It’s taken years, but the RIA space has evolved to the point that consumers have a greater awareness of what independent financial advice means. And this awareness is changing the dynamics among competing RIAs, says Rob Francais, CEO of Los Angeles-based Aspiriant, one of the largest RIAs in the country with close to $7 billion in assets under management.

“It used to be that when we were competing for new business, it was against the institutions,” Francais said. “Today, more people are seeking out independent firms. We find prospects coming to us and saying, ‘I want an independent and I’m narrowing the list down from three.’ That is happening today far more than it used to.”

At the same time, more and more clients are coming to Aspiriant “over the transom,” as Francais said. By this, he means that they know nothing about the firm and do not come through referrals. Instead they’ve done research, discovered its existence and want to know more.

“Five years ago it used to be that 85% of clients came from existing client referrals and centers of influence referrals,” Francais said, “and a small percentage, 15% or less, came in over the transom.”

Today, that 15% has grown to 25% to 35% at Aspiriant, he said.

“People just call us up and say, ‘I read about you. I want to learn more about the independent space. I went through a bunch of websites and I identify with your company,” he said.

It’s not that client referrals have tapered off, according to Francais. It’s just that growing awareness is driving in a new demographic of clients.

“I’m working on two prospects right now who are just over the transom,” he said. “I would say that the newer the wealth is, either with stock options or Fortune 500 executives, the more likely they are to seek out a new and different solution set.”