Maximizing Growth Opportunities Through Retirement Plan Consultants

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1 Cover CoverStory Story Reprinted from The SPARK Journal - April 2013 Maximizing Growth Opportunities Through Retirement Plan Consultants Cynthia Hayes, President, Oculus Partners, LLC Lately there is a lot of dialogue among providers of products and services to the defined contribution market about the rise of the specialty advisor and how they will influence business practices for providers going forward. We at Oculus Partners decided to conduct a study specifically focused on these specialty advisors, whom we refer to as retirement plan consultants for purposes of our study. Our analysis uncovers significant implications for providers in selling and servicing plans where this type of consultant is present. Outlined here are some of the key findings from our research and the implications of those findings for plan providers. The full report, 2012 Perspectives Study: Retirement Plan Consultants, published in January, 2013, is available from Oculus Partners.

2 DYNAMICS AND DEFINITIONS The dynamics between providers of retirement plan products and services and retirement plan consultants are changing fairly dramatically. Retirement plan consultants are rapidly gaining strength in their influence in the retirement plan marketplace. This strength lies both in their influence in the sales process and in their on-going influence with their plan sponsor clients regarding adoption of new features and services offered by providers. In order to effectively sell and service retirement plan business, providers need to create a more effective way to interact with these consultants across all types of services from record keeping, to investments, to communication and advice services. To examine how providers should adjust their approach to sales and service when a retirement plan consultant is retained by the plan sponsor, let s first define what we mean by the term retirement plan consultant. While these intermediaries sometimes call themselves retirement plan advisors and sometimes retirement plan consultants, they share four common characteristics: 1. They only support retirement plans and do not typically provide services to retail investors. 2. They work exclusively on a fee-for-service basis. 3. While they typically focus their practice on larger plans (>$100 million in plan assets), they often have legacy and new clients below that size threshold. 4. They are the primary consultant for the plan sponsor, not only on the search for a new provider, but as a retained consultant providing on-going services. Each of these consultants also has unique characteristics: 1. They work in both regional/independent consulting firms and within traditional benefit consulting practices. 2. They each have very different business models in terms of the services they provide and how they articulate their differentiators and the value they bring to client relationships. The 20 consultants we included in our study work for 18 consulting firms and conduct approximately 200 searches per year, 10 each on average. These searches range from plans with less than $50 million in plan assets to plans with over $1 billion in plan assets. In the last two years across approximately 400 searches, they collectively only awarded or maintained record keeping contracts with 20 firms across all of the market segments they serve. In order to effectively sell and service retirement plan business, providers need to create a more effective way to interact with these consultants across all types of services from record keeping, to investments, to communication and advice services. Providers who wish to grow in this segment have to take these consultants preferences, attitudes, and perspectives into account and the consultants indicated in our interviews that there is some room for improvement in the way providers work with them. And providers who work primarily in the smaller markets may want to look at these consultants as a predictor of things to come as trends move down market. UNDERSTANDING CONSULTANT BUSINESS PRACTICES The consultants were consistent in their concern that providers did not understand how best to partner with them to win and optimize business. They specifically noted that they wish providers would demonstrate that they understand: 1. What we do. They think of us as search consultants rather than as a retained advisor to plan sponsor clients. In fact, we spend most of our time working with existing clients to manage their plans rather than performing searches. 2. How we service our clients. We have very specific services we provide to our clients and providers should understand what these services are for each of our practices. 3. The types of clients we serve. They try to identify us with a particular plan size segment rather than understanding that our clients represent many size segments. 4. How we grow our practices. We get 95% of our clients from referrals from centers of influence such as attorneys, referrals from existing clients, referrals from our firms, and referrals from providers themselves. We do not cold call or utilize sales campaigns.

3 Our findings indicate that providers who can demonstrate a better understanding of these facts for each consultant may be able to differentiate themselves in the marketplace assuming that they also have competitive capabilities, demonstrated experience, and high-quality delivery. HOW THE SEARCH BEGINS According to consultants, providers are often not fully aware of the risks within their book of business. We all know that searches are conducted periodically for due diligence purposes. However, according to consultants, there are other issues which drive a search more often than pure due diligence. We asked consultants what plan sponsors would cite as the primary reasons they initiated a search. Their answers are outlined in Figure 1 listed in order of the number of times each of these reasons was cited by the consultants. It should be noted that among the consultants interviewed, record keeper searches resulted in the incumbent retaining the business 56% of the time. Fees Issues Service Issues M&A or Senior Mgt. Change Out Growth Provider Relationship Issues Due Diligence/Re-evaluation Investment Flexibility Provider Change of Service Model Figure 1 TOP REASONS FOR SEARCHES BEING INITIATED 0% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% 70% Percentage of consultant mentions According to consultants, providers often underestimate the damage poor service can cause to the relationship. And plan sponsors now expect their providers to proactively offer the best price they can, not wait for the sponsor to go to RFP to offer a lower price. Strength & Experience in Market Segment Track Record & Reputation Client Needs/Issues Plan Service Requirements Dedicated to Technology Participants and/or Asset Minimum Investment Capabilities/Open Architecture Low Fees Fee Flexibility Provider s Culture Figure 2 RECORD KEEPER INCLUSION CRITERIA 0% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% Percentage of consultant mentions GETTING TO THE TABLE In order to be included in a record keeping search, the providers had to demonstrate strength in the areas listed in Figure 2 in order of the number of times each of these areas was cited by the consultants. These characteristics were significantly different from those we found in our similar 2010 study, which we conducted in partnership with DST Retirement Solutions. In 2010, similar consultants cited the reasons below as the primary drivers of being included in a search. These factors are listed in priority order as cited by consultants. Record Keeping & Technology robustness, capabilities, flexibility, continued investment Participant Services communications, meetings, web, tools, contact center Investments open architecture, flexibility, advice, asset allocation Sponsor Services reporting, data mining, quality of relationship management Organization history, strength, culture, commitment, brand Pricing within reasonable bands (typically eliminate outliers)

4 A major difference between 2010 and 2012 is that today, unlike in 2010, the consultants are citing tailored fit and quality, rather than basic core services as driving which providers are included. Consultants explained that strong basic services are now seen as essential commodities, not differentiators. WINNING THE SALE Once a provider is included in the sales process, there are four major steps that are typically involved in closing the sale: 1. The RFP Response 2. The Finals Presentation 3. The Site Visit 4. The Contract Negotiations Consultants noted some key improvements that providers should consider for each step in the process. The RFP Response The role of the RFP in a provider s successful pursuit of new business, or the retention of existing business, is evolving. Only 35% of the consultants said a poorly done RFP will eliminate a provider, while in our 2010 study this was a more significant elimination factor. Today, consultants often maintain a database of provider capabilities which is updated annually, semi-annually, or quarterly and is a key resource in understanding and keeping current on each provider. Consultants were not shy in telling us that poor RFP responses are annoying or disappointing. In fact, 50% of the consultants indicated that, while poor responses will probably not eliminate the provider from the search, they could hurt the provider s chances of winning. A poorly done RFP is seen as an indicator of the quality of service, or lack thereof, which the provider will deliver to the sponsor. The consultants told us that many providers are lazy or sloppy in providing RFP answers not addressing the question, responding with incomplete or conflicting information, providing too much detail or too little, and even failing to proofread the work. Consultants expressed specific frustration in the practice of keyword searches, where providers find a key word in a question, search their response database for the same keyword, and assume that response answers the question in the RFP when in fact the canned response either doesn t or doesn t completely answer the question. A poorly done RFP is seen as an indicator of the quality of service, or lack thereof, which the provider will deliver to the sponsor. The Finals Presentation If getting the RFP right is important, wowing at the finals presentation is critical. According to the consultants, the finals presentation is where a qualified provider either wins or loses. A preliminary decision among the finalists is rare before the finals occur. To deliver a winning finals presentation, the consultants cited five key elements: 1. Follow the consultant s agenda - The focus must be on the sponsor s needs, not the delivery of a standard sales pitch that follows the provider s agenda. 2. Ask the right questions beforehand - The providers should prepare by asking detailed questions about the client s situation, culture, needs, and problems they are encountering with their current provider. 3. Take the right team - The provider must have only relevant people in the room and each person should have a role in the presentation. 4. Have the Relationship Manager (RM) lead - The consultants and the plan sponsor would prefer that the salesperson kickoff the finals meeting and turn the presentation over to the RM and other individuals who will be interacting regularly with the plan sponsor for the bulk of the discussion. 5. Articulate compelling value - Providers can differentiate themselves by clearly and concisely explaining their unique value proposition. This value proposition should address the client s biggest concerns while getting across the essence of the provider s culture and approach.

5 Maximizing Growth Opportunities Through Retirement Plan Consultants The Site Visit While more than 50% of the consultants said that because of time and resource constraints there are fewer site visits by sponsors, they listed some key best practices: Focus the tour on the areas relevant to the sponsor Be organized use the time efficiently Be prepared for a deep dive into areas important to the sponsor Include brief senior executive presence Web demonstrations should focus on the screens the sponsor would actually use The site visit can be a critical step in furthering the development of rapport and chemistry between the sponsor and provider more specifically between the sponsor and the people they will be interacting with on a daily basis and it also allows for direct contact with the provider s culture. The Contract Negotiations Investments and fees are rarely discussed at the finals presentation, especially in the larger market, but are finalized and negotiated in separate discussions driven by the consultant after the desired record keeper is selected. Selling investment management, if you are the selected record keeper, is getting to be more and more complex. Consultants repeatedly told us that they completely separate the selection of investment managers from selection of the record keeper. However, of the twenty record keepers cited as winning record keeping searches with these consultants in the past two years, sixteen of those record keepers are also asset managers. That did not mean that these sixteen always won investment mandates as well. We asked the consultants to list the investment managers who have won or maintained mandates over the same two year period. Seven of the thirteen investment managers cited as having wins in investment searches from this group of consultants are DCIO managers with no bundled record keeping product for the large plan market. Clearly, DCIO providers are making their presence felt in winning meaningful business with these consultants. When it comes to fee negotiations, consultants almost universally prefer to do a thorough and independent analysis of fees quoted for their plan sponsor clients closely examining and benchmarking the fee quotes from each provider. When it comes to fee negotiations, consultants almost universally prefer to do a thorough and independent analysis of fees quoted for their plan sponsor clients closely examining and benchmarking the fee quotes from each provider. Through these efforts they can present a more complete fee picture to their clients. Given the public nature of fees in the new post-disclosure world, consultants now believe they have adequate information to compare fees for each service across providers on an applesto-apples basis. SUMMARY These insights gathered from in-depth one-on-one interviews with these expert consultants have some meaningful messages for retirement service providers. Many of the best practices cited here are pretty basic in nature. However, consultants believe they are seeing the need for substantial improvement across providers even in these basic sales practices. Improving on these basics seems like an opportunity for easy improvement which can help accelerate growth for the provider. Our full research report provides much more in-depth analysis of consultant perspectives across these and a number of other dimensions such as providers who are winning and why, attitudes and preferences in plan design, providers who win investment mandates and why, attitudes and preferences in investment menus, and how consultants manage their own practices. To purchase the full research report, contact Cynthia Hayes at or simply download the purchase form at

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