As the expression goes, when you settle for less than what you’re worth, you get less than what you settled for. Yet there’s reluctance among many financial advisors to raise their prices for the services they offer, particularly after the 2008 crash damaged so many portfolios. Asset-based fees dominate the industry’s revenue stream, accounting for 85 percent of the total, according to the consulting firm FA Insight. Yet median fees as a percentage of assets under management were virtually unchanged between 2009 and 2010, the firm said.
Eliza De Pardo, principal and director of consulting at FA Insight, said just 31 percent of firms review their pricing strategy annually. It’s too bad, since there’s data showing that firms that review their pricing each year tend to have higher profitability per client. She understands the reluctance some advisors have about telling clients they want to charge more. “If the markets are declining, it’s a tough conversation to have with clients, obviously,” she told advisors during a pricing workshop at a recent Pershing Advisor Solutions conference in Manhattan. “The real question is, how do you deliver value, and can you communicate that to the client? If you can communicate it effectively, I don’t think anything’s off the table.”
One of the first places to start when reviewing what you charge is the condition of your local market, and the size of the fees your competitors are levying. De Pardo warns against placing too much weight on the latter, however, since all practices are unique. Advisors need to decide what pricing method is best for their practice—fees based on percentage of assets; flat or variable fees based on the advice needs of the client; hourly fees; or a fee that varies with the value delivered. Many advisors use a combination—an asset-based fee coupled, for example, with a flat fee for producing a financial plan. (Such fees may vary with the level of complexity required to produce the plan.)
Minimum fees help maintain profits; 57 percent of firms use them, FA Insight found. The median minimums range from $2,000 for firms with annual revenue of $75,000 to $500,000, to $5,000 for firms with revenues from over $500,000 to $3 million; firms with revenues greater than $3 million had median minimum fees of $9,000, the consultant said. Value-based pricing strategies are employed by 70 percent of the largest and most successful firms. Under those strategies, an advisor documents the financial savings that a client accrues through, say, lower insurance premiums or a reduction in personal tax liabilities through the advisor’s recommendations. The advisor would keep a percentage of the savings—maybe 20 percent—and add it to the regular fee that’s charged.
When preparing to raise prices, sit down beforehand and outline each argument that an unhappy client is likely to raise, De Pardo said, and prepare your counterarguments that demonstrate the value you’re providing. In addition to clarifying the case for your added value, she said, the exercise will help you feel less nervous when sitting down with particularly difficult clients. And be sure to share your value story with the rest of your staff, so they’re on board.
Advisors who want to charge more for their services have to differentiate themselves from their competitors, she said. Some regularly distribute e-mail newsletters on economic topics of interest to their clients, or organize luncheons for clients at which experts might speak about a particular topic. Investors recognize the value these things provide, De Pardo said. “Very rarely will a client say, ‘You know what? Keep the educational stuff.’ ”