Whether it is a free sample in the grocery store (where the store hopes the sample convinces the shopper to purchase the item), or ‘Freemium’ software (where the developer hopes that consumers using a more basic version of their software will lead them to purchase an enhanced version), consumers are used to being offered free goods as part a company’s marketing process. But offering free financial plans remains controversial in the financial advisory community. Even if some prospects could become clients as a result of receiving the free plan, some advisors ask, might offering plans for free reduce the perceived value of financial planning in consumers’ minds?
A research study conducted by Kitces.com Lead Researcher Derek Tharp suggests that offering an initial financial plan for free doesn’t reduce the value of the plan in consumers’ minds. Furthermore, not only may it be the case that free financial plans don’t diminish the perceived value of financial plan, but offering paid one-time plans at typical fees charged by advisors could actually decrease the perceived value of ongoing planning relative to offering free initial plans! In an experimental study, participants were given a scenario in which they received a $1 million windfall inheritance and were seeking out an advisor to help them manage it. The participants were divided into four treatment groups based on the cost of their initial financial plan: either free, $1,000, $2,000, or $3,000. They were told that the advisor’s planning strategies would save them more than $500,000 in taxes during the next 30 years, and were then asked what they thought a reasonable annual fee would be to pay for ongoing services from the advisor.
While some observers might expect that participants in the experiment who were told the initial plan was free would pay less for ongoing services, those who were told they would receive a free plan suggested the highest price of all treatment groups! One possible explanation for this effect is that the price of the initial standalone plan set expectations for the participants of the value of ongoing services. In the case of the experiment, those who were assigned a non-free price for the initial plans perhaps used their respective prices as ‘anchors’ when estimating the value of ongoing planning, using those prices as reference points when considering what ongoing fees would be reasonable, whereas those who were to be given the free plan did not have any such reference points to work from (and perhaps were compelled to focus more on other details, such as the given amount of projected tax savings).
Ultimately, the key point is that goods or services that are ‘free’ are not necessarily perceived as having lesser value; on the contrary, research suggests that clients might be more willing to accept higher annual fees if they are provided with a free initial plan rather than one with a price significantly less than the advisor’s ongoing fees. Which means that advisors may want to consider either increasing their fees for initial plans (raising client expectations of the cost of ongoing planning), or using a model with a free initial plan that helps the client better understand the value of the advisor’s services and, at the same time, avoids an ‘anchor’ price that weighs down their expectations of the advisor’s fees!