Recent years have seen an increase in the number of RIAs charging fixed monthly retainer fees, and while retainer fees can have several advantages over other types of fees, one notable disadvantage – particularly as compared to traditional AUM fees, which tend to increase automatically in line with financial markets – is that financial advisors who use them must proactively raise their fees from time to time in order to keep up with business expenses, invest in new upgrades, and increase their own take-home income. The necessity of fee increases entails a certain amount of pain for monthly-fee advisors since each conversation around raising fees creates the possibility of pushback from clients that could put a strain on the client-advisor relationship.
This is all the more true when clients are dealing with cost increases in other areas from high inflation, yet the reality is that many advisors are also facing inflation in the form of higher business costs. As a result, monthly-fee advisors may see a decrease in their take-home income if they don’t increase their fees at least enough to keep up with their rising business expenses.
But using business costs alone as a justification to raise fees can backfire on the advisor. For one thing, it limits the amount that an advisor can raise their fees to roughly the rate of inflation in their business expenses, which translates into no net increase in take-home income. And even more importantly, higher business costs as a rationale for raising fees is bound to ring hollow with clients since they are likely to care much less about the advisory firm’s expenses than about the fact that they will be paying a higher fee going forward, 'just' to receive the same level of service they were already getting.
A better way to implement and communicate fee increases may be one that is centered around providing more value to the client in exchange for the higher fee. To start, this signifies a client-centric approach, shifting the basis of the increase from the advisory firm and its needs (to maintain its profit margins with higher business costs) to the client and what the fee increase means to them. Furthermore, it increases the potential for the amount that the advisor can increase their fees since clients are more likely to accept a higher increase when there is clearly something in it for them as well!
When communicating fee increases to clients, then, it’s important to be concrete and confident about how the advisor will bring extra value to the relationship (which, of course, means having a plan to deliver that value in the first place). Because, while any conversation around fees comes with the possibility of client pushback, that extra value represents a powerful argument for why it's in the client’s best interest to go along with the change – and if the client ultimately decides they don’t want to accept the higher fee and ends the relationship, it creates a new opportunity to add clients who do see the value in the higher fee.
Ultimately, nearly every advisory firm that charges monthly fees will eventually need to raise those fees to at least maintain a steady take-home income. But advisors who want to grow their income beyond ‘just’ the rate of inflation in their business cost can do so by stepping up their value to their clients – whether in the form of more services, better technology, or just greater experience and expertise allowing them to go deeper into planning!