Today there are more than 460,000 active advisers serving around 7 million affluent clients, according to Discovery Data and a study we conducted with WealthEngine.

How can you stand out in that crowded field — both to your existing clients and to prospects?

One of the most innovative ways is a gifting strategy called radical generosity. This strategy of giving gifts to clients and prospects is helping advisers boost their referrals, retention rates and ROI. As a starting point, you can see the tremendous research on the law of reciprocity best articulated in Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Simply put, when someone does something for us, we feel obliged to do something for them in return.

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It’s time to think of more creative gifts than golf balls with logos. (Bloomberg News)

Radical generosity is a big step beyond — and step up from — the traditional ways we generally send gifts to clients and other key people. If you do gifting right, your best clients may be more loyal than ever, and provide you with the referrals you need to grow your business.

9 RULES OF RADICAL GENEROSITY

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If you do gifting right, your best clients may be more loyal than ever, and provide you with the referrals you need to grow your business.

Developed by John Ruhlin, the author of Giftology, who runs a gift strategy and logistics company, radical generosity is designed to make clients, prospects, team members and others who are crucial to your success feel incredibly valued by you. The idea is that they will thus be moved to engage with or stay with you. I personally used gifting strategies when I was an adviser, and continue to do so in my current role. While it is always hard to determine exactly what fuels success, I suspect my strategies have resulted in hundred-thousand-dollar consulting engagements.

If you think radical generosity means more than sending an annual holiday card or fruit basket, you’re right. Here are Ruhlin’s nine key rules for a radical gifting.

1. Send gifts that are valuable to the client — and the client’s family. Nobody wants another trinket they’ll throw away or give to Goodwill. But if you give a gift that is both high quality and practical, you will demonstrate just how special the person is to you. People appreciate gifts that don’t add to the clutter in their lives and that they can use and enjoy frequently. An even smarter move is to give a gift that goes over well with a client’s spouse or partner.

As Ruhlin says, “It’s not the thought the counts — it’s the thoughtful thought that counts.”

Early in his career as a gift strategist, Ruhlin wanted to give pocket knives to some prospective male clients. He was advised to instead give paring knives that could peel fruit. The reason: “If you show that you want to help take care of people’s families, the rest takes care of itself,” he says.

Indeed, says Ruhlin, many advisers who have given clients high-quality kitchen knives report getting amazing feedback and thank-yous. “Those gifts make the entire family feel included and valued,” he says.

2. Send best-in-class gifts. Align your presents with your core values of being the best. If you’re claiming that your services are best in class, then your gifts should be, too. Don’t tell everyone that you’re the best and then send out some gewgaw or mass-market item with your logo on it.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to buy a ton of luxury goods. Always ask yourself what best-in-class item you can buy that is within your budget and your compliance guidelines. It’s all about the most you can do with the resources you have.

One example: High-end glassware, such as wine glasses.

One way to find unique gifts is to shop in your local area. The buy local movement is getting bigger, and people are becoming much more interested in where items are sourced and made.

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3. Send gifts that are visible. Your gift should be a conversation starter that keeps you top of mind with the recipient. Those that are put out in the open, such as in the living room or kitchen, are more likely to be used regularly and commented on.

Likewise, gifts such as high-quality leather accessories are used — and noticed — all the time.

4. Give gifts that will last. Don’t send a gift that barely registers on clients’ radars — or worse, that gets consumed (such as food). Choose an item that is essentially an artifact of your relationship — something that becomes a regular and integral part of clients’ lives. Here, again, practicality is key. A lasting gift that is useful is usually one that serves a purpose or solves a problem.

That said, a lasting present can also be one that taps into emotions. Do some research on the recipient — who they are, where they come from, what they love in life and what they value.

Ruhlin scored with one high-value prospect by learning of the prospect’s love for his alma matter. He had a hangable piece of cherry wood carved with the school’s mascot and fight song delivered to the prospect’s office — and won the business.

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If you think radical generosity means more than sending an annual holiday card or fruit basket, you’re right.

5. Give at the wrong times. You’ll get the best response from people when you gift them at unexpected times — that is, pretty much any time other than between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. Better options are Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day and other holidays when a gift isn’t the norm.

This strategy will ensure the gift is always a surprise, and always makes an impact.

So save that bottle of Christmas wine for the middle of February, when everyone is sick of winter and could really use some cheer. Or have a calendar of planned random gifts to send at odd intervals that will surprise the recipients. A series of relatively inexpensive (but practical) items given at unexpected moments tends to create a more positive impression than does an expensive gift given at times when everybody else is giving something.

6. Narrow your recipient list. Budget is an obvious concern. If you have hundreds of clients, you probably can’t give truly “wow” gifts to all of them. When being radically generous, gift strategically to the top 10% to 20% of your client base, and give them creative gifts that are within your budget.

7. Make the gift personal to the client — not to you. Your offering needs to be a true gift and not simply a promotional item. There’s a tendency for businesses to put their company logo on everything they give out. But think about how feel when you’re at a conference and get a polo shirt with somebody else’s name on it — not exactly a “wow,” is it?

Your gift should show people how much you appreciate them — not that you’re asking them to be a walking billboard for you. Ruhlin points out that his company sends out hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts annually, and none have the company logo on them.

But, you’re asking, how will your gift lead to more awareness of you and your firm if it doesn’t mention you at all? If you follow the other rules above — such as making the gift important to the person’s family and giving a gift that the person will display or use regularly — other people will ask about it, and your name may very well be mentioned.

The key is recognizing that effective giving depends largely on perception. Meaning to do well is not enough. How a gift will be perceived by someone has a lot to do with how it will be received and, subsequently, how well it works. Make the offering all about the other person and not about you.

8. Gift to the client’s inner circle, too. If your clients are business owners or senior executives, they probably have gatekeepers — assistants and others who grant access and with whom they work closely. A great radical gifting strategy is to give meaningful gifts to these people as well. By treating the inner circle as well as you treat the client, you can build powerful allies and advocates.

9. Set up a schedule. To make sure you remember to gift, set up a schedule and get alerts in advance that a gifting moment is on the horizon. Then this becomes an automatic part of how you do business, instead of a disorganized, last-minute thing you do poorly in a rush.

In general, remember it's quality over quantity, and keep the gift aligned with your budget and compliance limitations. As a reminder, registered representatives of a broker-dealer may not give or receive any gift in excess of $100 per giver or recipient per year. Investment adviser representatives should check with their firm’s chief compliance officer to determine applicable limits.