If there’s one thing that just about every financial advisor can agree upon, it’s that surviving the first few years in the advice business is very difficult. As a result, there’s a natural tendency for newer advisors to not be terribly picky about who they take on as clients, as getting any new clients that can generate any new dollars flowing into the business is often necessary for survival. However as advisers begin to find success, they have the opportunity to start building their practice with focused intent. For some, that means growing and scaling by hiring staff to support a growing number of clients. For others, that may mean remaining a ‘solo’ lifestyle practice and serving a (relatively) small number of (often highly profitable) clients.
But, no matter what a practice may look like, many advisors reach a certain point where the clients that helped them get off their feet early on are no longer a good fit… whether because they “can’t be serviced profitably” given new staff infrastructure, or don’t generate enough revenue to fit the more focused lifestyle practice, such that they can even become a drag on overall business results. In the case of no-longer-profitable clients who aren’t pleasant to work with in the first place, the solution is often straightforward. But what if they’re not unpleasant, just “unprofitable”? Which raises the question: How should advisors handle clients who they otherwise know they are helping and truly enjoy working with, but just aren’t profitable to serve?
In our 57th episode of Kitces and Carl, Michael Kitces and client communication expert Carl Richards discuss how to determine if a client doesn’t meet the profitability goals of a business, how to think about serving unprofitable clients who are otherwise a pleasure to work with and need good financial advice, and how to communicate with those clients when there’s no other choice but to let them go.
As a starting point, it’s important to first identify which clients are actually unprofitable for the practice. Accordingly, a common rule of thumb is to take the average revenue per client across the firm (by taking total revenues of the firm and dividing that number by the total number of clients) and then dividing that number by three. Since most advisory firms have overhead somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-40%, those clients who are generating less than about a third of the average revenue per client simply aren’t covering their slice of the basic costs of running the business.
From there, advisors can make a deliberate decision to designate a certain number of clients as “pro bono” and continue to serve them. But after those proverbial pro bono seats are full, there may be even more clients that now need to be transitioned. At that point, the best way to handle that conversation is by being candid and honest, and by explaining that, because of the level of service that’s being provided, the firm needs to charge a higher fee commensurate with the services it’s providing… and that it wouldn’t be in the client’s financial interest to pay the firm’s (new, higher) minimum fees. At that point, the advisor is communicating that they aren’t a good fit for the client (rather than the other way around, in a manner that could hurt the client’s feelings), and can best help by finding a different advisor who is!
Ultimately, the key point is that advisors chose this profession because they want to help people, but it’s equally important to acknowledge that advisors can’t help everyone… and that there are also other advisors out there who do great work, and for whom one advisor’s unprofitable client could still be a very good client for them. In other words, just because a client can’t be served profitably by one advisor doesn’t mean they can’t be served well by any advisor (as one advisor’s “C” client may still be someone else’s “A” client!). Which means transitioning clients who aren’t a good fit isn’t simply about “rejecting” them or leaving them to fend for themselves… instead, it’s an opportunity to help them find the advisor who will want to service them at the level they need and deserve, for the benefit of all!