For the past several decades, the prices that consumers pay for financial products have been trending lower and lower. From the rise of discount brokerage in the 80s, to no-load mutual funds platforms in the 90s, online brokerage in the “aughts”, and robo-advisors in the 2010s, the cost of investing has decreased steadily and dramatically. Accordingly, a recurring concern over the past decade has been whether the “fee compression” in financial products will eventually spread to financial advice as well. Instead, though, the opposite has been true, as our own Kitces Research shows that there has actually been fee expansion when it comes to financial advice, as the typical price that advisors charge for standalone financial plans, retainers, and hourly rates has been on the rise (and even AUM fees have remained remarkably stable!). Which suggests that, as the industry has become more focused on the advice side of the equation (and less on product sales), advisors have had to up their game… and in practice really are delivering far more value to their clients than they ever have… to the point that they’re even able to charge more for it!
However, as the advisory world transitions fully to advice fees and the debate between commissions versus fees begins to fade, a new sort of industry conflict is rising to take its place: where advisors who charge fees are criticizing each other for whatever fee model they’ve chosen to utilize within their practices, and the suggestion that their particular fee model is superior to all the others. Which raises the question: is the debate about the “best” advice fee model another version of consumer education (akin to teaching consumers about the difference between fees versus commissions), or are advisors charging fees becoming too focused on differentiating on price (or pricing model) instead of focusing on the range of value that a range of advice fee models can support?
In our 56th episode of Kitces & Carl, Michael Kitces and financial advisor communication expert Carl Richards discuss the emerging new advisor fee debate, why advisors may be missing the mark on the core issue at play, and how advisors could reframe their discussion in order to help move the profession (and their own practices) forward.
As a starting point, it’s important to remember that in an industry with a lot of compensation excesses, it has been a tried-and-true tactic for financial advisors to build their businesses over the years by pointing out that their costs are lower (making it more feasible to deliver better performance) than their competition. Yet at the same time, it’s important to remember that there’s a difference between advisors who charge a lot for very little service, and advisors who charge a lot for a lot of service (that not all clients may want to buy and pay for… but some do). In other words, while there are certainly advisors whose rates are “high” (in absolute terms), the central debate shouldn’t be around the fee itself (or what it’s based on), but rather the value that a client is actually getting for the fees they pay. Or stated more simply, the issue isn’t whether a certain fee (or fee model) is good or bad, it’s whether the fee itself is justified for the value it provides to the particular type of clients being served.
From a client-facing perspective, meanwhile, advisors might consider focusing on all the services (and value) they provide when meeting with prospective clients, rather than highlighting the fees that other advisors may be charging. Because, at the end of the day, when advisors ask good questions and emphasize the positive effect that they have on their clients' lives, prospective clients will be able to connect the dots themselves and understand if the service that they’re getting (or not) from their current advisor is worth the fees they’re paying.
Ultimately, the key point is that advisors who win business on price run the risk of eventually losing business on price (and/or simply attracting the most price-sensitive clientele). Which means for advisors focused on long-term relationships, making clear the real value of financial advice (and what that looks like on an ongoing basis) turns the focus away from why a prospective client may or may not be paying too much, and towards their pain points and the issues that they need help with. Because it’s the emphasis on the positive work that advisors do, and the outcomes they facilitate for their clients, that will push the profession (and individual advisory firms) forward.