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Holiday Gifts for Clients? Some Do’s and Don’ts

According to a recently published study, Americans worth $10 million or more will spend 67 percent more this year on gifts, including jewelry, fashion and travel

According to a recently published study, Americans worth $10 million or more will spend 67 percent more this year on gifts, including jewelry, fashion and travel. With a gift limit of $100 per client per year under NASD rule 3060, what’s an advisor to do for his best clients? Here’s what some of your peers are doing to make the right impression with clients this holiday season.

Nearly every advisor that spoke with Registered Rep, whether a broker or an independent fee-only RIA, said he or she sent something to clients around the holiday season. Most of them say personalizing the gift is a must—at the very least, sending a photo card instead of the plain old Hallmark, for example. One UBS advisor estimates he has handwritten 700 holiday cards this year for his biggest and most loyal clients—or half of his client list of 1,500 households. While his cards usually include a photo he’s taken while traveling in a far away place—last holiday season was a shot of a little known waterfall in central Austria—this year is more plain vanilla: a shot of his team. “But we always try to personalize each one,” he says.

Bill Bachrach, founder of Bachrach & Associates, a financial advisor coaching firm, also says that personalizing is key. “I love the family photo cards and the cheesy form letters about what’s going on in our lives this year,” he says. “The hokier and the more real the better—why not send your clients the same thing you send to your friends and family?” Other ideas: a gift certificate to the client’s favorite restaurant or a bottle of wine you know they like. “Sending something generic only serves to remind them that you really don’t know them—and that’s not the message you want to convey,” he says.

Chandler Taylor, an advisor with St. Louis-based Monetta Group, says his firm makes $25 donations in the names of clients to their favorite charities. Principals and employees fund the company’s own charitable foundation—it has roughly $1 million in it—and he estimates $75,000 in donations are made each year to 15 to 20 different organizations, all in the clients’ names. He says some advisors do other things tailored to individual clients.

For his own clients, Taylor keeps a tradition that he borrows from his own life when his kids were growing up in the St. Louis area and participating in the Boy Scouts of America. Each year, the Boy Scouts sell Christmas greens—wreaths and other holiday decorations—in downtown St. Louis. Taylor makes a donation, loads up his car with the decorations and hand delivers them to twenty of his top clients that live in the greater St. Louis area. He says he does it unannounced, so sometimes they’re not home and he just leaves them on the doorstep with a quick note. When clients are home it’s a great way to bond—“Sometimes I even get a beer,” he jokes. He says the fact that it’s a donation to the Boy Scouts, and that the gift isn’t expensive makes clients happy—not to mention that he’s taken time to deliver them himself.

Barry Glassman, an independent advisor with Cassaday & Company (Royal Alliance) in McLean, Va., calls himself a “contrarian” because he doesn’t send a bucket of popcorn and a card during the religious holiday season. He actually prefers Thanksgiving for such connections. He says he sits down and writes 10 or so “letters of thanks” to his best clients. “It’s not the same clients every year, and they’re all different, but it’s something along the lines of ‘thanks for working with me all these years, challenging me, not just accepting what I tell you and referring me to people you know,’” he says.

One branch manager in one of Oppenheimer’s largest offices says his advisors do any number of things for clients during the holidays, but that’s missing the point. “Really, if you’re conducting yourself the right way, you should be organizing personalized client contact year-round, not just at the holidays,” he says.

A Smith Barney advisor we spoke to is a fine example of this. He sends out personalized diaries, and this year he’s sending out three sets of holiday photo cards—one of him and his family, another of his partner and his family, and a third picture of his entire team. He likes pictures because they’re more intimate and “people are more likely to hold onto them,” he says. But the way he sees it, the holiday greeting is just one of 25 “touches” he and his team strive to make with their 200 or so client households each year.

For his best clients, he says there are several exclusive events—usually for groups of 10 to 20—which he gears towards their interests, like a ski trip to Alta, Utah for the skiers or a golf trip to Augusta for the die-hard golfers. Then there are the 10 to 12 dinners at high-end restaurants he arranges each year. (He’s quick to point out that clients pay for all of this themselves, he only organizes the events.) In addition, all of his clients are invited to three major appreciation events each year, two of which he says are designed for the children of clients.

This year those three events included a magic show, a picnic and a year-end gathering at his home. The year-end event was attended by 134 people this year, and featured Peter Vidmar, captain of the 1984 U.S. men’s Olympic gold medal gymnastics team, who gave a motivational-type speech aimed at the kids. All told, he estimates it costs him $100,000 a year out of pocket. But the impact his efforts have on his clients and their families makes it well worth it, he says.

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