The client won the basket in a charitable raffle. It was made by a prominent folk artist and was of significant value, but it didn't fit the client's personal style.
So the client's advisor at D.L. Blain in New Bern, N.C., invited her to bring the basket to Blain's office. He helped her photograph the basket and contacted Skinner, a Boston appraiser and auction house.
"This particular client would not have known to research which auction houses specialize in American folk art," says Jeb Collier, Blain's director of marketing and public relationships.
That's just one of the special projects Blain has undertaken for its clients. Like other firms, Blain has found that offering these concierge servcies - which can be anything from securing opera tickets to vetting a potential spouse or setting up geriatric care for a relative - can be a way to strengthen relationships with clients.
Sometimes these services are a stated part of planners' offerings. Other planners offer the extra services on a purely informal basis. Some planners offer all of their clients concierge services; others help only top clients with special projects. Some firms charge clients directly for concierge services, while others include those services under the fee they charge for ongoing wealth management.
No matter the details, planners who offer concierge services agree that doing so helps them "wrap their arms" around their clients, as Warren, N.J., planner Steven Kaye, president and founder of AEPG Wealth Strategies, calls it. Clients who get the extra services feel closer to their advisors, and are more likely to recommend their planner to others.
Concierge services fall roughly into three categories: managing transactions, helping clients find the goods and services they need, and assisting clients with family issues.
When it comes to buying big-ticket items, for instance, some clients know what they want and where to get it, but they'd like someone else to negotiate on their behalf. "It might be something they haven't done before, or they've done it before and it wasn't a good experience," Collier says.
In the past two years, he says, his firm's advisors have helped multiple clients buy cars. "One client was an hour and a half away at a dealership, and the advisor got on the line and coached him on bargaining for a good price," Collier says, adding that Blain advisors have also accompanied clients to dealerships.
Real estate transactions - including mortgage refinancings as well as home or investment property purchases and sales - are another common area where advisors can help. "I'm getting emails from a client in California who is selling a couple of houses, and I'm helping them think about how to structure the deal," says Rick Kahler, president and owner of Kahler Financial in Rapid City, S.D.
Kahler has also been known to handle trip planning for his clients. "If I have a client who wants to take a cruise," he says, "we'll shop it for them and [then] show them the ship, the line and the itinerary." Occasionally, Kahler even points out that a client could afford and might enjoy a cruise, he says. "If I have a client who could spend $112,000 a year and they're only spending $40,000, sometimes we try to talk them into taking a cruise."
Karen Altfest, executive vice president at Altfest Personal Wealth Management in New York, recalls another traveler - this one visiting New York from Asia. "He is a huge baseball fan and he really wanted to see the Yankees play," she says. Another baseball fan at the firm researched and bought the client tickets for excellent seats to a home game.
In other situations, clients may have problems that can be solved with goods or services, but aren't sure what they need or where to find it. "It's a normal step for them to tell us when something isn't getting done or something is bothering them," Altfest says. "They come to us with all sorts of problems."
One Altfest client no longer needed storage space filled with unwanted items from three different moves. Altfest found a professional to remove and dispose of the orphaned stuff; she managed the process, too, serving as the client's representative.
Another client's children had grown up, so she was ready to move out of the family home, where she had lived for decades, and into a smaller home that would be easier to maintain. The problem, Altfest says, was that the client didn't know how to begin winnowing the possessions of so many years and was working with physical limitations that made the process even more daunting. "We found her an organizer who could help her," Altfest says.
Kahler had a client who wanted a full-time personal chef, but didn't have enough money to pay for one. "I got online and researched and found an affordable alternative: homebistro.com," Kahler says. "They deliver frozen meals and the client heats them up. All she has to do is boil water."
Kaye, the planner at AEPG Wealth Strategies, recalls a client who had plenty of money to spend, but had a difficult time finding the item he wanted to buy: a rare Honus Wagner baseball card.
Kaye tapped other clients who work in the professional sports business, and eventually they found one of the Wagner cards. The client paid $500,000 for the card about seven years ago, Kaye says. That, apparently, was a sweet deal: In 2007, a similar card in near-mint condition sold at auction for $2.8 million.
In fact, Kaye's firm hosts occasional antique-focused office events, which feature wine, client knick-knacks and even an expert from the PBS program AntiquesRoadshow. So far, Kaye reports, no one has found a lost Picasso hidden in the attic, but clients have had a lot of fun.
A financial planner is not a therapist, but many still hear very personal requests. "Four or five clients have brought potential spouses for our OK," Altfest says. "They say, 'I make much more than this person and how will that affect me?', or 'Do you think this person is the right person for me?'Ã¢â‚¬â°"
One client Altfest remembers vividly went to Europe to study when she was young, and when she came back her sweetheart had married someone else. She stayed a family friend. "Then the [ex-boyfriend's] wife died, and they talked about seeing each other. She told us all about him and their respective assets. She had never been married, been on her own her whole life, and [wanted to know] what did we think?" Altfest recalls.
In this case, Altfest gave the client's beloved an enthusiastic thumbs-up. "He was like an aging Cary Grant, a lovely man and a supportive friend to her. And they genuinely wanted to be together. His children thought this was great and we went to the wedding. You always feel good at a wedding, but at this one people were crying with happiness," she says.
In other cases, however, Altfest says she has suggested that a client spend more time dating a prospective spouse before marrying.
That's not the most personal advice she's given, Altfest adds. "People have asked whether they should get pregnant or not. Someone came in who was thinking of having child No. 4. They wanted a summer home and to educate all the children. The wife was keen and the husband was supportive, and they wanted to know what it would cost to raise three versus four children." Altfest ran the numbers, and the couple ultimately decided to stop at three.
Is she comfortable dispensing such intimate advice? "I suppose it's just like helping people meet other goals," Altfest says. "But it still amazes me when people ask. It's like, 'What do you think we do here?' Still, once people trust you, they are very open about their private lives, and I am flattered that they want to include us in their private moments."
Kaye hasn't advised clients for or against marriage, but he does sometimes set clients up on dates. "We have a very good database and we take note of people who are interested in meeting someone," he says. Collier, meanwhile, has covered the other end of the relationship cycle, acting as a mediator for clients going through a divorce.
Sometimes family issues aren't primarily about the client. "We had a client whose uncle's girlfriends were stealing from the uncle, who didn't realize it at first because he was such a packrat," Kaye says. He helped the nephew sort out what was missing, called the authorities and brought in a gerontologist and social services case worker to assess the uncle's needs.
Some planners will do nearly anything for a client. Others won't. "Clients often ask if we'll pay their bills, and we say we don't do that. We don't want to get involved and that's not how we spend our day," Altfest says.
Instead, many planners treat client needs that the planner can't or won't handle as an opportunity to strengthen a relationship with another financial services provider. Collier's firm, for instance, used to handle some bill-paying for clients who had their own businesses. "We've recently given a lot of that to a local CPA," Collier says. The referral helps the clients, and also makes it more likely that the CPA will refer business to Collier's firm.
Mark Thompson, senior vice president at Thompson Wealth Management in Melbourne, Fla., offers clients access to his "magic Rolodex," which is filled with contacts at reputable businesses of all kinds, he says. Tax attorneys, divorce attorneys and CPAs get the same access, as well as the ability to use Thompson as a resource. "They know they can come to us and get any information they need on investments, securities, insurance and anything else they don't feel entirely comfortable with," Thompson says. "It's a touch point, either via email or by snail mail with an included note."
PRICING CONCIERGE SERVICES
Many planners wrap the cost of concierge services into a comprehensive wealth management fee. "We're a fee-only practice and we consider this part of their fee," Collier says. "When you're willing and able to do things for clients, word gets around."
Other planners might offer inclusive services, but only to top clients. "Really, it's the upper 20% of the clientele who get most of the services," Thompson says. "We price it into the fee and we're organized about providing it. You really have to be organized." For the other 80% of clients, Thompson says, he doesn't advertise concierge services or discuss them as part of the on-boarding process.
At Kaye's practice, clients who generate revenue of $19,000 or more get 30 hours a year of the firm's professional time, which they can use however they like; concierge services fit into that time. After those 30 hours are used up, Kaye bills time at between $60 to $300 an hour, depending on the staff involved.
CALCULATING THE PAYOFF
Advisors say that concierge services help them solidify existing relationships, compete with large institutional wealth managers and attract new clients. "I think it makes the clients we're helping very happy, and our business grows on client referrals. It makes them think of us at appropriate times," Altfest says.
Those clients are getting attention they wouldn't get from a large institutional wealth manager, Altfest adds. "It's just not possible when you're running 400 accounts to know the names of each of your clients and their children and where they've vacationed. Being in a very personalized business, it's an easier transition to hearing about their lives," she says.
Concierge services are "definitely a differentiator," Thompson agrees. They're a particularly good way to demonstrate a firm's quality to existing clients' children and grandchildren, he says, who will likely remember when a planner went out of the way to help a relative.
It's also just plain satisfying to help clients improve their lives, Kaye says: "There are other ways to help people achieve their goals, other than retirement income planning and risk management. There's also smile management."
Ingrid Case, a Minneapolis financial writer, is a former editor at Bloomberg News. She is the author of Your Own Two Feet (and How to Stand on Them): Surviving and Thriving After Graduation.