The road to mediocre growth, it turns out, is paved with good intentions.

While about three-quarters of RIA firms consider marketing and business development to be a priority, only about one-third actually has a plan in place, says David Canter, executive vice president and head of practice management and consulting for Fidelity Institutional Wealth Services.

In fact, only 5% of firms surveyed in the 2014 Fidelity RIA Benchmarking Study had, by their own judgment, highly developed marketing and business development practices.

FINDING HIGH PERFORMERS

The study uses growth, productivity and profitability criteria to define the firms it considers "high performing" -- and then looks at those firms' best practices to develop recommendations for other advisors.

In particular, Fidelity says, those standout firms shared four key characteristics when it came to marketing and business development.

The high-performing firms were able to:

1. Tell their firm's story consistently.

High-performing firms are more likely to describe their firm in the same way to both clients and prospects. The majority of their clients know the fundamentals of the firm's story: what its advisors do well and why it should be the firm of choice.

"They also tell their story in the same way, with the same message, to centers of influence -- which helps generate high-quality referrals," Canter notes.

2. Effectively communicate target client profiles.

In order to help generate those referrals, high-performing firms are almost twice as likely to effectively describe target client profiles to clients and centers of influence. As a result, clients and colleagues can identify the most appropriate referrals -- and that, in turn, can yield a higher percentage of clients who fit that target over time.

"Being clear about your target market and communicating it effectively is a pillar of strategic planning," says Canter.

3. Leverage centers of influence.

According to the benchmarking study, high-performing firms are four times more likely to use advanced referral processes with centers of influence. Tactics include always thanking sources for referrals and working to understand their centers of influence's target client profiles so they can send reciprocal referrals.

These high performers are also more likely to review centers-of-influence data -- such as referral status, at least monthly, keeping data up to date.

4. Have business development officers and other resources.

High-performing firms are about twice as likely to have developed standardized talent-management plans or have changed firm compensation plans, Fidelity found. These firms are also less likely to report feeling strapped by a lack of internal sales and marketing capabilities.

"The best firms have the best talent," Canter says. "You have to have talent and the right resources to grow a business."

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