The idea of giving a client seminar can leave some advisers in a cold sweat but, with the right topic and tone, they can be invaluable, writes Rebecca Jones...
What if no one turns up? What if the audience is bored to tears? What if, after all the time and money spent planning it, no clients are gained and some are even lost? In short, what if the whole thing is a complete and utter disaster?
However, despite these very common fears, many advisers do give seminars and would recommend giving them as, on the whole, the benefits far outweigh the negatives.
Andy Merricks, head of investments at Skerritt Consultants, is one such adviser. For him, being able to talk to a number of people at once is incredibly useful, not least because it helps to show "you know what you are talking about" to a large crowd.
Phil Young, director of adviser consultancy threesixty, agrees: "Seminars are an efficient way to demonstrate professional competence. If you want people to spend hard cash on your intellect and ability, the best thing to do is run seminars where you can demonstrate how capable you are."
For both Merricks and Young, seminars are key to keeping in touch with and educating current clients; however, they are also a great way of gaining new ones.
"We are always looking for new business from seminars. We present on the basis that we have a view and, if you like what we say, get in touch. It is a soft sell, really - and it works," says Merricks.
Young concurs: "Seminars are your classic way to market financial services. People need to trust you and your practice and, to get that, you need to give something away."
According to Young, the most important thing to get right when planning a seminar is the topic.
"Everyone gets loads of invites; what catches people's eye is the topic. All other things are secondary to what the hook is," he says.
This is a hard learnt lesson for Young, who admits that the 'save the date' type seminars his company used to market were less than successful. Now, threesixty plans its seminars a year in advance, based on the answers it receives to its annual survey, in which it asks advisers exactly what they want to hear about.
But is a survey a viable way for small advisory practices to decide on topics for its seminars? Young thinks so.
"Even if you only get 50 to 100 responses back from clients, at least that is something you can base an opinion around," he says.
Of course, topical issues can also be useful - and often necessary - hooks for seminars. Merricks recently held a seminar on auto-enrolment, which attracted over 100 people.
To get the best of both worlds, Young recommends leaving space in an advance seminar for topical issues, which should help to attract last minute, as well as long standing, interest.
The topic and tone of your seminar will also be influenced by the character and needs of your target audience. For example, if you plan to present to current clients, it may be useful to select those who will be most receptive to your pitch, as Dennis Hall, managing director of Yellowtail Financial Planning explains: "We recently held an EIS and VCT seminar for existing clients and only targeted those people we knew had the ability and desire to invest," he says.
Hall claims this selection process led to a highly productive seminar, in which savvy clients handled provider pitches like the 'dragons' of TV's Dragons' Den.
If you are planning to attract new clients via your seminar, it may be useful to target a specific market or demographic. Claire Walsh, adviser at Pavilion Financial Services, regularly conducts seminars aimed at small business owners, in which she and an accountant discuss issues such as sole trader versus limited company, tax-deductible expenses and, on the financial planning side, business protection and pensions.
"You have got to work quite hard at getting the pitch right for your audience. What you are saying has to appeal to them specifically," she says.
The structure of your seminar is also an important factor when it comes to both attracting an audience and keeping them interested. In the planning stages, it may be useful to work out an agenda, in which you set out exactly what you are going to talk about and for how long.
"It does take a lot of time to plan. You can't just rock up and speak to people," says Walsh.
She will work out a rough agenda around three months before her seminars, which she says gives her enough time to both tweak it and add important developments as they arise.
In terms of the length, most of the advisers we spoke to agreed that a seminar should be kept to around an hour. While limiting the capacity for boredom, both Merricks and Walsh say this should also ensure you are merely "pricking the interest" of your audience, rather than telling them everything they need to know.
"You are just trying to get them to think, 'ah, I do need you to help me with this'," says Walsh. Merricks adds: "You don't want them running off and doing it themselves - then you really have wasted your time."
Inviting guest speakers along is another useful tool for both attracting and maintaining interest, and can add credibility to your seminar. Clayton Cumming, director of Advice & Wealth Management Solutions, is currently planning his first seminar and has decided to invite his discretionary fund manager (DFM) along.
"Rather than us trying to explain DFMs, we thought it would be better to get the people that do it to come in and talk about it," he explains.
Even more useful may be, like Walsh, to invite a local accountant or solicitor to speak at your seminar, as this could lead to a good deal of cross referrals between your two firms.
Some advisers also like to make their seminars interactive, engaging the audience in the discussion as much as possible.
"We try to make it a bit more active by doing things like asking people to talk to each other about pensions or protection, particularly what they are unsure about. That way, everyone feels like they are doing something and we get a lead on any interesting things that come out," says Walsh.
Visual aids, such as the ever-present PowerPoint presentation, can also be useful tools for engagement. However, Hall advises caution here, warning that visual aids must be "of the right quality" so as to not seem tacky.
Time and location
Of course, when and where you hold your seminar will also be crucial to striking the right balance with your audience. Give consideration to the time of the seminar: if you are presenting to local business owners, a lunchtime appointment may be best, likewise if your target audience is retired.
If, on the other hand, you want to pitch to busy professionals, a late evening or early morning seminar may work better. As a general rule, a certain amount of hospitality should also be offered. As Merricks observes:
"If people are going to give up some time then you've got to give up some coffee." Offering bacon rolls never fails to draw people in either, he adds.
As with the time of the seminar, you also need to ensure that the location is as convenient as possible, as this is the most common gripe among seminar attendees, according to Young.
Some, like Merricks, prefer the less formal surroundings of their office for seminars, as they believe this puts clients more at ease. However, Young warns that you need to consider the logistics.
"If you've got a big office with a big car park then fine but, if you haven't, you're instantly causing a problem, as people will struggle to find somewhere to park," he says. Little frustrations like this can upset the tone of the whole seminar for attendees, he adds.
Once you have planned your seminar in its minutest detail, you will need to drum up some interest. If aimed at current clients, this may simply mean sending some emails and following up with phone calls. If you are looking for new clients, Merricks and Walsh recommend starting with local businesses, contacting them by email, telephone or even a friendly visit.
Advertising is another option, perhaps in the local paper or on the radio, but, as Merricks observes, this can be an expensive way of doing things. "Really, there is no substitute for picking up the phone and following that up with an email," he says.
From start to finish, devising and planning a seminar can be a long process, with Hall recommending a lead time of five to eight months for the larger talks and Walsh around three for the smaller.
However, there seems to be little doubt that they are worth it, with almost all of the advisers we spoke to claiming to have attracted new clients through them, while also helping them to build professional relationships. Of course, success is never guaranteed; however, as Merricks observes, the key is not to get disappointed but learn from each one.
| Top tips for a perfect seminar
Andy Merricks, head of investments at Skerritt Consultants: "Keep it relevant, keep it focused, keep it lively and offer bacon rolls: they'll be queuing round the block."
Dennis Hall, managing director of Yellowtail Financial Planning: "Do not bore them; you've got to entertain, talk in their language and don't make it too long."
Clayton Cumming, director of Advice & Wealth Management Solutions: "Set times for getting different parts organise - a week for invites, for example."
Phil Young, director of threesixty: "People want to buy stuff from other people that buy stuff like them, so get a similar demographic in the room together."
Claire Walsh, adviser at Pavilion Financial Services: "Don't go too in-depth. Some advisers think they need to show off their knowledge but what people really want is things brought down to their level."
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