As the assets under management model shifts the focus on pricing from products and sales to ongoing advice and relationships, it marks the first step toward fee-for-service planning.
By charging based on assets being managed, only a small percentage of Americans are able to afford advisors. The model necessitated clients both having liquid assets available to manage and in sufficient amounts, and to be inclined to delegate management to an advisor in the first place. We’re talking about no more than approximately 7% of Americans. Advisors charging AUM, therefore, miss out on a large portion of the population who might be interested in and have the financial wherewithal to pay for advice.
Planning is further evolving to an advice-centric, relationship-focused practice, independent of either the products to be implemented or the assets to be managed. However, the way that advisors charge for such advice requires serious contemplation — a phenomenon that wasn’t necessary in a product-based sales world because the commissions were set by the company. It also is less challenging in an AUM world — where the 1% AUM fee is so ubiquitous — but it creates serious challenges for purely fee-for-service, advice-only advisors trying to sell a purely intangible service like planning. Simply put, advice is challenging to accurately value and price.
Nonetheless, the appeal of the fee-for-service model is that it introduces a new way for advisors to structure their businesses, making it possible to profitably serve a wider range of clients — especially younger clients who don’t necessarily have large portfolios but may be happy to pay for advice. With this shift, Americans who haven’t previously had access to advisors are now able to make that connection.
While asset-based fees remain the dominant price structure, according to Cerulli the number of advisors charging fixed fees for planning continues to rise, increasing from 33% in 2013 to nearly 50% in 2017. Industry-wide, revenue from planning fees is expected to increase 25% — from 4% to 5% of total industry revenues — in 2018 alone. This change tracks a shifting paradigm that opens a new realm of possibilities to both advisors and clients who may not have otherwise had the opportunity to work together in an advice relationship.
And notably, the trend appears to be accelerating with the generational rotation of advisors themselves. While roughly 36% of all advisors of all ages are charging a fixed fee for planning, a staggering 62% of millennial advisors are using a fee-for-service model. In essence, it appears that as younger generations become increasingly willing to pay for advisors, younger advisors are rising to the occasion to serve their peers through the fee-for-service model.
This win-win scenario has many advisors reevaluating their service model and wondering how they can incorporate fee-for-service billing into their businesses. In fact, the most commonly asked questions we hear at AdvicePay when advisors launch a fee-for-service model all revolve around fees — namely how to integrate them into an existing firm and/or how to set them for new clients going forward.
So how can you develop, implement and run a fee-for-service model for your planning firm and profitably serve traditionally neglected clients without needing to underprice your offering?
The ways in which fee-for-service advisors structure their advice fees vary widely and depend on many factors, including the target market of clientele — and what they can or are willing/able to pay — as well as the business goals and income desires of the advisor themselves, and what they’re trying to achieve.
That being said, here are a few of the most common ways to structure your fee calculation:
Flat fee. You determine a fee that’s appropriate for the services you plan to provide to your clients, and charge that fee to all clients throughout the year for providing that service. With a pure flat-fee model, services typically do not vary appreciably between clients, so charging the same amount works because the whole point is that they all receive the service. This structure works best for advisors with a clearly defined niche, where a standardized fee for a standardized service model can make sense for both the advisor and the client.
Tiered fee based on tiered services. Clients are charged fees at varying tiers depending on the depth of services rendered. Typically, the services at each tier are defined in advance, and the pricing for each tier is set at a level where those services can be delivered profitably. Prospective clients then pick from the menu of service tiers based on what’s an appropriate fit. For example, younger, less wealthy clients with fewer assets pay a basic flat fee to cover their core advice needs. As their assets grow and become more complex, they graduate to a higher fee tier, which has additional services included as well. Essentially, fees scale with a client’s increasing advice and service needs, and services are segmented for clients in each fee tier.
Hourly fee. Advisors simply charge for the hours actually spent working with a client. The hourly model allows advisors to work with clients regardless of their available assets, as long as they have some means of paying. An added benefit relative to most other advisor business models is that hourly fees provide immediate revenue, as most advisors assess the fee on the spot — i.e., at the end of the meeting — as opposed to a commission-based model, where the advisor isn’t compensated until the product is sold and implemented, and the commission paid. It also differs from the AUM model, where the first AUM fee may not come for several months after the relationship starts until the next quarter fee is assessed.
The hourly fee structure was popularized by Sheryl Garrett, founder of the Garrett Planning Network, in the early 2000s as a way of doing fee-for-service planning and thinking about planning fees through a non-AUM lens. Yet while the introduction of the hourly fee represented a critical step toward profitable fee-for-service planning, there are very few sizable hourly-fee firms that have managed to successfully scale the hourly model.
Project-based fee. These fees are set and quoted up front based on either a cumulative estimate of the time to complete the project for the client — working backwards from the value of an hour of the advisor’s time — or based on the perceived value of the project for the client. The biggest appeal of project-based fees is the opportunity to set a price based on the holistic value of the service being provided, rather than basing it solely on the hours spent working. In practice, however, this still requires the advisor to be effective at communicating the value of the holistic advice.
Alternatively, like time-based fees, project-based fees can also be offered for more modular planning components, making planning accessible to prospective clients who have just a few questions and who might not be ready for the full planning package.
SETTING THE FEE
All this being said, the advisor can structure fees in a way that works best for that individual. The bad news is that it’s often difficult to decide on a structure because there are so many options — the infamous paradox of choice problem. And even once you choose which approach might suit, it’s still necessary to set the actual level of the fees, commensurate with both what the advisor needs to earn to be profitable and what the client will pay for the services provided.
Regardless of the type of fee model, most advisors set their fees based on one of four underlying approaches:
Fixed fee based on the advisor’s time. Whether it’s charging hourly for the advice itself, a project-based fee or a flat fee, many advisors set their prices based on what an hour of their time is worth to them. In essence, the process of setting the fee starts with the targeted value of the advisor’s time — e.g., if the advisor wants to generate $150,000 of revenue, and can realistically have 1,200 hours of billable client-facing time, the fee must be at least $125/hour, while if the advisor wants to generate $200,000 of revenue but can only manage 1,000 billable hours, the time-based fee must be at least $200/hour. Thus, if the flat fee service will take 20 hours, it’s priced at $2,500 or $4,000 respectively, while a 30 hour/year service tier would be priced at $3,750 or $6,000, and/or the advisor might simply bill at a $125/hour or $200/hour rate.
Fixed fee based on client value. The more targeted the advisor is to a particular type of ideal/niche clientele, the easier it is to base the fee specifically on the perceived value of the service to the client. The advisor who works primarily with business executives who value their own time at $1,000+/hour might be able to easily charge $500/hour, based not on the value of the time to the advisor but the value of the time to the client.
More generally, to the extent that the advisor really knows his/her ideal client profile and fully understands the complexity and issues associated with it, the more feasible it is to base the fee on the perceived value to a particular niche. As an added benefit, a clearly defined niche or other target clientele also typically has a fairly consistent level of net worth or average household income, which ensures the advisor can set fees that make sense both for clients’ wallets and the advisor’s bottom line.
Net worth plus income. Another approach to setting advisory fees is simply based on the client’s wherewithal to pay. The AUM fee naturally works in part because the fee is always affordable relative to the assets being managed, since it is literally calculated as a percentage of those assets. Similarly, the net-worth-plus-income fee is calculated based on the client’s overall income and net worth — but independent of investable assets. For instance, the advice fee might be 0.5% of net worth plus 1% of AGI.
Although this option is not common, it is gaining some popularity, and many advisors gravitate toward it because net worth helps eliminate some of the conflicts of interest that AUM billing is known for, like the decision of whether to pay off a mortgage or save money for retirement. Indeed, paying off the mortgage impairs the fee of an AUM advisor, but has no impact on a net-worth-plus-income fee, as the net worth calculation doesn’t favor paying down debt or saving for retirement because in the end, the balance sheet is the same.
Notably, adding the income component of the net-worth-and-income fee provides more flexibility to work with a wider range of clients. For example, those who may have high debt but also have high income — e.g., doctors — may want to pay for your advice.
Complexity. This input option charges clients based on how complex their situation is. Typically, it is used as a proxy for a time-based fee, recognizing that it’s often impossible to perfectly estimate the amount of time the plan will take — and often difficult to defend if the client asks why it can’t be done faster. Meanwhile, it may be easier for many advisors to simply set the fee based on agreed-upon complexity factors.
Of course, complexity assumes many forms. In a recent XY Planning Network review of various complexity measures used by its advisors, we found hundreds of data points that can be entered into a complexity calculation, ranging from things like whether or not your client is a business owner, has a spouse or children, or what life cycle they are in — i.e., accumulator or retiree.
Thus, the challenge of setting a formula based on complexity is that the range of possible complexities can be quite cumbersome, but it does allow the advisor to hone in on how to charge clients based on their needs and goals, and for those advisors with a clear target clientele, a common set of complexity issues tends to emerge, making it easier to price those complexities consistently.
Once you’ve determined the right fee methodology and relevant input options to set those fees, the advisor still needs to decide how to actually charge the client.
There are two primary means of charging clients: the upfront, one-time fee for the development of a plan, and an ongoing fee for continued planning services.
Developing an initial plan is extremely time-consuming for both the client and the advisor. Going through the data-gathering phase, defining goals, developing the plan, and creating and implementing the plan all contribute to the time required. And because the time to do the upfront planning is greater, a one-time planning fee helps to ensure that the advisor is compensated for that substantial upfront time investment with the client.
On the other hand, the purpose of either a subscription or retainer model is for advisors to charge an ongoing fee for ongoing services. Functionally, the difference between an ongoing subscription and ongoing retainer fee is that retainer agreements tend to be open-ended, where a substantial part of what clients pay for is access to the advisor as needed. Meanwhile, subscription agreements have a set series of routine meetings, interactions and other service commitments).
But the most common structure for most fee-for-service advisors is a combination of both a one-time fee and ongoing fee payments. This fee structure gives separate and rightful value to both the initial plan and the ongoing relationship, and helps clients understand the difference between and value of the two services.
Advisors who only charge a subscription fee often struggle to get buy-in from clients, as charging an upfront fee is a good way to either screen out clients who aren’t really committed and therefore will pass if there’s an upfront fee, and/or will gain client commitment. After all, once the client has written a check, they are immediately invested in the planning process and are often much more willing to schedule meetings and begin the process.
Conversely, advisors who only charge a one-time fee often struggle to grow and scale their businesses simply because when engagements are more one-time and transactional, it requires a very large number of clients to gain critical mass, which is beyond the marketing capabilities of many/most solo fee-for-service advisors.
All that said, recent years have brought an uptick in shorter, real-time planning sessions, often called quickstart programs. Quickstart offerings are typically a one- to two-hour meeting with a client that covers one or two primary topics, at a lower and fixed cost for the time of the meeting. This is still a one-time planning arrangement, but it’s tailored for the client who can’t afford a fully comprehensive, multi-thousand-dollar plan.
Quickstart offerings are a great way to get paid to market an advisor’s services. Once a client goes through the process — even just for a specific modular component — they will better understand and appreciate how the advisor adds value.
Charging a fee too frequently can make clients feel nickel-and-dimed, and may stress the relationship if the client feels they’re being charged more often than they’re actually receiving value from the advisor. On the other hand, charging too infrequently will make each fee larger when it occurs, potentially causing sticker shock. Here are the relative pros and cons of the three most common fee models.
Monthly. The Netflix model of planning, this is most common for clients paying their advice fees directly out of their monthly cash flow. The virtue of the model is that instead of paying a one-time fee whenever a service is needed or a large — and erratic and potentially-cash-flow-disruptive — annual fee, clients get into the habit of paying an affordable fixed fee on a regular basis, just like any other monthly bill.
Quarterly. This model makes more sense than monthly billing if fees and services may vary from month to month, and/or if services are structured on a quarterly basis. Quarterly billing is also a good option for clients who plan to pay that fee out of an investment brokerage account. Historically, quarterly billing has been very popular under an AUM model as well.
Annual. This is often an appealing way to wrap together a comprehensive set of annual services. However, in practice annual fees are often problematic, both because the sheer size of the fee may prompt sticker shock — or an outright cash flow squeeze —for some clients. Furthermore, advisors who accept more than $500 more than six months in advance for planning services are deemed to have custody under existing SEC guidance. Thus, collecting $2,000 at the beginning of the year for all services to be rendered throughout the course of the year will trigger custody.
Some firms attempt to get around the custody rule by charging $1,000 at the beginning of the year, claiming that no more than $500 of the fee is actually being paid more than six months in advance. However, the SEC has never issued guidance to affirm this approach, and it isn’t feasible for those who plan to charge more than $1,000/year anyway.
Semi-annual. This has been a fallback for advisors shifting away from an annual relationship, whether in an attempt to meet more regularly with clients to provide more ongoing value or simply to avoid the challenges of annual billing — and the custody it may trigger — as a semi-annual fee will by definition never be assessed more than six months in advance, thereby avoiding the custody issue altogether.
THE AUM CASE
While the fee-for-service model has gained popularity over the past few years, with many advisors moving away from investment management and focusing exclusively on comprehensive planning, most advisors retain at least some investment management services and charge some AUM fees. So how do they charge for investment management under a fee-for-service model, or integrate fee-for-service planning into an existing AUM model?
Subscription-based fee plus AUM. For advisors who treat or want to start treating their planning services as being separate from their investment management services, the most straightforward approach is simply to consider them two separate services with separate full-price fees.
Reduced subscription-based fee plus AUM. There is arguably some overlap in providing both investment management and planning services, so when they’re combined, the work amounts to less than the cumulative work of doing each separately. This overlap in services can justify a reduction in fees. Accordingly, some firms set a lower minimum planning fee — i.e., less than what they would charge on a standalone basis, but enough to reflect the additional planning value being added above and beyond the AUM fee. This is especially true for clients with smaller accounts where the AUM fee alone isn’t sufficient to compensate the advisor for the total effort.
Subscription-based fee plus reduced AUM. For more planning-centric advisors, where the planning advice is the primary service and the investment management is just an add-on, an alternative approach is to charge full subscription-based planning fees, but a reduced AUM fee (e.g., just 0.50% to 0.75%) for the investment-only portion of the services.
Planning fee turned AUM fee. Some firms charge a planning fee until a client reaches a certain asset level, at which point an AUM fee is imposed in place of the planning fee. For instance, the advisor charges $3,600/year for planning and any investment management services, until the client reaches $360,000 of AUM, at which point the client pays 1% of AUM going forward.
This approach is most commonly seen in advisory firms that have historically charged 1% of AUM but that want to add a planning fee for their smaller clients to ensure a minimum level of revenue per client. The virtue of the AUM-with-planning-fee-minimum approach is that for firms already focused on the AUM model, it’s a means of charging a planning fee without undermining the AUM fee structure they have in place.
Flat fee that includes investment management. Some firms simply charge a flat fee for planning that includes investment management as part of the service. Advisors charge clients enough to be compensated for a comprehensive service, and simply detach from the AUM fee altogether — especially since the amount of time it takes to service the client may be the same regardless of their assets. Although this approach works and allows for a much simpler way of charging fees, some advisors worry whether they’re taking on additional risk by providing investment management services without being properly compensated. Moreover, the advisor doesn’t have any incentive to create portfolio growth either, which may be a concern for some clients.
DETERMINING FAIR FEES
Figuring out what planning fees are appropriate for clients is a two-step process:
Step No. 1. The advisor should ask themselves how much they want to make per year, recognizing that gross revenue must be even higher to account for the impact of expenses like overhead, staffing, technology, office space and employee benefits. For most, it’s easiest to work backwards from the desired net, then adding in any expenses.
Next, ask how many hours per week you’re willing to work. Do you want a practice that provides a lot of flexibility? Or are you willing to work 45 hours/week to build a planning enterprise?
Once there’s a target for the number of hours per week that will be worked, multiply by 50%. This provides an estimate of the number of hours the advisor can actually bill per week. Take that number and multiply by 50, which is an estimate of the number of weeks that you will work per year, presuming two weeks’ vacation. Of course, you can adjust this formula based on your lifestyle goals and the kind of business you want to build. If the goal is to take more vacations, others might only include 45 working weeks.
Now, consider about how many hours the advisor will spend with each client, including both hours actually spent in meetings with clients, and hours spent doing supporting client work. Bear in mind that advisors tend to spend more time with newer clients than existing ones, so be sure to factor for this. The assumption might be 30 hours with a client in their first year — time spent gathering data, setting goals, delivering the plan, etc. — and only 10 hours/year thereafter.
Now do the math. If you want to make $200,000/year working 45 hours/week (e.g., 1,012 hours/year spent on clients) and you have a 100-client maximum, you must charge at least $2,000/year per client to achieve your desired income.
If your firm is still growing and you haven’t hit that 100-client maximum, keep that $200,000/year goal in mind and set your initial ongoing fees accordingly. For example, if you bring on 18 new clients/year (1.5 clients/month), you’ll be providing 540 hours of service to them throughout the year, which means you only have time for 47 existing clients. Those 47 will only bring in $94,000 in revenue, which means you need to charge those 18 new clients an initial planning fee that helps compensate for the difference.
Of course you need to charge an initial planning fee that makes sense when compared to your ongoing service fee. If you charge $2,000/year for ongoing services, it would be hard to justify a $5,000 initial planning fee on top. But if you charge $2,000 for the initial plan, your revenue increases to $130,000/year, and as those 18 new clients become ongoing clients, your revenue continues to climb toward that $200,000/year goal.
Step No. 2. Compare the ideal fee that will allow you to accomplish your goals with your ideal client profile. Is your fee in their comfort zone?
Anecdotally, advisors using a fee-for-service model appear to be charging between 1% to 2% of their clients’ incomes. Advisors who are charging less than 1% may be charging too little — or at least should have room to offer a more value-added service and accordingly charge clients more for it. Conversely, advisors offering services that will cost more than 2% of the target client’s income on average may experience pushback when clients compare value to fees.
That’s not to say that advisors can’t charge more; I know one advisor in Brazil who charges as much as 5% of income, and has grown very successful. The 1%-to-2%-of-income recommendation is simply there to helps advisors hone in on an ideal fee that will be palatable to clients.
Compare how the perspective shifts when working with clients with average household incomes of $100,000/year versus $300,000/year. The $2,000/year fee from the example above represents 2% of a $100,000/year household income and is therefore on the upper end of that 1% to 2% range. On the other hand, a $2,000/year fee is less than 1% of a $300,000/year household income, in which case the advisor might consider raising the fee to $4,500/year.
Ultimately, if the minimum fee and the client market with which the advisor wants to work don’t match, it’s necessary to either re-evaluate your income desires, or shift your ideal client profile.
FINDING YOUR NICHE
The perfect fee structure for all clients doesn’t exist. However, the ideal fee structure for your particular target clientele does.
As the number of planners has grown over the past two decades, simply being a planner — even a really good one — is no longer a differentiator. This distinction matters, because trying to out-market a firm 100 times larger while offering the same service is an uphill battle, and one the smaller advisor is unlikely to win. But find your focus and you’ve found your secret weapon. You can get your fill of great clients, serve them profitably and build a successful business.
“Individuals and families,” “young professionals,” “women” and “business owners” are all too broad to set an appropriate fee structure. If you can’t determine the average financial wherewithal of your clients, then you need to more closely define your niche. But many advisors fear that by focusing too narrowly on a niche, they will consequently shrink their base to a point that they limit growth.
The truth is that while casting the net wider may lead to more prospects, it often leads to fewer actual clients. That’s because the advisor isn’t actually meaningfully differentiated.
CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
While it’s generally not feasible to eliminate all conflicts of interest, knowing your niche and defining a fee structure around that niche certainly helps you better navigate tensions around potential conflicts of interest.
Let’s presume young doctors comprise the majority of your client roster. This group generally has very high income but also very high debt, so you might consider a net worth or a flat fee structure to eliminate the advice conflicts between paying down debt and saving for retirement.
Another example niche is service members in the military, for whom you could use a tiered monthly fee structure that is tied to their pay grades. For instance, you might charge an O-1 lieutenant in the Army $50/month, and then raise that fee to $90/month when they’re promoted to O-2. There’s somewhat of an immediate buy-in when a service member sees a fee structure based on their pay grade; they’ll see you as someone who understands their specific needs. Conversely, this fee structure will not resonate with someone who is not in the military, and that’s perfectly fine. Part of the reason your fee structure attracts the right clients is that it also repels the wrong ones.
Unfortunately, confusion about the value proposition that advisors provide isn’t unique to consumers. As more advisors adopt fee-for-service planning models, regulators are trying to catch up as well.
This creates new tensions, because historically, advisor regulators were mandated to oversee product sales (FINRA) or investment management services (the SEC and state securities regulators). But over time, they’ve been cornered into regulating advisors who give planning advice. This has complicated compliance considerations, with different rules and expectations coming from different regulators.
For instance, some regulators have asked that advisors stop using the term retainer because it resembles more of an attorney-like fee where a client puts money in escrow and an hourly rate is billed against that money. In reality, most advisors aren’t charging an hourly rate with a retainer, but rather a flat fee billed on a set schedule like a subscription — e.g., monthly or quarterly. So it’s important to be clear about whether the advisor is actually using a subscription fee model or charging a true retainer, where fees are paid in advance even if they haven’t yet been earned.
Additionally, state regulators have expressed concern about whether some fee models may constitute unethical business practices. Utah has banned any fees where clients are charged based on their ability to pay rather than the services rendered, claiming that an hour of the advisor’s time should have the same cost regardless of whether it’s more valuable to one client than another.
Consequently, advisors in Utah are not permitted to charge income- or net worth-based fees, nor complexity-based fees. Utah has also capped hourly fees at $150/hour, so advisors there may instead consider a flat fee based on a niche instead.
Illinois and Nevada are denying advisors the ability to register with a blended fee structure of monthly planning plus AUM, insisting instead that advisors bundle both services together and not offer clients a choice. Or if a choice is offered, the fees must be reduced to recognize the overlap.
The key takeaway: Consult with your state compliance regulator, and/or compliance consultant, to determine which particular types of fee-for-service models your state will and will not allow.
THE CONFIDENCE FACTOR
Most advisors tend to undercharge when they first launch their firms and price the value of their advice. In XY Planning Network’s first-ever Benchmarking Survey in 2017, a whopping 100% of XYPN advisors using a monthly-fee-for-service structure had raised their fees over their first three years in business.
In some cases, when they first launched, these advisors had yet to define their niche, and as a result weren’t familiar with that 1% to 2% of income figure upon which to base their fee. In other cases, there might’ve been a lack of confidence in delivering the plan, or a general lack of confidence in selling the value.
Building out an annual service calendar helps better demonstrate the advisor’s value to clients, and can build confidence in the service being provided. This document shows clients everything the advisor will do for them throughout the year, from webinars and newsletters to investment and insurance reviews. Packaging all of these together with a single price tag also helps clients think in terms of annual service — and establish a cumulative value — versus monthly or quarterly service. This is also valuable as it avoids the unrealistic expectation that a monthly fee means the advisor and client will interact every month.
Similarly, selling the value of planning as an annual fee — paid incrementally throughout the year — also reduces the risk that if you bill planning as a monthly service and you do not provide a service any given month, regulators may ask you to refund your client for the unearned month of fees.
Because the cost of doing business tends to rise every year, most businesses —advisors included – need to have a plan to raise fees every year.
Under an AUM model, revenue per client increases every year, at least on average, as markets go up and as clients save money and contribute to accounts. This makes it easier for the business to handle increased costs.
This doesn’t happen organically with the fee-for-service model, though. And while the advisor may be happy netting $100,000 today, that $100,000 will not be worth $100,000 in 10 years thanks to inflation.
For this reason, it’s especially crucial under a fee-for-service model to get clients into the habit of paying an additional 3% to 5% every year. Ideally, advisors can even work the increase structure into the planning agreement itself. For most clients, it’s much easier to accept a fee increase of 3% every year than 12%, 15% or even 20% every five years. Simply put, standardizing fee increases better habituates clients and eases the blow of a bigger bill.
Adopting a fee-for-service planning model allows advisors to profitably serve a wider breadth of clients who historically have not had access to planning. As the planning landscape continues to shift, fee-for-service advisors are poised for success, ready to serve the next generation of clients hungry for real advice.
Adopting a fee-for-service business model allows advisors to position their firms for the future of our industry, help attract and retain next-generation talent and ultimately increase the value of the business by lowering the average age and adding a substantial number of accumulators to their client base.
So what do you think? How do you set fees and ensure that they are profitable? What are your favorite methods of charging clients for fee-for-service planning? How do you think fee-for-service compensation will evolve in the future? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.