Are you happy your value and cost propositions are right?

Lots of the conversations that we’re having with financial advisers are in relation to the ongoing value you are providing, and the cost being charged for delivery of that value. However if we are to be completely truthful, it doesn’t always start out from that point….

Quite a number of the conversations start out from the point of, “I’m charging 25bps / 50bps and I’m not comfortable that I can really stand over it and justify it if pushed”. Advisers are looking over the horizon and seeing potentially greater levels of scrutiny from clients (and the regulator?) in relation to trail commission. You recognise that you must be able to comfortably justify your trail commission if you want to grow the levels of it, or even to maintain it. This inevitably results in advisers remaining in the supposed easier place of a low trail commission rate, in order to avoid any pushback around price.

After all, trail commission has been extremely good to many advisers, who have seen recurring income rise substantially for relatively little effort in some cases, while also building long-term value in your business. Investment markets have delivered excellent returns over the last decade, and your trail commission has increased accordingly. You don’t want to lose this growth, hence the pressure to justify it. However you’re now looking at investment markets today and recognising the significant fall in your income that will happen, should there be a biggish correction in the market. Also if your income is very tied to the investment of your client’s assets, any under-performance against benchmarks also raises a question over the validity of your fees.  These issues arise when the only determinant of your trail income is asset levels. The problem is that when you’re only thinking about asset values and your costs, you’re starting from the wrong place.

The only place that this whole conversation can start is with the value that you are providing. Otherwise, it is a serious case of the cart before the horse… When you work out in detail the different levels of value that you are providing to your different clients, it is only then that you can start to price your services in a structured and robust way. Your income is now tied to the services that you are providing, giving you certainty and control over your income stream. Many advisers who do this properly continue to collect their income via trail commission, however now they have minimum charges for each of their service levels. These minimums protect them against falls in the market, and indeed enable them to meet the demands of clients for high service levels where their asset levels alone do not justify them.

When you get crystal clear about your service levels and can easily articulate and communicate the value that you are adding, that nervousness around your trail levels subside. Instead it goes the other way – it gives you the confidence to maintain and increase your trail levels, when you know that your services warrant these higher levels.

Now you can be firm and brave in relation to pricing. When you are clear about your services on offer, you can stand over your pricing as a premium advice provider to relevant clients. With clients who demand premium service levels from you, you can demonstrate the breadth and value of your services, and then justify that you are more expensive. Yes you can have lower cost packages, but within these packages the clients should be left in no doubt about what is included and more importantly what is not.

Clarity around your value gives you a strong position when negotiating your price. Without it, you’re forced to keep watching your competitors and make sure you are undercutting them. A race to the bottom… However if you want to charge higher prices than your competitor, you have to able to deliver more. So it is very important that you can actually deliver what you promise. The last place you want to end up in is the dreaded “over-promising and under-delivering” experience for clients. This is the certain road to losing clients.

 

Spend your time now looking at the value that you add. Do this piece well, and the cost side will fall easily into place, giving you confidence and greater certainty around your future income stream.

Are you asking the right questions when buying a book?

We have written before on this very topic, but as there is lots of activity currently in the Irish market, we’ve developed our latest thinking to help you ensure that you get maximum bang for your buck when buying a book of business.

 

The last few years have generally been very good times for financial advisers. Many of you have grown significantly through your own efforts and those of your team. However there are many of you who have looked to turbo charge this growth through acquisition, either of a book of business or indeed through buying another advice business – lock, stock and barrel. Done well, this can help you significantly increase your growth potential. Here are a few questions to consider,

 

Why?

First of all, be crystal clear about why you are actually in the market to buy a book or another practice. What is the strategic rationale for the acquisition? Are you seriously in growth mode, or have you simply run out of ideas in terms of developing your existing business? Maybe some work on your own proposition and properly planned organic client acquisition tactics are a better alternative to going into the market for an acquisition?

 

What?

What are you actually looking to buy? Have you run out of opportunities in your existing business and need an injection of potential clients? Are you looking to buy a book of clients hoping you will unlock a few nuggets in the belief that your advice approach is superior to that of the selling broker? Or are you looking to buy a very well-developed business that is going to lift your own business onto a new level through bringing better processes and opportunities than those that exist within your own business? The challenge in answering these questions may be how you will actually leverage the opportunities.

 

Who?

So you’ve decided that the strategic rationale justifies a purchase. The question now is which book or business to actually buy. This is where you need to carry out careful due diligence to really understand what you buying: the quality of the clients, the processes and the client propositions.

Are the clients that you are buying going to increase your recurring income stream over the long term, or are they going to fall away over the coming years through no relationship and loyalty to you? Are they going to really help you to gain a foothold in your target market? At the end of the day, are they going to be worth more or less than the sum of the parts?

The people that will come with a business (if any) will of course also be a tremendous asset or liability going forwards. You need to make clear and educated decisions as to whether they are a good fit for your business or not. Bringing in a strong group of people could really help you to drive your business to the next level.


How much?

So you’ve found your purchase target. If you’re simply buying a book of business, the chances are this is going to be a fairly straightforward transaction based on a multiple of the income stream. However if you are actually buying the entire business, there are many other factors to consider.

Are the existing owners remaining involved and if so, in what capacity? Are they going to be part owners of your newly enlarged business, keeping them with skin in the game? If they are remaining as shareholders, they are much more likely to stay committed to growing the business. On the other hand, if they are remaining in the business simply to help the transition, you should be looking to build in clear earn-out targets. This will ensure that you reap the rewards of their ongoing involvement, as they will be financially incentivised to help you transition the clients into your business.

You should also examine closely the profitability of the business you are buying. If they were struggling to make meaningful money, how are you now going to do it? Can you see cumbersome administration practices that you can immediately replace with your own well-developed processes, extracting immediate savings? Can you see savings to be made in terms of people – maybe you don’t need all of their staff? And possibly you can see opportunities to broaden the proposition that was offered to their clients, increasing the revenue potential. Any of these factors will help you realise more profit potential.

 

What are the risks?

We’ve highlighted a lot of the risks to success in the earlier sections above. However you also need to protect your business against the sins of the past that may not have been uncovered in the due diligence process. What protection have you extracted against poor advice given to clients in the past? What warranties have you been given by the seller about the quality of advice given, the products sold, the performance of ongoing service for trail commission, the promises made to clients? You need to consider how long the seller remains “on the hook” for these issues, as the last thing a buyer wants is a string of complaints (or worse) arising in the future. A seller of a very clean book of business with excellent advice given in the past should not have an issue in providing reasonable and fair warranties.

 

These are just some of the questions that you should ask yourself before you step into the market to buy another firm. Buying a business is a big step – take your time, ask yourself the hard questions and do careful due diligence in order to seriously enhance your prospects for achieving a value adding purchase.

8 years on – what has changed?

I recently passed the 8th anniversary of leaving corporate life and setting up StepChange, with the aim of helping financial advisers to grow their businesses and to build durable, long-term value in them. So what’s changed in the last eight years?

 

The market is fundamentally different today

Eight years ago, the term financial planner didn’t exist. Then it became a fashionable title for people to use. But today it perfectly describes what so many within the advice community do every day. So many firms have actively shifted their business model from one centred on product sales, to one where the financial plan developed by the planner sits at the core of the client proposition. And this has resulted in a whole new breed of advisers; those who are adding significant value to their clients and are now confidently in control of their business, not dependant on product sales and not exposed to the whims of the market and the changes in product strategies by providers.

 

Less clients being brilliantly served

Eight years ago, the most common question I was asked was, “How do I get more clients?” I’m rarely asked this today, in fact on balance I’m actually asked the opposite more frequently! The aim of many advisers today is to deal with less clients and to serve them brilliantly. The challenge is in the last bit, and that is where we are helping firms every day, helping firms develop excellent and valued client retention strategies as opposed to the race for new business.

 

Investor behaviour rather than investment expertise

A big change over the last 8 years has been the approach to investments by advisers. Back then lots of advisers worried about selecting the best investment for clients, beating benchmarks and worrying whenever performance dipped. You spent your life tweaking asset allocations and fund choices for that extra ounce of performance, that more often than not evaded you and your clients.

Today I see advisers focused on getting the right portfolio in place for their client and then spending their time focused on stopping the client from blowing it up through their constant meddling! Some of the even more forward-thinking advisers are formally recognising where they add value, don’t see themselves as investment specialists or don’t want to potentially damage client relationships through poor advice, and as a result are outsourcing the investment expertise to 3rd parties.

 

Technology is critical…but not everything

It’s funny, how do you feel about robo advisers now? According to some “experts” 8 years ago, they were going to herald the death of financial advisers… Excellent financial planning requires deep, trusted relationships built upon meaningful and highly personal conversations. Yes, a machine can hugely help to improve part of an adviser’s value chain, but it hasn’t as yet replaced this most critical piece of the relationship…and I say it never will.

But technology also plays an enormous role today. What would your financial planning proposition look like today without future cashflow planning? Many of you I know would say that it wouldn’t exist.

 

Having a clear target market makes your life so easy

If you can easily identify and reach your target market, you can then focus your client value proposition, your sales activities, your marketing messages and indeed your whole support infrastructure around meeting the needs of these specific groups. Some only see the risks involved in this – narrow groups of people to target, missing broader opportunities etc. As a result, some advisers continue to try to appeal to everyone. And as a result, they don’t really connect with anyone. Yes, your target market must be big enough to sustain you. But if you then focus your efforts on them, you gain the opportunity of creating a real standout positioning for yourself.

 

Pricing and justifying your charge are still big challenges

One of the most common questions I’m asked are still about charging. However, the conversation has definitely moved on a bit. Many of you are happy with what you are charging clients – often but not always being paid by a provider or platform. The change though is that lots of you are now equally focused on how to justify your charges to clients. As long-term value is being built up in your business, you recognise that this value is only locked in for as long as you retain your clients. To do this, you must be able to justify what you charge. And this is one of the main areas where advisers seek us out – helping them to build their propositions to a point where they can clearly and confidently communicate what they charge, with little risk of losing the client in the process.

 

So, eight years on, what has changed? I see a far more confident, professional advice sector that is clear about the value that you add. You recognise your role is as a mentor or a guide to your clients, helping them plan their future and achieve their goals. It’s funny; while you work in financial services, the money is only one part of your focus today.

Turbo charge your business in 2020

What am I doing, talking about 2020 already? Well I’m not asking you to wish your life away, but quite a number of financial advisers have observed that July and August are quieter times for them. And this quiet time offers an opportunity to do some planning for your business.

You should always be thinking short-term about your activity planning and how you are engaging and strengthening your relationships with every existing and potential clients. However now you have an opportunity to do some longer-term thinking and more strategic thinking about broader areas that will stand your business in good stead over the next few years. While it’s not an exhaustive list, here are a few areas to think about now.

 

Make sure your team are with you

When’s the last time that you gave structured thought to the development needs and engagement of your team? Now might be the time to consider their coaching needs that will help them improve, grow and ultimately benefit your business. And maybe also now is a good time for some team building, a day away from the office. This can be used to work through some of the challenges facing the business, while also mixing it in with some downtime and building a stronger team spirit.

 

Make sure you are fit for purpose yourself!

How are your own skills as a business leader, mentor, manager, business generator, client executive and everything else that you do? Now is a good time to give some thought to gaps that you might have in your own toolbox and to look at how you might close the gaps. Have you trusted people, either staff members or other business contacts who will candidly help you to identify any areas that it might be useful for you to work on? Getting help and coaching shows a desire for improvement rather than an admission of shortcomings!

 

Make sure your clients are with you

When did you last review your Client Value Proposition? It’s important to ensure that you continue to deliver the appropriate levels of service to different groups of clients at the right price. And this is an ever-moving target. So even if you previously segmented your clients, are clear about who you are targeting and have your positioning identified, this needs to be regularly reviewed. The world of financial advice is constantly changing. Your business needs to change with it.

 

Review your communications

How good are your communications to your clients? Now is a good time to stand back and look at the quality of what you produce, your client meeting inputs and outputs, your other individual communications to clients and also your (hopefully) regular marketing communications. Are your messages getting a bit tired, or are they really engaging your clients? Seek feedback – both from any analytics that are available to you and also from feedback that you seek from people who are on the receiving end of what you send and say.

 

Review your processes

Give some time to picking apart everything that you do within your business. Could you be easier to do business with, is there an opportunity to really wow your clients? At this stage, look to identify the gaps in your processes. Then put a plan in place with your team to overhaul the processes and set your business up to deliver a much better client experience in the future.

 

There are many other areas that you can think about during these quiet months – the key is to make sure that July and August don’t just slip by without much work being done. If you can make a start on some of the areas identified here, you’ll thank yourself when 2020 eventually comes around.

What impact would 0% asset management fees have for advisers?

Are we seriously talking about 0% asset management fees? Well maybe not yet in Ireland, but Fidelity recently announced the introduction of two core equity index mutual funds covering the U.S. and international markets without any management fee.

If we saw a similar development in Ireland, what would it mean for financial advisers? And even if we don’t, what impact will the downward pressure on investment manager fees have for advisers?

 

A forensic analysis of fund management charges by clients

The two big asset manager stories over the last year or so were first of all when Vanguard announced a flat 0.3% management fee, regardless of how much an investor has in their account. This fee includes access to a CFP professional who will provide financial planning and investment advice. This was followed this summer by Fidelity’s announcement of 0% fees on two of their funds. These price developments will inevitably move closer to Irish shores over time and when they happen, they will be (rightly) trumpeted loudly by providers. This in itself will bring a keen focus from clients on the level of fees that they are paying into their existing funds.

We are certainly not advocating that fund management fees are the only factor for investors to consider – far from it in fact. But should fees reduce substantially, the reality is that investors will more regularly raise this issue with their adviser who will need to be prepared. The adviser will need to be crystal clear about their rationale for guiding clients towards higher charge funds. Higher cost funds make sense for many clients – you just need to be ready to clearly articulate the reasons!

The bottom line is though, fund management fees are likely to come under ever-greater scrutiny.

 

A lower overall fee creates adviser opportunities

One of the most common refrains I hear from advisers being unable to charge 1% (or even 0.75%) trail for their own services is that the current fund management fees don’t allow it. They argue that when you add 75/100 bps on to  a high management charge, that the overall charge is simply too high.

If the fund management fee went to 0%, surely this problem goes away? Now the only charge that would apply would be your 0.75% / 1%, which would not overly impact the returns achieved by clients. Could you charge a higher trail then and justify it to your client?

I’m not so sure that a reduction in fund management charges would be the silver bullet that some think it might be. The argument of fund management charges being too high sometimes hides an underlying issue of some advisers being unable to engage and convince clients in the value that they themselves (the adviser) are adding.

 

Can you articulate and demonstrate your value (and justify higher trail)?

How do you actively demonstrate to your client that you are worth paying 1% per year to? How clearly do you set out to your client the value that you add and the difference that you are going to make in helping them achieve their lifestyle and financial goals? How do you demonstrate the expertise that you bring to the table to help them, and both the quality and amount of work that you do on their behalf? How do you convince your client that they are fortunate to have found you, and that your 75/100 pbs charge is worth every single euro?

If you are not able to do this, even with reduced fund charges your client will still baulk at the charges. Now they will realise that most / all of the ongoing management charges are going to you and will really want to understand what they are paying for. Your fee won’t get “lost” any more in an overall charge.

To be able to articulate and demonstrate your value, you need to take a step back from your business and spend time identifying the value that you add and the difference that you make to the lives of clients. You need to articulate that value, your advice methodologies and be able to demonstrate the structure and rigour of your approach.

Only then can you justify your trail amount, irrespective of the direction of fund management fees in the future.

How can you improve the value of your business?

We wrote last month about the different ways in which a potential buyer will look to value your business. This is a follow-up piece about how you might increase the value of your business, to ensure you extract the very best price possible. Obviously your recurring income is a crucial starting point. However a good business is about a lot more than a simple multiple of your recurring income. There are a number of ways ways that you can demonstrate additional value in your business, which will allow you drive up the price.

 

Work through all the valuation methods yourself

As set out last month, financial advice businesses can be valued using a number of different methods. The oldest (and simplest) model is the multiple of revenue model. However this is being replaced today in some cases by buyers using a multiple of the profitability of the business (usually excluding the business owner’s earnings) as this takes account of both revenues and costs within the business.

It is really important that you consider all of the potential valuation methods, as a purchaser most likely will do so! If a particular valuation method is proving very difficult in justifying the value of your business, are there changes that you can make that will improve the picture? Doing the calculations yourself and being prepared are really important to achieving the price that you want.

 

Drive up trail & other recurring incomes

Obviously there is no point just a year or two before you want to sell up, to really start trying to make the switch from upfront commissions to the flatter income structures that are far more prevalent today. A purchaser will want to see a steady and increasing recurring income stream over a prolonged period. If a sale of your business is on the horizon at all, now is the time to start making that shift to increase your recurring income stream – the StepChange “Getting to 1%” programme could really help you here!

 

The persistency of business is crucial

Of course the size of your business is a main factor. But so equally is the persistency of your revenue. Lapse rates have become a major issue for life companies and advice firms alike, so obviously persistency will significantly impact the price someone is willing to pay for your business. There is little value in a firm that can’t demonstrate an ability to build up a durable revenue stream.

There are a number of steps that you can take to help address any purchaser concerns in this area. Preparing the ground for an effective “earn-out” period will really increase the confidence of a potential buyer – one of their concerns will be your commitment in this area. Also reducing the reliance of clients who seek to deal exclusively with you will also help. If you can demonstrate that clients deal with your business rather than just you, a buyer will feel more confident about those clients staying with the business.

It is also worth looking at the remaining advisers in your business. Having them tied into solid contracts with clear non-compete clauses should they leave, will again help you in your negotiations with a buyer.

 

Have a winning business proposition

A buyer will want to believe that he or she is getting more than their money’s worth when running the rule over your business. A very compelling business proposition will help to provide this comfort. For example, this may be strengthening the buyer’s position in their chosen market or indeed giving them access to a new market. It may be a unique expertise that your business offers or strength in attracting a particular target group of clients. A strong position within a niche market can be a very attractive proposition! If you own a brand that is really well known in an attractive target market, this is a very valuable asset. However on the other hand, if you’re not clear about what’s unique about your business and be able to demonstrate this, you cannot expect a prospective buyer to see this potential.

A buyer will also want to be purchasing clients who are engaged by and committed to your organisation, and are likely to stay with the firm going forwards. To achieve this, you’ll need to ensure that your processes for ongoing client engagement really stand up to scrutiny.

 

Your service and compliance systems are very important

Potential purchasers also want to minimise the headaches involved in a purchase. They want to buy a well-run business that looks after its clients in a professional and engaging way and is compliant in everything that they do. In fact better still, they want to buy a business with potentially better processes and systems than their own, that they can then leverage for their now expanded business. There’s a real opportunity to make your business more attractive to a buyer through utilising excellent business processes.

 

Your people are the heartbeat…

While your clients are at the core of your business, your own people are the heartbeat of it. They have the strong relationships with your clients, the expert skills that potentially are sought by a buyer and the capability to deliver brilliant service to attract and retain your clients and valuable income stream. A highly skilled, cohesive team is an enormous asset when selling.

 

These are just some of the factors you might think about as you prepare your business for a potential sale. If you have any comments in relation to the above or indeed can identify any other factors, please leave your thoughts below.