If you need a reminder of Social Security’s importance in retirement income planning, just recall the reaction when the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 modified several claiming strategies last fall. It was a field day for the media: Consumer finance and financial advisor publications ran multiple articles on the changes and their potential impact.
The attention is warranted, because Social Security has become a key source of retirement income for many boomers. Its guaranteed, inflation-adjusted lifetime payments make it a valuable asset that would cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars to replicate with commercial annuities. The benefit’s value combined with the program’s claiming complexity, especially for couples, has made Social Security benefits planning a hot topic among advisors.
Consumers want to maximize their benefits and are seeking advisors with Social Security expertise. Not only does that situation create a business development opportunity, but it also raises questions. How can advisors capitalize on that interest and use Social Security planning as a door-opener to bring in prospective clients? And if an advisor goes that route, should she position the service as a potential profit center or as a loss-leader? Here’s how several successful advisors are tapping into the need for Social Security planning.
Blogging for business
Nowadays, advisors can use a wealth of resources to learn about Social Security’s benefits, and analytic software allows for quick comparisons of claiming strategies. That wasn’t the case eight years ago when Jim Saulnier, CFP with Jim Saulnier & Associates in Fort Collins, Colorado, started to study the system. He relied instead on reading source materials from the agency, including its Program Operations Manual System, also known as POMS. (The POMS documentation is now available online at https://secure.ssa.gov/apps10/).
Studying Social Security is a chore, no matter how the information gets delivered. But Saulnier decided to specialize in retirement planning, and he needed the expertise. “We had to do it because my practice was so narrowly focused on retirement,” he says. “All we were attracting, as potential clients, were people who were coming into our office asking us, even back then, about Social Security and how it works.”
As Saulnier and his staff delved into the program, they increasingly recognized the benefit’s value for clients. The planning became much easier with the arrival of specialized software, and the firm was an early adopter of Boston University Professor Laurence Kotlikoff’s “Maximize My Social Security” program.
From a business development perspective, Social Security expertise contributes to Saulnier’s focus on credibility marketing. He realized early on that selling standalone analyses would present a pricing challenge because consumers can choose among numerous free or low-cost online options. Saulnier decided to create a blog, Helpwithmysocialsecurity.com, and provide personalized Social Security plans for $75. The fee includes a one-hour phone consultation, which “helps get the door open” with prospects, he explains.
That price doesn’t cover the blog’s operating costs but nonetheless the consultations have proven to be a worthwhile expenditure. “What we have found is the goodwill that that blog provides is invaluable,” Saulnier emphasizes. “It sets us apart when a potential client comes into our office. They most likely have Googled my name or visited my website. They see the blog, they get to hear me because it’s an audio blog as well as a written blog, and they start to already understand (that) this group of people really know what they’re talking about. That is where the true value has come in.”
Into the classroom
Bob Davis, CFP with Eden Prairie, Minnesota-based Financial Compass also started developing his Social Security expertise before there were many learning options. He earned his CFP certificate but wasn’t satisfied with the program’s coverage of Social Security. When Horsesmouth.com, an educational website for financial advisors, started offering Social Security training programs in 2008, Davis signed up. “Horsesmouth.com had a program they promoted with a presentation and slide presentation and everything to teach Social Security seminars,” he says. “I was already looking for a way to differentiate myself from other financial planners, (and) I saw the site as a tool I could use to be able to differentiate myself and service that area other people were not. So, I became a charter member of their new offering and have been teaching it ever since.”
He offers the classes though community education programs in the Twin Cities area. The school districts and other organizations sponsoring the class promote the courses online and in their course catalogs. Davis also promotes them on his website, and through social media and email notifications. Under the arrangement with the sponsors, he cannot promote his services as an advisor so the classes focus solely on education. Although it is a slow method for developing new clients, he’s found that teaching develops his credibility with participants, which in turn can lead to new business.
Davis includes Social Security analysis as part of overall financial plan for clients — he does not offer a standalone service. Consequently, he cautions that his method is unlikely to yield quick marketing results. “I would say don’t expect an immediate return,” he says. “It took a while before I got my first clients. What it did is it got me out into the community, out into the public eye and for people to start knowing who I am and becoming familiar with me and feeling comfortable with me.”
Unbundling the service
There’s obviously a need for and interest in Social Security planning, but the question of how retirement advisors should integrate it into their businesses still persists. Steven Stanganelli, CFP, CRPC with Clear View Wealth Advisors, LLC in Amesbury, Massachusetts, first started focusing more deeply on Social Security in late 2011. He used a variety of learning methods, including reading websites, magazine articles and attending presentations at local professional organizations. He also began working with the Social Security Timing® software.
Stanganelli decided to offer Social Security planning as a standalone option. His website describes the service and includes sample reports so visitors can see what they will receive from the service. It’s essentially a two-and-a half-hour session for a cost of $500, he explains. Participants receive a report illustrating the impact of various filing strategies and outlining the steps required to implement a strategy. “So, it’s not just a graph and a chart that shows if you claim now you make more,” he says. “It’s actual bullet points to say if you go to Social Security ask them about this, tell them you want this, you want to use these specific words.”
Pricing the service is a “work in progress,” he admits. The predominantly middle market he serves is reluctant to pay fees out-of-pocket so he is still seeking the right price point that allows him to offer the service profitably but also appeals to value-conscious buyers.
Social Security planning is a door-opener, he agrees, and he can point to cases in which that service brought in new clients. He’s also considering working with Bloomfield Hills, Michigan-based Social Security 567. This service presents Social Security education seminars nationally by working with local presenters, including financial advisors. Social Security 567 books the location, and handles event promotion and online reservations for the no-cost seminars, an arrangement that can help free up the advisor’s time from the administrative chores. Although Stanganelli has not yet presented a program through the service, his goal is to offer at least one seminar monthly from February through May, and then bimonthly after that.
The increased focus on Social Security optimization has led to more professional education options for advisors. Some programs, such as the American College’s Retirement Income Certified Professional® (RICP®) program, include extensive material on Social Security. Other organizations like the Corporation for Social Security Claiming Strategies in Plainville, Massachusetts, and the National Social Security Advisors (SM) (NSSA) certification program from Sharonville, Ohio-based Premier Social Security Consulting, LLC focus solely on Social Security.
Premier Social Security Consulting started operating in January 2010 when Marc Kiner, CPA, teamed with Jim Blair, a 35-year Social Security administration veteran. The initial business plan was to provide benefits consulting for individuals and they still do about 30 consultations each month. In January 2013, the company launched the NSSA certification program for which Blair and Kiner serve as instructors.
The training covers both basic and advanced topics and is available on-demand online, via webinar and in the classroom. The basic material is aimed at advisors who have little or no knowledge of Social Security: who qualifies for benefits, eligibility, benefit amount calculations and so on. Advanced material covers more in-depth planning strategies, including case studies and a discussion of software. Program participants who complete the requisite training can take the NSSA certification exam. So far about 1,200 advisors have attended training and 850 have earned the certificate since its inception, says Kiner. Costs range from $350 to $795, depending on the instructional method and whether or not the participant seeks certification.
Opportunity and risk
Having a solid understanding of Social Security’s benefits and the available optimization strategies is quickly becoming a requirement for retirement advisors. Increased media coverage ensures clients will have a better appreciation of their benefits’ value and they will expect their advisors to know how to maximize their benefit. Not having that knowledge — or worse, trying to fake it — is likely to backfire and cost the advisor clients and business.