Soft-sell seminars that snatch hard-and-fast customers

The carpets are as rich and green as the back of a new $100 bill. Shrimps and oysters are piled in icy mountains. In an inconspicuous corner a waiter carves a perfect roast. The 70-plus lawyers gathered in this Chase Manhattan Bank dining room are here to attend an educational seminar on estate planning -- and to receive a little soft sell on Chase.

Gourmet nibbling is followed by a compact but exuberant lecture on the latest estate laws by Robert (Jim) Davies, a 20-year Chase veteran who is vice-president of Chase's global private banking center.

Lawyers are lured here to learn, but they're taking in more than a solid lecture. Chase officials hope these ''students'' will remember the bank for future reference, and eventually direct their companies' business to the bank.

Mr. Davies's ease with his lecture is matched by his camaraderie with the audience. After the lecture, dessert accompanies some discreet conversation with Chase personnel about minimum balances. They don't pitch products. No one is selling in the traditional way. Mr. Davies says with a shrug: ''This is run by the retail group. It is probably subtle bait to get escrow accounts.''

Such amiable results are part of the modern soft-sell seminars aimed at ''the discriminating consumer,'' according to Charles Reich, vice-president of Saxton Communications Ltd., an advertising firm that helps corporations plan seminars.

The Chase seminar is only the first of a series planned for lawyers. Many will return, jokes Claire Friedman, an assistant district attorney impressed by the VIP treatment: ''If they treat me like this I would buy anything . . . of course, I would investigate it first. But it was good information and I like the way they spoon-fed it to you.''

Although she may not open an account at the bank or direct clients to it, she enthusiastically described the seminar to legal colleagues the next day. Many already plan to attend the next seminar, and may bring business to Chase. Ms. Friedman, in effect, has been converted to be an unofficial saleswoman for Chase.

''Such seminars,'' Mr. Reich notes, ''are increasingly popular, because they are effective in keeping sales costs down and achieve a large conversion rate of attendees into customers, because attendees have been preselected'' through mailing lists and other sources. And, he asserts, ''they have been presold,'' since they are voluntarily attending the program.

Mr. Reich puts the rate of converts among seminar attendees at 33 to 40 percent. Sometimes the rate has been substantially higher. For instance, at the Chase Exchange, a seminar program the bank runs for women, Chase vice-president Catherine Willis says, ''In the year and a half that the Chase Exchange has been in existence, 52 percent of the people who walk into our seminar room have become customers of the bank and members of the Chase Exchange Program.''

Ms. Willis describes the marketing effort as ''very predictable.'' ''When I watch 15 people walk into that room, or 30 people or 100, I know how many customers I am likely to get out of it,'' she says.

Mr. Reich notes that the phenomenon has been blossoming during the past two years and has been especially active in the last six months, as businesses have searched for cost-cutting methods to cope with higher prices and the recession. Particularly noticeable in the field are brokerage firms, insurance firms, small computer outfits, and banks.

Cutting costs through seminar marketing can be substantial, according to those who practice it. At a recent meeting of the Sales Executives Club of New York, Paul Steffen, president of EnMar, a New Jersey-based industrial energy marketing and consulting firm, estimated that EnMar seminars held in the United States and Europe cost $220 per customer, compared with an equivalent normal sales cost per individual of $896.

A pioneer of selling by seminar, Guardian Life Insurance Company of America brings in $50 million to its pension department by having its franchise agents run seminars for professionals like doctors, lawyers, public accountants, and other high-income prospects like McDonald's franchisees. The seminars are packaged by Guardian at a cost of $50,000, which is recouped from franchisees.

According to Guardian vice-president Fred Kluth, there is a hidden bonus for Guardian's agents: While they may not take pride in identifying themselves as insurance salesmen, they proudly tell acquaintances that they run seminars for professionals. Evidently, it raises agent morale.

Mr. Reich insists that education -- objectively imparted information -- is the crux to successful sales by seminar.

The information is aimed at helping those who attend solve their problems. It should be presented as a series of options. And don't, he warns, ''mislead the audience about how you will conduct the seminar. Don't say there will be dessert and then try to sign them on a deal. It breeds mistrust. . .Consumers and businessmen are not as susceptible to the kind of hard-sell tactics that were once acceptable. They are more sophisticated. They demand information. They want to make decisions themselves.''

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