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Are seminars still relevant?

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Critics of financial seminars, including some financial advisors, maintain that the presentations are an expensive time-waster for advisors serving the retiree and pre-retiree markets. Detractors claim the public largely views the programs as thinly disguised, high-pressure sales pitches served over a mediocre restaurant meal. Seminars have become a cliché and it’s time for the industry to drop them.

Not so fast, say advisors who host successful seminars. A timely and informative program can still attract qualified prospects and help build a business. A professional presentation creates a positive image for the presenters and if attendees are seeking an advisor, they will follow up on their own accord, so there’s no need for aggressive selling. Here’s how several advisors are getting good results from their seminars.

Prescreen prospects

Richard Moldenhauer of Moldenhauer & Associates in Orchard Park, New York started doing seminars about 16 years ago. He wanted to avoid the inefficiency of doing initial interviews with individual prospects and concluded it would be more efficient to explain to a group what his firm offers and why a prospect would wish to work with them.

His firm’s workshops, which focus on estate planning, serve as a mutual screening tool as well as a marketing platform. “It also gives the potential client a chance to look at us, see if they like us, see if they like our message, and decide whether they’re interested in the type of service we have,” he explains. “Our entire process is very low key; it’s not designed to sell anything, (except) perhaps maybe to sell our firm and our ongoing relationship. Most people are out there looking for an advisor that they like and trust; they’re not necessarily looking for a product. So, our process is designed to bring people in that are looking for a long-term advisory relationship.”

Focus your themes

Narrower presentation themes can stand out from broader topics. Joseph Alfonso, CFP with Aegis Financial Advisory LLC in Lake Oswego, Oregon started doing Social Security seminars in January 2014. He wanted a way to differentiate his advisory practice from his generalist local competitors and decided that hosting Social Security workshops could accomplish that goal. Last year, he ran 19 workshops and plans to offer about eight this year. He presents the programs in conjunction with a local community college and an adult community center whose members are age 50 and older. Those organizations handle the publicity and Alfonso says the programs’ attendance has been good.

Of course, some focused topics don’t work out, even for seasoned seminar veterans. Rick Kahler, MSFP with Kahler Financial Group in Rapid City, South Dakota has been holding workshops since 1981. He presents an investment and financial planning class at an adult continuing education center that routinely fills up. In fact, he says people stay up until midnight before the first enrollment day so they can sign up. But there have been flops, he admits, even with unique tools: “I offered one [seminar] on the emotional side of money, the emotional behaviors around investing, and we couldn’t attract one person.”

Develop expertise

Seminars don’t have to be aimed at the public. James Groce, CFP with Texas Financial Resources LP in Plano, Texas was put in touch with a worker at a major employer in his area that was offering employees a retirement package. When that worker showed up to meet with Groce, he brought a co-worker who had received the same offer. It turned out to be a complex early-retirement offer that required substantial effort to understand. But Groce waded into the details. “I hesitate to use the word ‘expert,’ but I learned an awful lot about the ins-and-outs of this particular company’s retirement benefits,” he says. “They were impressed with what I was able to show them with regard to accepting the offer and how it would affect the way their financial life would look post-employment and they referred me to some others.”

After four or five appointments, Croce realized he had enough information to build a presentation designed specifically for the company’s employees. Using contacts he had made, he was able to attract other workers to presentations on their benefits. He usually hosts the seminars off-site at a local restaurant in the evening and they’ve become a steady source of business for him. “They were able to get the word out inside the company about my seminars and people started coming,” he says. “And, before I knew it, six months, a year later, I had a pretty good following inside the firm and had a regular source of referrals for retirement planning.

Attract the audience

Giving presentations gets easier with practice, but attracting prospects interested in more than a free meal is always hard work. Moldenhauer works with a marketing firm to coordinate some of the invitation mailings for the two to three programs he does each month; he also invites existing clients each time. “Every time we send an invitation out to the general public within a region where we’re doing a seminar, we ask our clients to bring a friend,” he says. “I would say that in each month’s seminars we have between 80 and 110 potential buying units and about 15 or 20 of them are our clients, who usually bring a friend that they want to refer to our firm.”

Phil Batchelder, CFP with Prudential Financial in Jacksonville, Florida has been doing seminars for about 12 years. He used newspaper advertising when he started and eventually started working with a mailing service that handles invitations and responses for his monthly programs. He also invites clients and other potential prospects directly. Another method he’s used is to work with product wholesalers to sponsor his presentations.

Kahler prefers to have another organization sponsor his programs, a technique that reduces the time his staff spends on promoting the event. He cites a recent program that was sponsored by a local college as an example: “We had 25 people there and all I had to do was show up, speak and leave. I like that. It’s a lot less work. So, today I am more focused on finding a sponsor that will fill the seats rather than me having to fill the seats.”

Alfonso takes a similar tack. He doesn’t do mass mailings because he doubts their efficacy. Instead he approaches community groups that are willing to host his seminars and whose constituencies have an interest in Social Security planning. The organizations provide the facility, audio-visual equipment and publicize the programs to their members.

Land the clients

Good material and a good turnout are vital; the next step is to convert attendees into prospective clients. Without exception, the advisors cited in this article report that using a hard sell to book post-seminar appointments is not the optimal approach. Batchelder says he takes a very low-key approach because some attendees are not under a tight deadline to find an advisor. The seminars help him build relationships and position him for that time when the prospects must make decisions on their retirement.

Moldenhauer uses what he calls a simple and direct process. At the beginning of the seminar, the speaker tells the audience that if at the end of the seminar they have an interest in booking an immediate appointment, there is a person on-site to handle bookings. “We don’t really chase people,” he says. “If somebody says no, we say OK. If they say yes, we say great. If they say, yes but not now, we say fine, when do you want us to call you back? I think that people get offended if people chase them too hard. And if we chase them, then all we’re doing is telling people that we’re desperate and, quite frankly, right now we’re not.”

Be consistent

These advisors also agreed that seminars are not a one-time proposition. You can’t expect to build a book of business from one event, because the results can take time to develop. Moldenhauer’s firm usually holds 2 to 3 seminars a month. It’s an ongoing process and he emphasizes that it requires a major commitment. Advisors who want to go this route should commit to seminars as their primary marketing process, he believes. “The key is (when) you’re going to start out, you need to dedicate a couple of staff people to doing the things necessary to keep your seminars moving forward and organized, or they’ll fall flat. And, again, I would say if you’re going to do it, you want to do it at least once a month. You don’t want to do it once a year.”

Batchelder recommends developing a plan with at least a six-month horizon that specifies the topics to be covered, the locations, and the target audience. By sticking with the plan, he says it becomes a turnkey operation over time. The restaurants learn your meal and seating preferences and the newspaper and other advertisers learn the desired ad format—you don’t have to start over with each program. “I don’t think you can do just one and expect it to all happen,” he says. “I think putting together a schedule and following that would probably be the best piece of advice I could give.”