Case study: Showing your appreciation to clients

By Geoff Kirbyson | June 10, 2009 | Last updated on June 10, 2009
4 min read

Quick — what activity comes to mind when you think of client appreciation events? Golf is by far the winner — and why not? ‘Tis the season for hitting the links. But advisor Greg Thompson wanted a unique event for his clients, something that maximized fun and socializing with others — two characteristics he feels are lacking at many golf tournaments.

While participants in golf events can mingle before the tee-off and during the dinner part of the evening, for the vast majority of the day, they’re stuck with their three playing partners sprinkled with brief interludes with the foursomes in front and behind.

That’s not necessarily everyone’s idea of a fun time. Which is why Thompson wanted to mix things up last summer by hosting a croquet tournament for 60 clients and prospects. The day’s festivities included a reception prior to a couple hours of croquet on five adjoining pitches, followed by a barbecue.

Proceeds from the event went to KidSport, a Sport Manitoba charity that provides funding and “gently used” equipment to less fortunate children, he says.

Thompson believes a croquet tournament is more inclusive than a golf event and attracts non-golf-playing spouses and novices who might pass on a golf tournament for fear of embarrassing themselves in front of complete strangers, some of whom may mistake themselves for the next coming of Tiger Woods. After all, few people participate in croquet regularly, which puts everyone on equal footing.

“Nobody will have to worry about having a handicap in single digits,” notes Thompson, an investment advisor and associate portfolio manager at RBC Dominion Securities in Winnipeg. “We just wanted to have some fun. There are enough serious things going on in our lives. How can you take croquet seriously?”

Not that the competitive juices didn’t start to flow with some clients, however. Thompson says once the first ball was struck, players had to be on their game or risk being victimized by some good-natured trash talking.

Croquet is also less of a time commitment than golf, and costs less. Thompson says he spent about $4,000 on his event, all of which was covered by a quartet of sponsors: CI Financial, Mackenzie Financial Corp., RBC Asset Management and Fidelity Investments Canada.

Thompson says his pitch was simple — he was throwing a light-hearted event and sponsors could benefit from the good vibrations.

“They bought in right away. They liked that the tournament was new and fresh,” he says.

He also wanted to create an atmosphere that allowed him to answer client and prospect questions about the market’s latest twists and turns. “If they’re not getting good service and not having their portfolios represented to their needs, we’re more than happy to talk to them,” he says.

But having said that, Thompson emphasizes that he didn’t want to make business building a focus at the event. “Then you’re missing out on the altruistic reasons for doing it,” he notes. “It’s a very fine line. Clients can always tell when somebody is doing it for the right reasons or just to grab headlines.”

Thompson faced just one major obstacle: where do you hold a croquet tournament in a central setting with plenty of parking? Realizing that specific croquet courses are non-existent in Winnipeg, he settled for the next best thing — Canwest Park, a 7,000-seat baseball stadium that’s home to the Northern League’s Winnipeg Goldeyes.

Mother Nature threw another twist at him, with rain causing the original mid-June date to be postponed. The inclement weather actually turned out to be a positive as lighter late-summer schedules allowed more people to attend, he says.

Through it all, he says, he relied heavily on the efforts of his assistant, Kim Stephanchew, who put the teams together, booked the venue, dealt with the sponsors and put out any fires that came up.

Derrick Coupland, a partner at Blacksheep Strategy, a Winnipeg-based branding consultancy, notes that running an alternative event such as a croquet tournament can go a long way to developing one’s own personal brand. That’s a particularly compelling feature in a relationship business, he says.

“A prospect or client who gives up half a day of their time to spend at an event of a service provider is encouraging from a sales development standpoint,” he says.

Coupland believes the croquet event could also have other residual benefits, such as being the subject of the participants’ water cooler talk for the following few days.

“It seems like upside all the way around,” he says. “There is constant pressure for advisors to stand out and differentiate themselves. This seems like an innovative way to do that.”

But if you expect client appreciation events to definitely generate new business, think again.

“Anybody who thinks they’ll (land a prospect) cold by having them out to an event like this isn’t being realistic,” says Dan Richards, president of Strategic Imperatives. “More and more, clients have to satisfy themselves on the professionalism and quality of advice. Once an advisor has demonstrated that, [an event] ]how that the advisor is client-oriented and not doing the same old things (as other advisors). That can move the process along.”

Geoff Kirbyson is a Winnipeg-based writer.


Geoff Kirbyson