Friday, January 15, 2016

Are You Getting the Best Ideas For Your Money?

How about it? Is your [fill in the blank with attorney, accountant, actuary, adviser, consultant] bringing you their best ideas? I had  a few conversations yesterday with people who might be in a position to know. What they told me in a nutshell is that if you are not a key client for whoever it is that you filled in the blank with, the answer is probably not.

One person related to me that when she was in the corporate world, the people sent to audit their 401(k) plan were first-years who asked exactly what a 401(k) plan is. The bill for those services was large. Another told me that he went to a client conference sponsored by a large actuarial firm (conference was his term, but I'm not convinced it was the term I would have used). He found that the larger clients that were there had been getting different and more proactive advice from the firm's national experts, but all he got were answers to the questions that he specifically asked. But he did note to me that the billing rates of the team that services him had gone up by about 1/3 in the last 2 years.A third person said that her adviser (defined benefit investment) seemed to be pawning off the investments that he couldn't dump elsewhere on her. Each of these three people said that they were paying top dollar for substandard services.


In the late 80s (that's last century for people who don't recall), I was with one of those large firms. I recall a discussion with an internal IT person who was lamenting the high cost of putting IBM personal computers on every one's desk. He said that he thought Compaqs that were less expensive were better. Naive me asked me why then was he buying IBMs. The answer that he gave me struck me as odd then, but wouldn't now. He said something to the effect of "They're IBMs. If I buy Compaqs and something goes wrong, I lose my job; if I buy IBMs and everything goes wrong, I can say I bought IBMs."

The world has changed, but has that part of it? Is it okay to take a risk on getting great advice from people who want your business and want to give you their best advice, but don't have the big name? I don't know what the answer is at your company, but it should be a resounding yes.

The business world has gotten too complex. There are great advisers of all sorts out there who are not charging top dollar. If you're using one of the big firms in whichever field you're thinking about and you're getting their best people -- their national experts -- then you probably are getting their best thinking. If that's the case, then they likely view that you have the money to spend that justifies bringing those people in. But, suppose you're not in New York (this is not intended to imply that all the best people are in New York, but that experts will travel to New York, for example, but perhaps not to Wichita, Kansas). Suppose you're not a Fortune 100 company. Then, you might not be getting the best ideas that your adviser's firm has to offer.

What should you do differently?

Find out who are the strong players that may be less well known, but really want your business. Trust me -- if they think that you are interested in hearing what they have to say, they'll bring you their best ideas. And, they might charge less for them than the bigger companies will.

On that note, if your company sponsors retirement plans and most do, I'd like to talk to you about some of our ideas. You may not hear anything like them from anyone else.

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