Last April, we launched an online questionnaire — called Kaleido Scope — that gives advisory firm owners an overview of how their business compares with a well-run firm. Their answers to a series of 163 questions are graded on a point system and totaled into an overall assessment score ranging from 0 (bad) to 100 (excellent). As of July 1, we’d run over 163 business assessments on advisory firms, with results ranging from a low of 39 to a high of 82, and an average score of 69, which we’d rate as very weak.
Initially, we created the Kaleido Scope to give firm owners a quick snapshot of where their businesses are today and the areas where they can be improved. However, in the short time the Kaleido Scope has been active, we’ve realized that the assessment is a much more powerful tool than we expected. Not only do the results give us insight into individual firms, but by combining all the results, we’ve obtained a gauge to measure trends in the independent advisory industry as a whole, as they are developing. Unfortunately, the biggest trend we’re seeing so far is that while revenues are growing at a healthy pace, industry profitability is rapidly declining.
According to our data, two factors are contributing to the industry’s dwindling bottom line. First, firms are scoring very high in client retention, with many losing only an average of 2% of their client base per year. While you might think this is a good thing (and sometimes it is), when combined with the fact that those same firms are scoring very low in attracting new clients, it’s actually an indication of a problem, which shows up in client referral rates, which are down from 36% to 23% per year; and in closing ratios, which are down from 70% to 50%.
What’s going on? We believe that in response to a perceived threat from media-hyped online advisory platforms and growing numbers of breakaway brokers, many firm owners today are starting to panic, making knee-jerk attempts to solve the problem. We see many firms today exploring ways to reduce AUM fees or adopt alternative revenue models (such as flat advisory fees) or doing anything they can think of to increase client service and revenues, including throwing money at new technology, marketing, recruiting and M&A — all without regard to the effects on the bottom line. Our assessment data shows that 87% of owners are making these changes without any clear plan or vision for what the resulting business will look like.
To address these new challenges, and many of the long-standing challenges that advisory firms wrestle with — such as growth, profitability, employee turnover and overworked owners — we recommend that owner-advisors take a step backward and recreate their businesses with a clearer vision of what their firms are and what they want them to be.
To do this, we take our clients through a four-step process that we call X-Cell. The X-Cell process that we have developed is researched, designed and tested to help an advisory firm determine what makes them truly unique. Through this process, firm owners figure out what they are really offering to which clients, and with this clarity they gain the knowledge of what they are really selling. The result is that they can quickly evaluate new trends that hit the marketplace to determine the services that their firm should offer and to whom. They are also able to articulate their unique value in a way that resonates with their existing clients, prospective clients, employees and centers of influence.
Over the years, we’ve transitioned many of our client firms into new service models using this simple X-Cell process, and all of them have shown remarkable results. Here are some of the ways these firms have become better businesses:
1. The clients become clients of the firm. Most clients develop an attachment to their advisor. Yet we’ve found that through a consistent client experience (regardless of who a particular client’s advisor is) and clear messaging about what the firm is doing for its clients, most of them become “clients of the firm.” This makes transitioning clients from one advisor to another, in the event their original advisor retires or leaves the firm, relatively seamless. It also makes clients less likely to follow an advisor who moves to another firm and more likely to stay with the firm in the event it’s sold.