November 7, 2013 / 12:00 PM / 6 years ago

YOUR PRACTICE-Giving holiday gifts to clients? Try Thanksgiving

CHICAGO, Nov 7 (Reuters) - Thanksgiving is the new Christmas for financial advisers seeking to stand out among clients loaded down with goodies during the increasingly competitive holiday gift-giving season.

That’s the strategy at Aequus Wealth Management Resources, a boutique financial advisory firm in Chicago that manages about $138 million, primarily for upscale clients. The firm mails out more than 100 holiday cards - at the earliest possible moment - says Aequus founder and partner Cicily Maton.

“We send everyone holiday greetings at Thanksgiving,” says Maton. “We’re looking at emphasizing their quality of life rather than celebrating a religious holiday.”

Savant Capital Management, a Rockford, Illinois, firm that manages about $3.3 billion, has a similar approach. LaVonne Brown, director of client experience and marketing, says the firm has focused on Thanksgiving instead of Christmas or New Year’s for several years.

Savant’s advisers send cards and gift baskets, valued at more than $60 each, with gourmet snacks such as dips and crackers. Savant is also toying with the idea, based on client feedback, of letting customers skip the gift in favor of a donation to a charity.

“We want to make sure that whatever we do, it’s the client’s preference - that it’s adding value to the relationship and is not purely a transaction,” Brown says, noting that yearend is just one of several “touch points” when advisers should reach out to clients.

Gift giving at other times is likely to be directed to individuals or families: an anniversary, the birth of a grandchild or a life-changing event such as retirement, she says. These events often present an opening to discuss financial planning, says Greg Opitz, a consultant at Omaha, Nebraska-based Peak Advisor Alliance, which provides practice management guidance to financial advisers.

“The (holiday) communication should be part of a bigger strategy throughout the year,” he says. Opitz, too, sees Thanksgiving as an ideal time to reach out to clients, not just because the nondenominational holiday works nicely around the theme of gratitude for clients’ business but also because it offers firms a chance to underscore their values.

Sometimes the best ideas come from clients, which is why Opitz suggests firms poll their client advisory council, if they have one, several months ahead for suggestions.

San Francisco-based adviser Michelle Fait hit home with a lot of her clients last year when she decided on a dog-friendly theme, sending goodie bags filled with natural canine treats to pets, care of their owners. Those without dogs got cards.

“The pet packages seemed to hit the right note of holiday spirit, family and unconditional love,” says Fait, who is considering reprising the idea this year.

Gifting experts say uplifting holiday messages should take precedence over the amount spent on the gift, especially now that the country is coming off a recession, a period when excess materialism has been frowned upon by many.

“Thoughtfulness is important,” says Leo Jakobson, executive editor of New York-based Incentives magazine, which tracks corporate giving. “That can mean something that says you know the person.” Gifts in the $50 to $299 price range are on the rise, the group says.

AVOIDING GAFFES

On the flip side, Jakobson says, avoid gaffes such as a sending a holiday ham to a Jewish family, and try not to send overly generic gifts. Among this year’s most popular choices for corporate gifts, according to the magazine: gift cards, desktop office accessories, apparel, electronics and writing instruments.

Plenty of advisers still reach out at Christmastime, of course. David John Marotta, president of Charlottesville, Virginia-based Marotta Wealth Management, which has about $260 million under management, is planning to give copies of “Momma Jean’s Kitchen,” a cookbook of Italian recipes written by his aunt, to clients and friends of the firm in time for Christmas. (The book retails for $24, but he gets it at a discounted rate.) He says he hopes the gift will strike a personal chord.

“The best thing you can do is make yourself a human being,” Marotta says. “This is a family cookbook; it has pictures of me when I was 4 years old. It’s filled with stories. I think it will add something to clients who want to get to know us a little bit.”

Opitz says many firms use December to host informal get-togethers in which clients gather with their families and other practitioners who assist the firm and look out for clients’ financial interests: attorneys, accountants and other specialists. He is partial to bus tours of holiday light displays and kid-friendly events such as photo ops with Santa.

Aequus Wealth Management’s Cicily Maton and her staff will host a catered open house, one of several client-centered events they put together during the year.

“For us it’s about appreciating our clients, letting them know it’s a two-way street,” she says.

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