When you hear really successful people talk about their success “in the seminar business,” they seldom share the fact that seminar selling has changed. Before I begin to tell you what and how I make seminars work–and they do–let me share some of the issues I’ve had to deal with and to some extent still deal with today.

Realities

1. The numbers are different. Ten years ago, you could mail 3,000 pieces and be successful. Today you’d better mail 10,000 or save the stamps altogether. A 1% rate is what you can reasonably expect if you have a good invitation.

Where do our mailing lists come from? Early on our firm tried commercial lists. Then we bought database lists. We found that we could develop our own list from local resources; and often our lists were better than those you could buy. One idea we use that adds at least 50 names to our master list each month involves giving away books. Each attendee who gives us at least 4 referrals for our mailing list gets a free book.

2. There is a large group of people in the community that are “professional seminar attendees.” These folks can sleep through your presentation with their eyes open. Often, they’re the ones that appear the most interested. They have heard great questions and can repeat the questions so you think they are really interested. Don’t be fooled. If they ask great personal questions in public, they are usually broke and have just learned the basic tricks required to be a “professional seminar attendee.”

3. Competition appears out of thin air. If you start seeing really fancy invitations to expensive restaurants where lawyers, CPAs or company VIPs are guest speakers, then smile–these folks won’t be around next month. I ask my staff, friends and clients to save the invitations for me. I put them in a file and occasionally I even steal a neat word or phrase from the invitation.

While I am convinced that there are really great seminar assistance companies in the marketplace few, if any, are actually in our business–they are in the seminar assistance business. If they claim to make you successful fast, assume they are only talking about making themselves rich, not you.

These people have simply figured out that most agents are looking for an easy way to spend their money. They know we hate rejection. And they know that most agents would rather fail expensively than deal with rejection or pay the real dues success requires.

4.Compliance is increasingly important. Always have your compliance folks review all of your presentations. They should also review stationery, business cards and all of your literature. Always have a disclaimer that you aren’t practicing law.

Also, tell your clients that it is your job to assist them in getting the work done efficiently and economically. We tell them we’ll sit down with their lawyer at our office without charge or we’ll bring in a competent attorney, with whom we have no financial relationship, to assist them. They know in advance that we do not get paid by the attorneys. Our goal is to help them get the needed work done quickly and correctly.

Not too fancy-not too plain

My process starts with an invitation to a dinner seminar. The invitation is a multifold card in an envelope. It is not fancy or elaborate. You hear all about fancy mailers but they just cost too much. Even if they work, they are too expensive and take too much effort.

I believe in luck and numbers. Luck only works when you send out enough numbers. The first mistake most people make is to send out too few invitations. If you are going to do this type of marketing, do more than enough.

The numbers are not the same as they once were. People are more suspicious and the competition is keen. We usually do bulk mail. The key to making bulk mail work is making sure that the mail gets out earlier than normally is required for first class mail. Often bulk mail will sit in the post office longer.

We have discovered that when we go to a nice neighborhood restaurant, close to where prospects live, our attendance and believability picks up at least two notches. There are many restaurants with meeting rooms that go unused most evenings. The owners are often happy to have those rooms in use and the smart owners will work with you.

Today, our attendance has improved, often the cost of the event is reduced, and I enjoy dealing with folks who aren’t professional seminar attendees.

Go out of town

I suggest you go to towns and villages 20-30 miles out of town. If possible, go further. By traveling these distances, you’ll find that your conversion rate of invitations to attendees will more than double.

Small town folks are part of a largely underserved market. When I go into a town and conduct a presentation, I ask a few questions. How often do you see your agent or your broker? When was the last time your advisor did an “asset allocation review,” a “beneficiary analysis” or helped you with “income planning?”

The answer is usually: “It has been years”. Then I say: “If you’ll drive (20-50 miles) to our office 2-4 times a year, we’ll help keep you in financially good health.” Initially, I thought folks would say they wouldn’t travel to see us. Nothing can be further from the truth. Many come 50 miles 2 to 4 times a year for their review meetings.

Speak before dinner

What day works best for seminars? You can do it any day of the week but we prefer Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday evenings. Monday just doesn’t work. Even if the restaurant will open, most people are still mentally getting over the weekend. We start at 6 p.m.; early enough to get the whole thing over by 8:15 p.m.

When do you present and when do they eat? There are dozens of ideas that are a matter of preference and style, but I speak before dinner. We do not serve alcohol. This helps keep the audience in control and participants are not going to leave before the food is served.

Important points to cover

I begin by saying: “I know most of you are here to learn. I am here to help you if you want my help. No one is too small or too big. We will help you if you show us the same courtesy and respect we show all of our clients.”

I explain that this is how we market and that we have been doing it for many years. I tell people that when I am done speaking my staff assistant will ask them if they want to come for a free initial meeting. I mention that a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ would be appreciated. Most people respect our direct approach and are honest with us.

Estate planning is more than the federal death tax

We spend a lot of time discussing wills and “powers documents.” We talk about beneficiaries and the fact that most assets can be passed by either title or beneficiary. I identify many of the mistakes we see in most wills. This discussion is undertaken to gain prospects’ confidence, earn their trust and encourage them to see financial planning from a holistic perspective.

Each week attorneys at our office assist clients with wills and related documents. With the erosion of the estate planning market, attorneys who specialize are losing much of their client base. They are happy to find new clients by partnering with financial advisors. If you help your clients, you will build their trust. This can lead to future business.

We have taken the “dynasty concept” in a new direction. This idea has dozens of uses. For example, a person of modest means can create a tax-free estate that passes to children without compromising their standard of living during retirement. One of my favorite “sizzle ideas” explains why people should take money from the IRA while they are alive and create a “dynasty policy” with their kids as owners.

One of my critical questions is: “How often has your attorney, your CPA or your financial guy sat at a table to sort out and arrange your financial mess?” Everyone says “never.” I say that this is what I am talking about tonight.

We talk about the fact that half the attorneys in America do not have a will. Statistically, the average attorney draws up fewer than 2 wills per year. I mention that I have a son who is an excellent employment attorney. He concurs that few attorneys he knows have experience in drafting wills. Then I say, ‘Why would you use an amateur to draft your final estate distribution document?’ I mention that over 70% of Americans die intestate.

Insurance can be used to create a “family foundation.” Give the kids a reason to get together after you’re gone. Getting your family involved in philanthropy can hold the family together.

Long term care planning is a great estate planning concept. Statistically, 60% of the over-age 65 population will spend part of their life in a nursing home. In our area, the average cost of a nursing home exceeds $100,000 per year. Once people understand the real cost-benefit potential, LTC insurance becomes a logical solution to their problem.

First impressions

If the seminar attendee indicates a desire to move forward with our planning services, we schedule an appointment with the individual at our office. It is critical that you make a favorable impression with your client on their first visit.

We attempt to create what some folks call the “Starbucks experience.” When they get to our office, they are greeted by our staff. They see their names on the welcome marquee. We assist them with their coats and offer them our best non-alcoholic libation. We make every effort to make them comfortable.

When they have to wait more than 5 minutes, one of our staff goes out to chat with them. In general, people appreciate the visit. The success of this concept is reflected in the fact that we have three conference rooms constantly in use with new clients, client reviews or the taking of new applications.

Fact-finding

The better the fact-finding, the better the long-term success with a client. The more personal information a prospective client shares with me, the more committed to the process the prospective client becomes. If the client opens up and shares his real concerns, it’s an indication of trust. Once the prospective client demonstrates trust in me, he or she will not go down the street to be interrogated by another advisor.

One problem at a time

The more times clients come to our office the more they learn to like me and, more importantly, my staff. I see many agents trying to impress people by overwhelming them with information. This is the easiest way to lose a client. We slow the process down and build a relationship first. That creates a better client-advisor relationship and ultimately we do more business because of this.

Maintain contact

Meet with your clients on a regular basis. When I was a young producer my GA said to meet with clients 2 times annually. I did and it worked. Today I attempt to do one better. When you become a client, you are invited to come to our offices either two or four times each year. I believe this keeps those that stick to the commitment close to us. They become better clients and ultimately refer us to their friends.

As I conclude this article, let me explain some our success statistics. In late 2000, when we entered the personal production field after 25 years in agency management, we had 30 active clients. Today, we have between 700 and 800 clients and are adding new clients at the rate of approximately 100 per year. Approximately 40% of these new clients come to us from unsolicited referrals.

Each of the past six years our business has grown between 20% and 25%. Our future appears very bright. If you are trying to build a business, I encourage you to consider some of the ideas shared in this article.

Richard C. Moldenhauer, CLU, ChFC, CEP, is principal of Moldenhauer & Associates, an Orchard Park, N.Y.-based firm affiliated with the UNIFI Companies You can e-mail him at richm@moldenhauerassociates.com