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Survey says: Strategies for connecting with busy clients

We asked three executives to share their strategies for seeking the attention of and informing families

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Wealthy families are busy families. Between running businesses, travelling between homes or shopping for a new private school for their kids, it’s little wonder your latest email may not take priority.

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We asked professionals at three family offices how they communicate with their clients and keep them engaged when decisions have to be made.

Allison Comeau
Allison Comeau

Allison Comeau, chief experience officer, Grayhawk Investment Strategies Inc., Calgary

“When communicating with families, we’re very purposeful about asking them right from the moment we meet how they like to be communicated with. Some people only want a conversation. They don’t want written emails, while others prefer emails they can digest at the pace that works for them. Then they come back if they have questions. Some people are super comfortable having any kind of conversation on Zoom.

“Then there are some we have to text to get their attention. I will say that I have not gone as far as TikTok! But I’ve thought about it.

“We use our CRM [customer relationship management software] to keep track. If we know a family member doesn’t read emails, we will put that in there. Then we know that’s not a good use of our time, so we’ll call instead.

“Communicating with families is a lot of work. Sometimes you have to reach out early and often. But we tell them, ‘You hired us to facilitate and make sure you follow through. So if we nag and become that person calling you every couple of days to remind you of what you haven’t made progress on, we can do that.’

“I find the best way to get a family’s attention, though, is to truly make your message about something that they’re interested in, rather than just sending it for the sake of sending it. Here’s an example: We do a lot of work with families around defining their values. And then we use those values as decision-making filters. So anything I send them, I always tie it back to their values.

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“Let’s say we have a family that is very interested in using their wealth to affect climate change. The value that they’ve named is curiosity. So when I find something that I think might support their decision making, I’ll always tie it back to their value of curiosity. I might write, ‘Here’s some information that I think might be helpful in satisfying the curiosity side of the decisions you’re making around philanthropy or impact investments around climate change.’

“If you bring it back to the family values and purpose, it’s pretty hard for them to file that email away for later because they are curious. It becomes very much about what’s important to them, and not what we think is important.

“We also have communication that comes out from our co-CEOs every Sunday morning to all of our families. It’s a curated list of what they’re thinking about. Really, it’s not even entirely about wealth. It’s about interesting thought leadership or podcasts they’ve listened to that week.

“I was a little skeptical at first about readership. But every Sunday morning we consistently have an over-50-per-cent read rate. I get the email, too. And there might be six or eight things in it – and three of them catch my attention. I always know there’s something in there that I’ll be interested in reading with my Sunday morning coffee.”

Marvin J. Schmidt
Marvin J. Schmidt

Marvin J. Schmidt, principal, the Schmidt Investment Group, a family office with CIBC Wood Gundy, Edmonton

“There is no such thing as over-communication, especially in times of uncertainty. We try to pre-empt our client families feeling they need to hear from us and reassure them before they are at a point of feeling they need that reassurance.

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“On issues that are common across our client families, we have quarterly webinars that speak to macro issues around markets and the economy. We also have emails we send out every two weeks that may include videos from our team.

“Now, I don’t mean for this to come off the wrong way, but we say ‘no’ a lot more than we say ‘yes,’ when we’re bringing on new clients. It’s probably a ratio of seven to one. You know, if clients aren’t wanting to engage, and aren’t really committed to the process, we just can’t add the value. As they say, you can lead a horse to a trough but you can’t make it drink. That being said, you can nudge a horse. Nudges are a big, big thing.

“Often they’re indirect nudges. Like, for example, the Now I Can Live Challenge [an online proprietary tool that new clients use to uncover gaps in their financial picture]. There are only 15 questions, but the algorithms are really effective. It’s gamification – and people like to score high. The average family of wealth that goes through the challenge scores 42 per cent at first. It’s a bit of a failing grade. When we bring a client on, it’s our commitment to get them to 90-plus per cent within the first 18 months.

“Effectively communicating progress is a great way to ensure clients continue to be engaged in and focused on the process. But we take it in bite-sized pieces. It’s not like we can cover it all off at once. That would be overwhelming. So we say, ‘OK, for the next four weeks, forget the 28 different things we need to address. It’s just this one thing. Can you make a decision about who your guardians and executors will be? Forget everything else.’ It’s the old 20-mile march – you just have to take one step and all of a sudden you’ve done 20 miles.

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“It’s not about massive projects and huge time commitments. It’s about reframing it and taking easily achievable steps. That really helps.”

Tom McCullough
Tom McCullough

Tom McCullough, chairman and CEO, Northwood Family Office, Toronto

“Some things have changed during COVID, of course, but the foundation of our client communication is our in-person quarterly meetings with virtually all of our clients. Or if they’re in Vancouver, we do two in-person meetings and two Zoom meetings.

“These are not random, ‘Hey, how are you doing? What’s up?’ meetings. It’s like a board meeting. The family is the chairman of the board and we are the CEO reporting to them. Packages go out in advance and we write minutes for every meeting, which are provided to the clients. To-do lists and follow ups come out of those minutes. You see who’s supposed to do what.
“I think that gives people a sense of confidence when everything they mention shows up on the list. When they come to the next meeting, they can see if it’s done, deferred, or requiring further questions. It’s regimented in a good way. People feel comfortable. They know things aren’t being missed. There’s a sense of momentum. Things actually get done. It’s amazing.

“Half the battle of building trust with people is doing what you say you’re going to do.

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“We’ve got another category of clients that we call our single family office group, which is made up of clients who are large, over a half billion dollars. For some of those people, we have weekly meetings. All of this is really tailored to the family and how active and involved they want to be. Or how many yachts or houses they’re buying right then.

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“It doesn’t really matter to us if we meet in-person each time or with Zoom. We’re completely neutral. Conference calls are tougher, though, because you can’t see facial expressions. But I think Zoom calls are a great alternative, although you want to do in-person sometimes. You want to press the flesh and get reconnected. I think it’s hard to do otherwise.

“Older generations are fine with Zoom, too. If I’m going to end up living in Muskoka, like a lot of other people are, do I want to come down to Toronto for a one-hour meeting? I think people are saying they can get about 90 to 95 per cent of value by Zoom. So let’s meet that way and then we’ll just have lunch sometime in the next quarter. Maybe.

“Quite frankly, I think it’s up in the air what people will want after the pandemic, but I think there’s going to be way less flying to meetings.”

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