Since the early days of the financial advisory business, revenue models have evolved to rely less on commissions and more on the recurring income stream generated from the AUM model. The result has been a shift away from an often-one-time sale of a product to an ongoing provision of financial planning and wealth management services. Naturally, AUM-based advisors have had to change how they spend their time, as firms increasingly required advisors to prioritize servicing clients on an ongoing basis (instead of on closing one-time sales of financial products).
Not only have changing business models influenced how advisors spend their time, but as the recently released InvestmentNews Adviser Compensation & Staffing Study reveals, the size of the advisor’s firm also influences how advisors allocate their (limited) hours. As while advisors who own solo practices are more likely to manage all (or most) of the business development and client servicing responsibilities, the larger a firm becomes, the more they rely on support staff to handle client service responsibilities (e.g., paraplanners and service advisors who have little, if any, business development responsibilities). Because with more support staff available to shoulder more of the client-service workload, lead advisors and practicing partners can devote more attention to business development, which ultimately results in higher profit margins. After all, having more affordable support staff manage client servicing is more operationally efficient than having higher-paid advisors deal with these responsibilities. The result is that larger firms tend to have extra capacity (as measured by the number of clients each advisor and support staff can service).
And notwithstanding the rise of the robo-advisor earlier this decade (which stimulated competitive fee compression among financial advisors and caused a dip in advisor productivity), the InvestmentNews study shows that productivity has actually bounced back and now even appears to outpace current trends in increasing revenue! Which suggests that as a firm’s client capacity increases, firms tend to move ‘downmarket’ and target clients that have less assets (versus targeting ultra-high-net-worth clients). As while highly affluent clients may result in more revenue per client, they may also be more labor-intensive for lead and senior advisors (as opposed to associate advisors and staff), which is why larger firms are servicing an increasing number of “mere millionaires”, who can be serviced with scale to a greater degree. Whereas with smaller firms, who don’t have the same ability to leverage economies of scale to successfully shift ‘downmarket’ and pursue smaller clients, the tendency is to maintain focus on larger clients as it has been traditionally in the past.
Ultimately, the key point is that emerging trends show larger advisory firms are shifting away from targeting highly affluent clients, and are instead aiming for smaller clients in the “millionaire sweet spot” – those clients who are still wealthy, but whose needs might not be so complex as to require senior-advisor-level service. And because these clients are generally less labor-intensive and price-sensitive as more highly affluent clients, they are a key factor for the rapid growth seen in many of today’s large firms. Solo advisory firms, on the other hand, lack the resources to implement economies of scale that larger firms are able to establish, and thus the most successful smaller firms flourish by continuing to target larger clients.