can yield dividends in this area, as most of the nicer courses – the courses where ideal prospects play – have Web sites with important information posted.

Q. How do I know I’m getting the right prospects?

A. Well, advisors who are worried about possibly wasting time with mismatched prospects may not know their client base well enough. People tend to know other people much like them, so if an advisor’s clients are the kind of people he wants to work with, the chances are good that those clients will bring similarly situated friends to the golf events.

“The nice thing,” Herscher says, “is that their net worth is usually not a question. If your clients are worth between $500,000 and $3 million, their buddies probably are, too.”

Even when events are open to anyone at a particular country club, advisors have a pretty good idea of the people they will meet if they know the demographics of the club. As Herscher says: “If you target the right clubs, you’ll get the right prospects.”

Mark Twain famously said that golf is a good walk spoiled, and many who have put on the spikes and hacked away can relate to his sentiment, even if most players today ride a cart. But with the right combination of setting, atmosphere, people and planning, golf can be a fulfilling way for senior advisors to reward current clients and prospect for new ones.

Looked at in a new light, golf doesn’t have to be something advisors don’t have time for. Every second spent on the course with the right prospects is a second invested in a future relationship – a hole-in-one on a scorecard full of double and triple bogies.

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