With markets sluggish, RIAs are increasingly looking to marketing and business development to spur growth.

But those channels have their own difficulties, according to a study from Fidelity.

The Fidelity 2011 RIA Benchmarking Study surveyed advisors who reported several articles of faith on the topic of growth: referrals from clients and centers of influence can be leveraged more strongly, focusing on client service will drive referrals and business expansion, wirehouses are fertile ground for new clients, and strategic acquisitions will provide an additional path to growth.

The problem is, many of these advisors face serious hurdles in implementing these plans. Obstacles include inexperience in marketing, little appetite for making new hires to help with marketing, and insufficient measurements of client satisfaction.

The problems were most notable in RIA firms with less than $100 million in assets under management, because they are less insulated from market turbulence. Half of the smallest firms find merging their way to growth to be a challenge. Add to the mix that the firms with under $100 million now have to deal with state regulators. The increased time they have to spend on compliance means that much less time to spend on trying to grow.

Fidelity’s Institutional Wealth Services Group has several suggestions to RIAs to follow through on these growth plans in four categories. The activities range from baseline, though intermediate and advanced.

Tips from the first category - Improve the quality of your client service by gathering, evaluating and acting on client feedback - range from simply taking a few minutes during quarterly and annual client meetings to ask about areas of concern, unmet needs and ways to enhance the relationship all the way to conducting a formal survey to measure client satisfaction using a third party.

In the next category – Generate brand awareness and high-quality leads with a formal marketing program – Fidelity suggests advisors start with developing the firm story and communicate it in an array of ways including a pitch book, website or LinkedIn. At the advanced end of the spectrum, advisors could retain an outside consultant or hire a full-time professional to develop and implement a strong plan.

For the third category – Garner center-of-influence referrals with a formal development program – suggestions start at documenting an ideal client profile and communicate it to your center-of-influence network – and go up to establishing a formal process for nurturing center-of-influence relationships.

Finally, in the category of Strategically plan for acquisitions of other firms or additional advisors, the ideas go from implementing a succession plan so future hires know your firm is serious to getting funds and third party resources to pursue buying opportunities aggressively.

Fidelity listed several in-house resources, including white papers, guides and experts to help advisors make these improvements.

For the study, Fidelity interviewed 375 firms with a range of assets from more than $1 billion, to less than $50 million. The median result had 158 clients and $158m in assets under management.  

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