Based on the number of queries that Moss Adams and Advisor Impact get each week from interested buyers, there is a tremendous demand for advisory practices today, even if there are not that many actual transactions relative to the total population of firms. Amid the frenzy, there is a tendency to rationalize the risk one takes in making such a purchase. This is not to say that buying a financial advisory practice is a bad decision–it isn't. But relatively small service businesses that are often dependent on one person carry a higher level of risk than a manufacturing or distribution company or, frankly, any business that is not tied to the personal reputation of the owner and her relationship with clients.
While the risks are clearly present, there are many compelling reasons why the interest in acquiring advisory practices is growing. Advisors are, on average, getting older; do-it-yourselfers have seen the light and are now more likely to seek professional advice; and there are the twin tsunamis of the 76 million baby boomers nearing retirement and the liquefaction coming out of concentrated and restricted positions held by wealthy people. In addition, the shortage of talent in the advisory profession means that large firms with clear career paths will probably have the corner on recruiting both staff and clients.
As with any investment, however, the basic principle behind valuation is the relationship between risk and return. The higher the degree of uncertainty, the higher risk; the higher the risk, the lower the value.
So if you are one of the many who is thinking about buying, or merging, your book of business or a substantive advisory firm, no doubt you have thought about risk. Are you paying too much? As a potential seller, you may be trying to resolve the same question but from a different point of view. Are you asking too little?
What are the factors that will help you answer those questions? Practice profitability, brand, reputation, systematic marketing, and size are all factors in the valuation of a practice. In the end, however, most advisors are selling their client list. For this reason, we recommend that prospective sellers do as much as they can to enhance client transferability and growth in order to influence value. Conversely, we encourage buyers to examine the client list they are about to buy in terms of:
- Client turnover;
- Client potential;
- Client demographics;
- Client satisfaction;
- Profitability of client relationships;
- Propensity of clients to refer business.
In thinking about the elements of risk, you can easily get the sense that buyers and sellers alike have little control. That said, good information goes a long way to helping you assess the scope of that risk and, in some cases, reducing it.
We don't view rules of thumb as particularly helpful in quantifying the uncertainty that exists in a practice when it transfers, because such models tend to assume all practices are the same. Worse yet, rules of thumb assume all practices are average. Regardless of our intransigence on this issue, we believe that financial advisors could do far more to enhance the value of their practices when it comes time to sell rather than letting luck be their lady.
The same may be true for buyers who in their due diligence may be focusing excessively on a firm's numbers to try and make assumptions about the future. While it is critical to understand a particular practice's economics, what is more interesting is what buyers could glean in the due diligence process by eliciting direct feedback from clients — the real asset in any business and the individuals who, arguably, have the most control over risk.
The reality is that buyers speculate on potential, but do not ask the clients about their needs. They speculate on client retention, but do not ask clients if they are satisfied with the current advisor. They speculate on 'fit' but do not ask the clients about their investment philosophies, goals, or service needs.
A well-structured and well-executed client survey can mitigate some of the risk in this process or, at the very least, inform the right price. Just as we conduct an audit of a business, we should conduct an audit of the clients. For buyers, a well-structured survey of clients will provide detailed information on client retention, additional opportunities, and the potential costs of service delivery. For sellers, a well-structured survey of clients will provide a quantitative demonstration of value and support the asking price.
Ultimately, a survey is the job of the seller in any transaction. While the buyer may demand it, the information is equally important to the seller and he or she should fund or manage the process. Although gathering client data and feedback should be part of the overall process of getting a business ready for sale, clients do not necessarily need to know how that information is being used. As far as clients are concerned, a client survey is an opportunity to share their views on service and is a good idea whether or not you sell the business. It's the right thing to do.
There are three ways to elicit feedback from clients. You can take an ad hoc approach and ask clients for feedback at the end of a meeting, you can conduct a telephone survey, or you can conduct a written survey. To decide on an approach, you'll need to weigh the costs of the program against the depth of information you will receive and the extent to which feedback is provided honestly. In the case of the purchase or sale of a business, a written survey is the best approach, providing the best balance between objectivity, cost, and depth of information.
Any client survey provides valuable information on clients. If you are considering a sale, however, the questions should be crafted to reflect the information needs of this particular circumstance and would include, but not necessarily be limited to, the following:
- overall client satisfaction with the principal
and/or junior planners;
- overall satisfaction with the administrative team;
- client expectations around frequency of contact;
- client comfort in working with the team;
- interest in and need for additional products and services;
- share of client's wallet;
- assessment of what is most important to the client;
- willingness to refer.
In order to understand how price, risk, and client feedback line up, we'll look at five aspects of risk in a typical sale and the feedback that would be helpful.
The Client Retention Factor
Price is positively influenced by the "stickiness" of client relationships. If there is an underlying dissatisfaction with some aspect of service, the client will be more likely to leave, even if the new advisor holds out the carrot of better service "under new management." A more satisfied client base is ultimately a more secure bet for the buyer.
Among the questions that will help you assess current client satisfaction are the following:
How satisfied are you with the overall relationship with your advisor?
Are you comfortable providing referrals to your advisor?
Advisor Impact and Moss Adams survey clients on behalf of their advisors on an on-going basis, resulting in a database of feedback from well in excess of 25,000 investors. In our research we look at both overall satisfaction with the advisor, which is generally high at 4.6 (on a scale of 1 to 5 in which 5 is "very satisfied"), and the risk of attrition, which is generally low at 7% (these "at risk" clients give their advisor a rating of 3 or less out of 5 on an overall satisfaction scale). Remember, however, that you are not buying or selling the average. You are buying or selling a specific business and you can't rely on industry averages to give you comfort.
The Untapped Potential Factor
Price is positively influenced by the scope of untapped potential that a buyer sees in a business. While you can make some assumptions about potential based on the age and stage of a client base, a survey allows the buyer to gauge client appetite for additional products and services. Further, an effective survey will provide you with valuable feedback on the current advisor's share of wallet, another substantial opportunity for the buyer.