One of the first things you learn in any kind of ERISA primer is that, as a fiduciary, you are expected to conduct yourself either as if you are an expert, or hire someone to help you who is. This so-called “prudent expert” rule is, of course, a significantly higher standard than the one applied to mere common- law fiduciaries—in fact, it is generally described as the highest legal standard. Of course, plan sponsors have long relied on the help of experts—attorneys, third-party administrators, investment managers, and recordkeepers—if only because so much of what a plan sponsor must do in operating their retirement program requires their active involvement.
Not so retirement plan advisers, who, for many plan sponsors, remain something of an optional enhancement to their program. That said, in an environment that remains a legislative, regulatory, and operational thicket for even the most active and engaged plan sponsor, it is a plan option that is rapidly becoming standard equipment. Well-intentioned as such hires often are, they can be done for the wrong reasons. In the February issue of PLANSPONSOR, we asked previous winners of our Retirement Plan Adviser of the Year how plan sponsors can find the “right” adviser.
Today I’d like to turn that around. How can you, as an adviser, get connected with plan sponsors that will not only hire you, but will allow you to do your very best work for them, and for their plan participants?
Start with your friends and/or professional associations. Long a primary source of business for the advisers in our special “panel,” this is now the only channel for many of them. Now, for plan sponsors, this gives them the benefit of a personal reference from a colleague who knows and has perhaps already worked with you. But it also turns out to be a good way for you to “vet” the plan sponsor for a good philosophical fit.
Give them a chance to see you in action. It’s one thing to meet them at the Rotary Club, perhaps even better when you share some kind of board affiliation, but more and more advisers offer local seminars on topics of interest to plan sponsors. It gives you a chance to demonstrate your expertise—and you’ll get a chance to do so in front of potential clients who, by their attendance, have already expressed a more-than-passing interest in the topic.
Don’t be shy about references. This is admittedly a sensitive issue for advisers. After all, having spent a lot of time, energy, and money to develop those relationships, the last thing you want is to put those in the hands of folks who might try to steal them from you. But the top advisers I spoke with didn’t “hide” those references behind a “furnished upon request” curtain. For them, it was a statement of confidence not only in their ability to retain those relationships regardless of a potential “poaching,” but also a testament to the scope of their expertise and the tenure over which those relationships had been developed.
Be clear and concise about your fees. The regulatory winds are making this less of an issue than it once was, but it remains a way to distinguish yourself and your services from those who are less serious about working with retirement plans. I often tell plan sponsors that a good adviser will nearly always be able to save their plan money—though I also caution them that if saving money is their primary motivation, they are likely going to be disappointed.
Be able to demonstrate your commitment. Plan sponsors are increasingly wary of recordkeepers teetering on the brink of “exiting the business,” but when it comes to retirement plan advisers, the worry is that, for you, retirement plans are just a “hobby.” There are any number of ways to do it, but having the answers to the questions below will put your practice in the appropriate light.
Don’t take the relationship for granted. Like any relationship, things change and needs evolve—and that’s true for your relationship with a plan sponsor plan as well as the plan sponsor. Birds of a feather flock together, and ultimately you can really only do your best work if you are working with plan sponsors who are not only committed to their plan, but are open to, and supportive of, your recommendations to make it better.
But IMHO, if they are interested in hiring you as a retirement plan adviser—well, that’s a good sign.
—Nevin E. Adams, JD
You can read the article from PLANSPONSOR magazine here
How to prove your commitment to the retirement plan business.
1. What percent of your firm’s revenue is from retirement plan consulting?
2. How long have you been servicing retirement plan clients? Can this be documented?
3. What recognition have you achieved from independent sources that establishes your expertise and credibility?
4. How many retirement plan clients are handled by the team that will work on a prospective client’s plan? Does that team have individuals with different specialties?
5. How many different vendors do you work with for their existing clients?
6. Can you document ways in which you have helped clients through DoL audits, IRS audits, voluntary compliance issues, partial plan termination determinations, plan mergers or spin offs, plan terminations, and corrective contributions?
7. How—and how often—do you inform clients of regulatory changes and updates?
Source: Chad Larsen, Moreton Retirement Partners