We may have finally arrived at a new age of the mass affluent. The market is there, in the enormous generational wave of retiring baby boomers. At the same time, the unprecedented consolidation in the banking and wealth management sectors has pushed advisors to cast a wider net for profitable growth.

As a result, the mass affluent segment may be ready to equal or even surpass its high-net-worth peers in appeal to the financial planning industry.

When you think about it, it’s not so hard to understand why the mass affluent should be so appealing. Among the reasons for their appeal:

  • Because there are only so many high net worth consumers to go around, firms spend a lot of effort fighting over the same 1%.
  • There are demonstrably more of them — to the tune of 33 million households.
  • Although the mass affluent rarely see themselves as “wealthy,” they clearly value and can benefit just as much as the high net worth from advice and planning.


In fact, if your practice is managed correctly, the mass affluent can be quite profitable clients. They can afford to eat steak, but the industry is serving them patty melts. Why?

It was once widely assumed that the mass affluent would have all the expectations of the high-net-worth private client, but would be unwilling or unable to pay for the service. And it’s true: That value proposition wouldn’t work with an expensive advisory distribution channel. This is why several firms shifted their mass affluent clients from advisors to the call centers years ago.

But the trick to serving this segment appropriately — and profitably — is not necessarily to “size down” your private banking or wealth management offering, but rather to construct both a menu and a service model that benefits them and you.

The menu must provide:

  • Exclusivity: Provide something special the average “retail” customer can’t get, such as a product bundle, special access to intellectual capital or customized reporting.
  • Upside value: Deliver demonstrable benefits, not a lack of penalties. This is true particularly for bank advisors: Waiving fees for a bounced check is not an “upside” benefit, but a penalty reduction.
  • Clear price/benefit communication: Show them what they’ll pay and be unambiguous about how bringing over more assets improves pricing and benefits.


At the same time, develop a service model that meets their needs as well as yours.

For instance, high value doesn’t have to mean high touch. By providing strong online account access and self-help tools you will be supporting the natural inclination of many self-service and value-conscious mass affluent. Advisors with access to a well-equipped and -trained call center also can avoid having to provide a dedicated relationship manager.

Be sure to establish a clear service level agreement to set expectations. This helps clients know what to expect from you, anchoring part of your value proposition. It also establishes a standard you can measure for all of your clients, which is just good business.

A few places that are getting it right:

  • At Edward Jones, the plainspoken message of their “Face to Face” campaign (aimed squarely at the mass affluent) has broad appeal for the segment.
  • At Charles Schwab, the retail branches offer a pooled advisor service model for affluent investors who may be ready for advice and value the ability to get “face time” with trained representatives.
  • Bank of America/Merrill Lynch’s Merrill Edge has been successful at bringing the mass affluent banking client into the self-service investing and phone center advisory model and providing an outlet for client referrals that don’t meet the Merrill Lynch advisor wealth thresholds.
  • Among RIAs, who have more flexibility in serving clients, some advisors who had previously focused on high-net-worth clients have begun to offer off-the-shelf model strategies to serve mass affluent clients cost effectively.
  • Retail bank powerhouses like JPMorgan Chase (with Chase Private Client) and Citibank (with CitiGold) are advancing a more distinct and compelling proposition to the mass affluent and seeing success.

The fact is, planning and wealth management — whatever the actual wealth level — are fundamental needs that virtually all consumers share. So it’s high time that financial planners considered the opportunity the mass affluent represent — whether with a renewed focus on boomer needs or by targeting a younger mass affluent demographic, some of whom might themselves, with the right financial plan, become high net worth.
Stacey Haefele is president and CEO of HNW, an enterprise relationship marketing and software firm to the wealth management and financial services industry.

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