In the early days of the financial advice industry, an advisor’s most valuable service for clients was simply providing access to financial products (as stocks, bonds, insurance, etc. couldn’t be purchased directly by consumers). However, the advent of online brokerages not only drove down the cost to purchase investment products, but made investing (as the slogan went) “so easy, a baby could do it”. As a result, advisors turned their focus towards building customized portfolios for clients, and rather than earning commissions on the products they sold, began charging recurring fees for managing those portfolios on an ongoing basis.
More recently, however, ongoing technological progress has automated portfolio management to the extent that it’s now “so easy, a robot can do it”, and once again, advisors have evolved to make their main value offering the advice that they provide across their clients’ entire financial lives. Yet, despite the introduction of alternative fee structures (including hourly and subscription models) based on the delivery of advice rather than management of assets (as well as the growing consumer demand for flat fees), growth of the AUM model remains robust.
In our 64th episode of Kitces & Carl, Michael Kitces and client communication expert Carl Richards discuss how disconnects can sometimes arise between what potential clients may expect and how advisory businesses are structured to deliver advice, why the demand for quality advice continues to combat industry-wide fee compression, and why it’s been (up to this point, at least) such a struggle for alternative fee structures to gain better traction.
Over the past several years, as more options for automated investment management have become available, consumers have increasingly sought out ‘compartmentalized’ planning engagements (i.e., advice on ‘just’ one or two, rather than on all seven, aspects of the planning process), but often run into difficulty when trying to find an advisor that has the capacity to accommodate their requests, particularly when it comes to higher-net worth clients. As while there are advisors who are able to accommodate limited planning engagements, their numbers are limited. Moreover, clients who are further along the complexity spectrum may expect the sort of service found at larger firms, which simply aren’t structured in such a way to provide compartmentalized service.
Compounding the conundrum is the fact that it’s difficult for consumers to differentiate between advisors who actually offer advice and those who simply assume the title but may not be in the advice business. The supply of fiduciary advisors remains scarce, which (in turn) means that an advisor’s limited number of available spots can fill up quickly with clients who do want comprehensive planning (which is why so many of those advisors end out implementing wait lists). And with the high costs that advisors face to acquire clients in the first place, it just becomes impractical (at least at this point) to build a sustainable business that (primarily) serves clients on a limited basis.
Ultimately, the key point is that, while fee structures and advisory models continue to evolve to provide better and more varied services to clients who may not want (or need) comprehensive planning, the fact remains that it’s expensive to not only acquire clients, but to service them as well. Which, at the end of the day, is why a fiduciary standard is so important for the industry, as it would drive down the cost of advice in the aggregate and would make it more practical to profitable and effectively serve clients who would benefit the most from flat-fee engagements.
***Editor's Note: Can't get enough of Kitces & Carl? Neither can we, which is why we've released it as a podcast as well! Check it out on all the usual podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts (iTunes), Spotify, and Stitcher.
Kitces & Carl Podcast Transcript
Carl: Greetings, Michael.
Michael: Hello, Carl. How are you?
Carl: Good. Hey, wait a second. Over your right shoulder, is that a small Lego? Kitces, what is that?
Michael: Yes, yes. For those who can't see, I am holding up, basically, a small Lego me. Yes. Shout-out to the folks at Yourefolio who had made...I guess they were doing a show where they were giving out these little Lego-style dudes. So he's a USB drive. But they painted him blue and scribbled on the goatee. So I've got little Lego me, so I have to keep little Lego me as a memento now. Oh, now I've got to put him up.
Michael: All right, come on, little guy.
The Growing Demand For Flat-Fee Limited Planning Engagements [01:35]
Carl: Well, I don't think there's any way for me to use that as a segue, but it's good to know what's in the background. So here's the question I have for you. I have a dilemma. A dilemma. And this has come up more than once, lately. I get asked a lot for referrals to...well, that's not the way people [put it]. People email me a lot looking for a financial planner, and what's coming up more often, lately...it's always come up, but it's coming up...it's almost every time and, in fact, just happened, literally, yesterday. Having a conversation with somebody...it was a series of conversations, so it's not like people just walk up to me on the street and say, "I have $12 million." But it was a series of conversations with someone who has $12 million of investable assets, net worth of probably closer to $20 million, $12 million liquid, relatively...there will be some heavy lifting up front from a tax perspective because of some things that have happened.
Has a pretty simple view of portfolio management, because they're already kind of...has a Big 5 accounting background. They managed their own money for a long time in a passive, well-designed portfolio. So they were evidence-based investors. But she needs advice. Again, Big 5 accounting background, knows her way around money, all that stuff, but needs advice. It's a bit much for her to be dealing with, and she needs advice, and she's willing to pay for it. In fact, she even said, "You know, why can't I find..." so she's been looking for somebody that she can pay for advice.
She's like, "I don't understand. The portfolio design and construction is pretty close to a commodity at this point," in her words. "I can go to Wealthfront. My money is already at Schwab in their private client thing, managed passively. I can go to Betterment. I can do all these other things. And that's what all the books point to..." this is what she's saying, "...all the books point to. There's a way to manage money here. I've got to make some big decisions about big asset allocation decisions, of course, just based on a plan. But what I really need is the tax and the estate planning and then somebody to help me stick to that asset allocation, based on my plan. And everybody wants to charge me...they all call themselves...they even have it in their names sometimes. They're titled portfolio manager or chief investment officer at this RIA financial advice firm. I realize that's an important piece, but it feels like a commodity to me. I want to pay for advice." And she's like, "I'll pay $25,000 a year. I'll pay a $25,000 a year retainer for advice."
And she said something that has been said to me 100 times over the last 10 years. "It seems like all of you are charging for the commodity and giving away the valuable stuff. In other words, you're charging for portfolio design asset allocation, and you're linking your fee to that. It's directly linked to that, and then you're giving away all the really valuable stuff around planning." I was like, "Okay." So I started reaching out a bit. And it's hard to find somebody to send her to, somebody with real technical planning chops. Oh, by the way, she'd also like a team so it's not a solo advisor that disappears off the face of the earth. If something happens, she...right? She likes the idea of, "Okay, well, there's more than one person there."
So it hasn't been easy. And I've done this experiment. I did this experiment a couple of times a year. What do you make of that? What is that about? I'm sure I'm missing something, but what is that about?
Michael: Well, there's a lot of different, interesting stuff going on there. At the most basic level, I kind of think of this and boil this down to, A, it's a fee issue. It's a "How much does advice cost?" issue. Because, look, at the end of the day, $12 million investable, advisors have break points and such. It's probably still a fee in, I don't know, the 60 to 70 basis point range, maybe with the different break points that we've got. Some AUM advisor is probably charging, call it $70,000 to $80,000 for that client. We'll call it $75,000, just to make the math round. So, to me, at the purest level, what we're essentially talking about is, she doesn't want to pay $75 grand. She wants to pay $25 grand. She doesn't want to pay 60 bps. She wants to pay 20 bps.
And so then you get to the question, "Well, why aren't there more advisors who will charge 20 bps on a big portfolio? And, to me, this gets into two different things that get to be interesting challenges at the same time. On the one hand, as you noted, not a simple situation. There is some complexity here. There are some challenges. We need not just an advisor, but a team. "I've got to pay for not just one expert, but an expert and a backup expert on the team who has enough expertise to cover for the first expert if something happens." You're hunting for a fairly sophisticated, experienced advisor and firm and team capability. And so when I hear this, at the most basic level, I know a lot of people are probably hearing this and going to an AUM versus flat fees model discussion. And we may end out there in a moment. But, to me, the purest essence of this is just, "I have $12 million and a lot of complexity. I want to pay someone $25,000, but everybody's charging $75,000."
Carl: Yeah, interesting. Are you saying that's not the right way of...because I agree. I immediately am like, "Well, wait. You're just linking it back to portfolio, but you're..."
Michael: If an advisor came to her and said, "You know what? We'd love to work with you. We only charge basis points. That's the only way you're allowed to work with us. Our fee is 10 basis points." Would she complain?
Michael: No, because the fee comes...she doesn't have an AUM problem. She has a fee problem.
Carl: Interesting. Super interesting.
Michael: She'd be totally fine at 10 basis points. If I said the fee is 20 basis points, she'd be like, "Oh, well, funny thing. I've got $12 million. At 20 bps, that costs $24 grand. I was willing to pay $25 grand, so I'm totally cool." It's not a basis point problem. It's just a, "I don't like the fact that this adds up to $75 grand. I was prepared to pay $25 grand."
Carl: Yeah, there's so many interesting things about that. I love that line of thinking, and there's so many interesting things about... So one thing we could put a pin in, and maybe we'll get to is, why are we still...let's assume $75,000 is the number that an AUM advisor would charge. Look, this is probably a whole new discussion. But I guess the reason we're still linking it to portfolio size is because it's some arbitrary measure of complexity.
Michael: Yeah, it's a proxy for complexity. It's clearly not a perfect proxy for complexity, because we can have some very affluent clients who are simple, and we can have some more modest portfolios who still have a lot of financial complexity in their lives. But it's a better proxy for complexity, I think, than we give it credit for. And, frankly, there are a lot of things that our industry just does automatically, already, to further reconcile that. We have break points. It's not like I've got the same fee...for most services, at least. It's not like it's the same fee on the 12th millionth dollar as it was on the first million. It starts breaking off, so we tail it off a little bit.
How And Why Advisory Firms Segment Client Service [10:55]
A lot of firms have some kind of client segmentation. If my average client is $1 million, and you bring me a $12 million, you're probably going to get more services. I'm answering your phone faster. You get the best advice, or you get the best experts. You get more service hours. Our client events, our other fancy stuff, our concierge services, whatever we do. A lot of firms have some kind of ways that they either formally or informally segment their A clients, or their top clients from the rest, which is another way of saying, "You pay me a much larger fee than my average client. I'm going to bring a little bit more to the table for you."
Whole other discussion about whether we necessarily offer our A clients the things that are actually most valuable to justify it, but, conceptually, we segment our services. We tend to do more for the As than the Cs. We tier our fees. We charge at least incrementally marginally less for the As than the Cs. Total fee is still bigger, but the break points start kicking in. We start to equalize the playing field. I realize it's not perfectly equalized for every client across the board, but the truth is, I think our services tend to gravitate more than even most of us realize.
We all talk about the fact that, "My $10 million client doesn't take 10x the work of my $1 million client, so why would I charge 10x the fee?" And I talk to a lot of firms that say that. I'm like, "Oh, so your average client's $1 million?" Like, "Yeah, yeah. That's about it." Like, "Cool. How many $10 million clients do you have?" And, usually, it's like three. And I'm not knocking someone at that size, but, you know what, when your average client's $1 million, most of your services are built for clients at $1 million, and you don't actually attract as many clients at $10 million, because your firm's services are kind of structured at a $1 million.
The firms that work with clients that have $10 million end out attracting a lot of $10 million because they build services and models that are built well for $10 million clients, and then they don't actually get a lot of $1 million clients, because they would have to have higher fees and more costs because they would need to charge more and have bigger minimums because they've got all these services that they provide that they don't know how to scale back for "small people who only have $1 million." So you see a lot of firms that work with the ultra-high net worth that tend to have much higher minimums because they just do a lot more stuff for everyone or have a lot more expertise to bring a lot more to the table, or whatever it is.
So we knock a lot, this whole, "Why would my client with 10x the assets pay 10x the fee?" but the reality is it's not like there are a lot of firms out there where 50% of their clients have $1 million and the other 50% have $10 million and this is actually coming up regularly. We actually tend to get in a narrower range. Now, granted, the $3 million client pays 3x the $1 million client, and there might be a lot of firms that have that. Or the $750 grand client pays 3x the $250 grand client. And you might have a good number of clients in each of those buckets, depending what your firm size is.
So there's some narrower range around this where those fees probably don't align perfectly down to the client. But it's tighter than we give it credit for. Most firms' client bases, on average, are more homogenous than I think we actually give them credit for. To me, there's two ways to look at the market in the aggregate. Option 1 is, 99% of consumers who hire a financial advisor are idiots who can't do math, or option 2, they're actually quite comfortable with how this works. They do the math and they're okay with it, and we're just beating ourselves up for the sake of beating ourselves up.
Carl: Yeah, yeah. Let's talk about that for a little bit, because I'm curious about it. Because I've been thinking about this for more than 15 years, because about 15 years ago, I had an experience with a client who wanted me to kind of break this down. It was $50 million, and I reported to the board once a quarter.
Michael: So the client was so large he had his own personal board you had to report to?
Carl: It was a pool of money for a business, but the business was owned by one person. So I'd go meet with three or four people that made up the board of directors of this business, and I would report once a year. And after one of the meetings, the founder of this company, who I also managed $12 million of his personal money, was like, "Hey, would you just walk me through....this pool of money. What do you do?" And I go, "We built this beautiful portfolio. It's all based on your risk tolerance and the use of the money and what return you need to earn based on the goals," and all that stuff...spending policy, essentially. "We built that, and then I come every quarter and I report to you guys." They're like, "Oh, how long are you here?" Like, "About an hour." And at this point, I caught on. His name was...I'll just mention "Phil." His name is "Phil." His name wasn't Phil. I was like, "Phil, I know where you're headed with this." I said, "There's some prep work," and then, afterwards, they had a report. And he said, "Add all that up for me." We added it all up, and he was like, "That's $10,000 an hour." Some number like that.
Michael: Did you tell him he's getting a deal, because it costs more for an hour's speech?
Carl: Yeah, I said, "Try booking me for a keynote." I didn't. And, at that point, I wouldn't have been able to say that. But that was well played, Michael. Obviously, I had all sorts of things I could talk about, like the risk and the market.
Michael: “Our firm's liability exposure on a $50 million portfolio is significant.”
Carl: Yeah, so I don't think I want to talk much about that. What I'm curious about is, from that point on, I've been thinking...and we have these people every once in a while that stick a flag in the ground and say...I can't remember who that guy was. He was in California, and his retainer was $1,800. And I talked to him once, and he had just brought in something like a $75 million client from Goldman. He was an ex tax attorney, and the way he made his decision was, he took the top 10% of billable-hour attorneys in his zip code, and he charged that. And he would calculate every year, and his average retainer was like $1,800 to $2,400. I'm sure you may even know who I'm talking about. I can't remember his name. But we have these people that make that noise every once in a while. Retainer, flat fee, decoupled. And it makes sense, you know? Do you think that fear is overblown?
Michael: After you had this conversation with "Phil," and he did the math, and he figured out you're charging him $10,000 an hour...
Carl: Yeah, something like that. Yep.
Michael: Did he fire you?
Carl: No. I ended up firing him two years later because he said to me, "Carl, your job's so easy. All you have to do is sell before the market goes down and buy before it goes up." And I said, "Oh, now I understand why we've had so much frustration working together." But he didn't fire me because of that.
Michael: So why didn't he fire you after he figured out you're charging $10,000 an hour?
Why It’s Hard To Find Advisors Who Can Provide Flat-Fee, Limited Planning Engagements [18:42]
Carl: Because we were actually super competitive at that spot. Like it was priced...if he went and compared. So this is the conclusion I always come to is, we can debate and harangue and feel bad or feel guilty or feel awesome, but, largely, the market gets to decide. And I think that's what you're pointing to in my earlier example is, the reason I'm having a hard time finding somebody to refer this client to is because, for the service she needs, people charge more like $50,000 to $75,000 a year.
Michael: Well, not just that. I think the problem is, the people who are delivering at the capability she wants are getting other clients willing to pay $50,000 to $75,000.
Carl: And, in many cases, a line of them, called a wait list.
Michael: Yeah, and she's getting outbid. You said you had trouble finding awesome advisors. Was it because you couldn't find them, or is it because they didn't...you couldn't find anyone who could do the work, or you couldn't find anyone who had the room to take her because they had wait lists?
Carl: Yeah, and I should be careful, right? I have found some amazing advisors/planners that do incredible work at $25,000 and less. Amazing. But there's always one reason why it doesn't work, right? It's either geography, it's not a team, maybe there's a speciality that's just adjacent, but not the one. So, again, I want to be clear, a couple of advisors have reached out, and I've been like, "Oh, my gosh, this is amazing. But it's not a fit." So I'm having a hard time finding a fit. And the people that there has been a fit with...to answer your question, the people that there has been a fit with...well, there's two reasons why the people that she has been a fit with haven't worked. One, they were mostly solo, and she really wants to know that there's more than one person. And, two, they have a wait list.
Michael: Which, to me, just comes down to... So the perverse reality, to me, at the advisor marketplace, is there aren't enough good advisors for the clients who want to pay for services.
Michael: Which, at the end of the day, is why she can't find a good advisor when she's ready to write a $25,000 check because, basically, those advisors are getting gobbled up by clients who are still willing to pay basis points, which is coming out to $75,000, or just basically means she's losing any slots to be a $25,000-paying client because clients paying $75,000 are already taking those advisors. And she's getting outbid for limited services.
Now, I'm sure there are people who are listening to this, as well, and you're going to get emails from them, Carl, because you brought this up, who are going to say, "I want your $25,000 client." They've got the..."I've got a team. We're all CPAs. We know our tax stuff cold. This would be an amazing client for us, Carl." And they may reach out, and you may send it to one of them. The irony of this is, there are more clients who are willing to pay healthy fees than good advisors to service them, which is why, when you get a situation like this, all the advisors have wait lists. You can't find them. Yet, as an individual advisor, it's still so darn hard to get a client. It's time consuming, it costs a lot in marketing sales, networking, COIs, whatever the strategy is that we do.
We did a study on this on the site. The average advisor, when you consider their time, the cost of their time and the cost that they actually spend on marketing, the average advisor spends more than $3,000 just to get one client. And that's the average across all clients of all different sizes. You get up into the higher net worth, we didn't actually break it out directly by net worth, but I suspect you'll probably find a cost north of $10,000 of just the sheer amount of time and work and marketing and trust building that it takes. Because a lot of people come at you if you've got $12 million, $20 million. So it's really hard just to get on their radar screen and get in the door to be competitive with them to get them in.
And the sheer marketing costs of it means if you're going to have to do all that work, take all that time, build all those relationships, do all that marketing spending to get a client, as an advisor, why would you take the $25,000 client if you can get a $75,000 client? If you're good enough to market and move in circles of people that have $12 million, why wouldn't you take the ones that are willing to pay more? And when you do, all your seats get filled up, and then you're like, "Why would I take a $25,000 client, because I'm getting other people that are willing to pay me $70,000. And, frankly, if other people want to pay me $70,000, I don't want to take you for $25,000. Because if the word gets out, you're going to cannibalize the rest of my business, and that's not so good for my business."
Carl: That's crazy.
Michael: "I've already got people who are willing to pay more." And so I think there's this combination that the number of good advisors are scarce, but there are a lot of advisors. There are a lot of not-so-great advisors. There are a lot of people who put "Advisor" on their business card but aren't even actually in the advice business. And our trust is so low with consumers that it makes it really, really hard to get a client. It makes it really, really time consuming to get a client. It makes it really, really expensive to get a client. And so, frankly, from our end, I think it's nothing nefarious. If you can get one, you charge what the market will bear. And what the market will bear is what that AUM client is paying, what "Phil" was paying you, where you were charging the equivalent of $10,000 an hour, and you were very competitive, and he didn't fire you for it.
Why Building A Sustainable Business Based On A Flat-Fee Model Remains A Challenge For Many Advisors [25:01]
Carl: Yeah, that's crazy. So it's really, really fascinating. I was just thinking through, okay, so let's pretend like this client with $12 million knows how they want the money invested. So they could just plug it in at anywhere, right? Let's just say Vanguard. They just plug it in at Vanguard and have a portfolio built, but they really need the...it's really just like thoughtful tax advice. It's thoughtful estate planning. And I was like, "Okay, well then go find an attorney that does that or an accountant that does that." I'm like, well, the problem is, all the accountants I know that "do that"...most of the accountants I know don't have time to be that strategic, because they're reporting quickly on the stuff that's already happened, right? They're on it. So the ones that are really thoughtful and strategic largely have become advisors. You know what I mean? Where do you get the thoughtful, strategic tax advice? Because I think of the attorneys that provide thoughtful, strategic tax advice. Well, it comes with monuments crafted to themselves, and 15,000 things, and it's the life insurance policies. Right? It's a really interesting nut to crack.
Michael: Yeah, so we just got down to, why can't you just...your friend needs, whatever, if 50 hours worth of advanced work at $500 an hour costs $25,000 a year, why wasn't someone just charged $500 an hour out there? And to be fair, there are advisors out there who are charging $500 an hour or even less. But the challenge for so many of them is, it's hard to get enough clients, right? If you're going to do this, and this is 50 hours of billable work, and you're trying to fill 2,000 working hours in the year, you can't bill for all of them, but maybe you bill for 60% of them. It's like you're trying to fill 1,200 billable hours, which means you need 24 clients like this to keep your roster full. Who has time to market enough to get two $12 million clients a month while also doing the 50 hours a year work for everybody else?
Michael: And the answer is not many. That's a lot of clients. That's a lot of $12 million clients to find every month on an ongoing basis to fill up your year, even “just”...air quotes, "just" charging $500 an hour. To me, in the essence, that's why hourly firms struggle in general is, you need so many hours, you need such a volume of hours, but if you actually spend all the time to do the marketing in order to do that, you wouldn't have any time to do the work that you built the hours for, and you get stuck. And so what ends out being the solution to this in the aggregate? Recurring revenue models, otherwise known as AUM, although, to be fair, her retainer structure at least gets you part of the way there. And the advice ends out costing more because it takes so much time and cost to get a client.
In the aggregate, that's why I view issues like fiduciary standards as so important. Imagine how different this business would be and how cheap advice would be if people confidently sought out advice and just took the first or second advisor they talked to the way that you go find a doctor when you're sick. We don't find a doctor by searching online and finding resources that explain the 22 questions to ask your doctor to vet their services and their fee model and how they charge you and all this other stuff, when you're just like, "My elbow hurts. Do you know how to help my elbow?"
Michael: And we have this giant list of questions that are basically all about how to spend hours and hours and hours interviewing advisors to make sure that one is not fleecing you. An important thing, because some of them, unfortunately, will. But it makes it daunting for consumers. They don't want to take the time. It makes it hard for us. It makes it super time intensive and labor intensive for any match to ever get made, which just flat-out drives up the cost of getting clients, so much so that the fees go up. Why do so many firms end out having minimums of a couple hundred thousands dollars? Because they end out with a client acquisition cost of several thousands dollars, which means it takes them the first year's fees to make back the time and the labor to get the client.
It's the difficulty of getting clients and the low trust of the industry that drives up the cost of advice, and you see it reflected in the aggregate in situations like your friend. Because I'm sure there are one-off advisors who are listening who are like, "Carl, I will so service the bejesus out of that client for $25,000." I'm like, "More power to you." But if I said, for most, "Awesome. Sounds like a great business. Could you find like 20 or 30 more of those in the next year or two?" Most advisors are like, "I would love the gift from Carl, but I don't know where to find 23 more of them."
Carl: Yeah. That's like the equivalent of me, when I tell my wife, when I come home from a speaking engagement, what the fee was. It's the equivalent of her saying, "Well, gee, you should just do two of those every day."
Carl: Yeah. I'm like, "Yeah, of course. How about I just do one a day? It would be just fine." Right?
Michael: But you've got to find that many events, and just the marketing and the work of it...
Carl: Right, doesn't work.
Michael: ...quickly gets challenging.
Carl: Doesn't work. Amazing. Yeah, it's really fascinating. And I do want to just...as we wrap up, just want to emphasize, I had a number of firms reach out, and I was actually blown...I'm really glad I went through the exercise, because I was blown away at the caliber of work that's being done by people. And the only reason it hasn't worked so far is either, A, location, or B, team. And so we're going to continue.
Michael: Again, that's how hard it is for you to find someone to refer her to, and you know the industry and how to navigate it.
Carl: I know. I've been telling people that. I'm like, "If you think it's hard for us to navigate the industry, try it from the outside." This is a smart, intelligent, successful woman saying, "What is going on?" Right?
Michael: I know a lot of advisors that don't want to refer out clients who aren't a good fit, because they're afraid they won't be able to find an advisor who's a good one to refer to. I totally get it, so imagine what it's like for a client trying to find their way to you.
Carl: Totally, totally. Amen. Well, that was a really fun discussion. Thank you.
Michael: Awesome. Thank you, Carl.
Carl: Okay. See you, Michael.