While the much-anticipated Internal Revenue Service regulations for 403(b) plans are final, the grace period–school districts and tax-exempt organizations have until year-end 2009 to bring their retirement programs into compliance–has led to regulation confusion and inertia.
Making sense of the chaos and helping school districts move forward is where today’s education advisor can be invaluable. The 8 tips outlined below can serve as a guide for turning chaos into a great opportunity for your business.
Tip #1: Be the expert
Many traditional providers of group retirement programs are unable to comply with new regulations and school districts are feeling overwhelmed managing a responsibility that has never been theirs. To simplify their lives, many districts are looking to pare their providers to 3 to 5. You need to “be the expert” in helping a district navigate and manage changes; otherwise you could find yourself carved out of the school and left without payroll spots.
Tip #2: Listen and lever
Sometimes it can be more about listening than making the sale. Advisors who help clients manage priority shifts, build trust and cultivate the all-important (and sometimes new) relationships within the district and schools, are seen as partners and able to lever relationships throughout the district. Listening to needs, responding quickly and offering options help solidify your relationships with new decision makers and enable you to learn their philosophical approach on plan management.
Tip #3: Assess your desire to change
Advisors need to ask themselves, “Given all the changes in the education marketplace, do I still want to be in this business?” We think the answer should be a resounding, “Yes!”
The school district often is the largest employer in the community; educators and school employees are strong savers and they are typically highly educated and loyal. Most importantly, the education market always has been a great business. During times of change, you have to adapt and reformulate your business model to capture new market share.
We have watched some of the most successful advisors boost their business by thinking differently and capitalizing on the chaos by changing perspective. Yes, advisors make less on each contract if the district goes to group sales, but with the group comes a new way to see the business model.
Tip #4: Think group sales
Some advisors have the vision to see the group enrollment process as a fantastic prospecting opportunity. Advisors get paid to enroll more clients into the group plan, which creates more prospects for other areas of an advisor’s practice. And the best part? Advisors no longer need to travel every night to teachers’ homes. Instead, advisors go to the school, have a ‘group’ conversation and leverage the efficiencies.
Tip #5: Add value. Always.
Chaos is a great opportunity to demonstrate your expertise. School districts need you. They aren’t experts in retirement plans and they are being burdened by the new regulations. You can be a critical resource to ease their administrative burden and get control of their plan and manage legacy contracts. You can help them reduce their costs and free them from time-consuming administration while helping their employees. And remember, legacy contracts are a great IRA conversation waiting to happen.
How do you demonstrate your value? You don’t do it by talking about product and price. The value-add is in demonstrating expertise in shifting the burden from the employer to the advisor or partner firm, and in a way that benefits the school.
Tip #6: Lift the burden
The new regulations are creating an administrative burden that schools neither have expertise nor staff to manage. An advisor can be the hero, the person who can ease that burden and take chaos off the table. The quandary is that reps have been very good at the one-on-one sale; they typically don’t have good expertise in case management, case acquisition or case implementation.
The changes to a group model means less pay per contract and more administrative burden on advisors. Advisors owe it to themselves to figure out what is needed and then find the right partners to get it done. Lift the burden by finding partners who excel in case management, requests for proposals, plan implementations, marketing and plan administration. None of these put money in your pocket, so partner with a provider that makes you more efficient.
Tip #7: Reassess your comp structure
Between the bear market and the shift to group planning, now may be a good time to take a portion of your business and move toward a fee model. Consider building a hybrid commission and fee model for your practice. The group enrollment environment, with its flow, makes for a nice transition to fees. Again, think about it as getting paid to prospect, then take commission on the products you cross-sell to your new clients.
Tip #8: Eat the elephant–one bite at a time
It’s important that advisors not get overwhelmed. Remember: Administrators already are, so find the right place to start changing the business model.
The disruption that’s occurring in the education market is providing so many opportunities that many advisors rapidly bite off more than they can chew. Pick the right school district to start in and then scale up. The new education business model is about going deeper with fewer districts so that advisors stay one of the three to five providers in the group setting.
Figure out the group model and prove your value to the district, take the next bite and select your next district to tackle. A good provider should be able to partner with you to identify the districts and create a plan for success.
While these 8 tips are not all-inclusive, they’re good reminders that the plan adoption extension until year-end 2009 recognizes many districts don’t yet have their house in order. These districts-and their plan administrators-desperately need an advisor or representative to clear the clutter and focus on developing a plan that’s manageable for administrators and beneficial to employees. The urgency isn’t only the regulatory changes, but a recognition that advisors may need to adjust their business model or risk not having a future in the education business.
Chris DeGrassi is assistant vice president and director, education market, at Security Benefit, Topeka, Kan. You may e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org