Trail commission. Is it the silver bullet that justifiably allows Financial Brokers to build value in their businesses and eventually sell the business at a healthy multiple? Or is it a somewhat opaque way for advisers to be paid, sometimes with very tenuous links between the value provided by the adviser and the payment received?
Is it the right model for your business?
Trail commission is not perfect
Okay, let’s get the negatives out of the way first… Trail is far from perfect; in fact one could argue that it has some potential conflicts of interest for Financial Brokers. The word potential is highlighted for a reason – trail commission doesn’t in itself cause the conflicts, but the use of trail by individual Financial Brokers could. Let’s look at a few areas of possible conflict for advisers,
1. A client gets a windfall, let’s say an inheritance. If the adviser’s income is based on the amount of assets under management, income increases if the money is invested. If the client pays off their mortgage, it doesn’t.
2. What does the client with €3 million invested through the adviser get that’s different from the client with €500,000 invested? Are bigger clients simply subsidising smaller clients?
3. Similar to the above, a wealthy client gives you €500,000 to invest. You then find out that they have €2 million invested elsewhere themselves. What additional services will they get when giving you the money to manage, that will justify your huge increase in fee? Of course if you are providing comprehensive financial planning, with future cashflow planning sitting at the heart of it, there’s part of your answer – you need visibility of all assets to provide the complete picture.
And then there are the negatives simply in terms of trail commission as a business model. You secure a senior executive in a large company as a client. But after your factfind and analysis you find that the client’s wealth is tied up in a company sponsored pension scheme, also with an AVC scheme on great terms. Unless the client has other investment assets, there’s not much earnings potential for you on a trail basis.
And what happens when markets fall sharply or indeed the client decides that its now time to de-cumulate assets? Your earnings take a drop, even though your work may not.
But there’s a lot to be said for it!
First of all it’s relatively easily explained. Clients understand that a small percentage of their money will be taken as charges. Trail is simply an addition here and clients “get” that.
Then of course trail is very easily collected – this is such an enormously important point! Advisers say all of the time that it’s hard to get a client to write another cheque, especially year after year. Trail makes this problem go away and the adviser / client relationship continues each year without this hurdle.
And clients see a level of alignment of interests too – if the portfolio sees strong growth, both the client and the adviser win, if the portfolio falls in value, they both lose. Is this fair for the adviser? That’s a question for another day!
It’s all about your proposition
To me, this is the nub of it. If an adviser is simply adding trail onto policies as a means of securing ongoing payment without giving too much thought about what they are delivering, I believe this is a very flawed model and a very risky strategy. If an adviser cannot demonstrate and communicate their value, and as a result link the trail back to what they do, they are on very unstable ground.
On the other hand, if your advice proposition is crystal clear, clients understand it and are happy to pay for it, well then trail commission is a very appropriate method of collection of your fee. And were trail commission ever to disappear as a means of collection of fees, clients would be clear about the value you are adding and the fees that still need to be paid.
What would I do myself?
I’m not an adviser so you could argue that it’s easy for me to be a bit sanctimonious on this issue! However I could also argue that trail is not a feature of my business model (which is based entirely on fees) – so I only get paid when I can demonstrate value. When you have to demonstrate value to get paid, trust me you work very hard on your proposition!
At the end of the day if I was an adviser, I think I would use trail commission as a method of payment. But I would link it clearly back to the value that I’m adding, and ensure the client sees the trail commission as simply a method of payment for the advice given. The quantum of trail would be decided by the services provided. I’d give clients choice; fees, retainers, trail etc. Their choice, but they need to be clear that they are paying you for the value of your advice, rather than the setting up of a product. Because it is in the provision of advice where Financial Brokers add value and change clients’ lives for the better.