Classic correspondence: Show you know your clients with personalized letters

By Philip Porado | March 24, 2005 | Last updated on March 24, 2005
5 min read

(March 2005) Sure there are software packages that will help you develop letters to clients. But many top advisors eschew those programs in favour of a more personal approach. They say written client communications are far too important to risk having them resemble form letters. Here are some tips on how to achieve that personal approach.

Handwrite the envelope. Labels or printed envelopes are okay for monthly statements, but anything that’s intended to solidify ties or sell the client must convey a one-on-one relationship the moment it drops through the mail slot. Rob Kelland, a director for Scotia-McLeod in London, Ont., often handwrites letters he sends to clients. “In the past we had four or five templates that I would tweak,” he says. “I found that by the time I was done tweaking it was easier to just write the letter. I do them early in the morning before things get busy.”

They aren’t long letters, he adds—generally three to four paragraphs—but they emphasize he and his team at the Kelland Group are ready to assist. And they always close with a personal tidbit recalled from a previous conversation, such as the client’s planned Caribbean vacation, or their child’s upcoming participation in a hockey tournament.

If it’s printed, dress it up. When you do use a form letter, be sure to handwrite a note near the salutation or as a postscript following the signature. Peter Chandler, branch manager at Canaccord Capital in Waterloo, Ont., always includes a personal note with research reports or packages he sends to clients. The note might read, “Hope you like this. I’ll call you within seven to nine days to discuss it.”

But if you promise to call, make sure you do. Chandler says clients will often hang on to an item they view as borderline junk mail if it contains a promise, just to see if the sender follows up. “When you actually make the phone call, then you’re building credibility,” Chandler notes. “When you say you’re going to do something, you have to actually do it.”

Bruce Cumming, president and founder of Cumming & Cumming Wealth Management in Oakville, Ont., ensures the opening and closing paragraphs of his client letters are personal, since much of the material he sends to clients is repetitive.

Also, when he sends an investment policy statement (IPS), he reads through the narrative provided by the mutual fund company and only uses it when it reads accessibly. Otherwise, he rewrites it in his own voice and sets aside a halfdozen places where he can insert personal information about the client (he uses visual cues to remember to insert this information, such as a line of “x’s”). “When the client receives the IPS, he thinks, ‘My goodness! He wrote six or seven pages to us.’They’re always very impressed,” Cumming remarks.

Strive for continuity. Cumming also stresses the importance of continuity when composing letters. “The biggest way you can screw this up is if you talk about ‘Bob and Shirley’ yet set it up for ‘David and Susan,’ ” he cautions. “You can’t leave in a Bob or a Shirley! You need to search for words you were using in the previous template and make sure nothing is left behind.”

Advisor Ken Stern, with Creative Planning Financial Group in Toronto, agrees continuity is key. When composing a letter to greet clients at the start of the year, he looks at what he mailed the year before and builds on that message.

He also reads year-end newspapers and website articles so the content is timely. “That ruminates for a week or so and then I start to make notes inside a copy of last year’s letter,” he explains, adding he likes to use a different font so he can distinguish the new material from the old.

The letter may focus on an issue, such as the fact that U.S. dollar-denominated investments haven’t been doing well lately. Since certain funds hedge the currency, Stern offers clients the option of setting up a meeting to discuss moving money into those funds. He adds it’s critical to take care when you have more than one client who lives in the same household. If their letters are too similar, your remarks will look impersonal.

Know when to get personal. Depending on the size of your practice, not all clients may warrant personalized treatment. Stern, for example, only writes personal letters to the top 50 of his 150 clients. “It’s not feasible to do this level of ommunication across your entire book of business,” he says. He works with his assistant to identify those top 50-bracket clients, and then edits the letters by adding personal touches. He also provides higher-end treatment to clients he anticipates will be moving into the top tier.

Kelland, on the other hand, says he’s committed to taking a personal approach with each of his 700 clients. Each client receives a post-meeting letter, regardless of whether the discussion lasted 20 minutes or two hours. And he emphasizes the importance of using high-quality stationery for all his clients. Kelland favours a heavy, watermarked bond with a ragged edge because it adds prestige. “It takes me two-and-a-half minutes to write, because it’s just a brief note to thank the client for popping into the office,” he says.

Gather the data. The advisors interviewed don’t generally use computerized systems to track client details, although two of them use databases to remind them about client birthdays or important life events. The relationship information is generally kept on paper notes within the client’s file. Gathering the details is a simple process, because much of the data is required by regulators and it’s easy to segue into a conversation about hobbies.

Move beyond letters. Chandler says another way to remain on the client’s radar is to purchase a subscription to a magazine that covers one of their personal interests. For example, if one client’s hobby is sailing, he’ll send her a subscription to a yachting magazine. However, he usually tries to pick nonmainstream titles. “If you go to a magazine specialty store, there’s no shortage of alternatives,” he notes. “Often we’ll go with something a little more upscale. If someone tells me she’s a fitness trainer, I’m not going to get a general fitness magazine, because she probably already reads all the trade press.”

See the results. So how do you know it works? Kelland frequently receives phone calls from clients thanking him for the letters. “They say things like, ‘It really made my day,’ or, ‘We were about to call you to proceed, but then we got your letter and it was so nice. It solidified what we’d already decided to do.’” He says his group receives its business by referral, and often clients will tell them they made the referral in response to those extra personal touches.

Many clients phone Chandler to thank him for the magazines. “They call to say, ‘I wasn’t expecting anything.’ That’s the beauty of it,” he asserts. “It winds up on the coffee table and it’s a constant reminder of the relationship.”

Philip Porado is associate editor of Advisor’s Edge.

Philip Porado