The transparency of adviser fees is in the spotlight once again as new research suggests only a third of advice firms publish their charges on their websites.
Working with adviser marketing consultancy The Yardstick Agency, and based on a sample of around 200 advisers, Money Marketing’s survey found roughly 35 per cent declared their fees online and only 6 per cent published their figures on their homepage.
Sample client agreements were provided on the websites of 17 per cent of respondents, of which just 8 per cent put it on their home page.
Just over a third of advisers displayed ongoing service details on their website, for example, frequency of reviews and communication from the adviser. However, none did so on their homepage.
Charging with confidence
Advisers were given the opportunity to explain on an anonymous basis why they chose not to disclose fees, client agreements or service levels online.
For the most part, there were concerns publishing fees could give a misleading impression to clients and detract from the value of the service.
One respondent says: “I have put fees on our site before. While I have some sympathy for the idea, it still tends to focus a prospect on cost rather than the long-term relationship and value we add and see as more important.”
Another adviser says: “Simply listing your fee structure can be a risky business without the context of conversation to put charges into perspective in terms of the client’s needs.”
Cervello Financial Planning director Chris Daems says his firm has gone “full circle”, initially deciding not to publish fees, then disclosing them online before removing them again. The firm does not have a copy of its terms and conditions on its website or show its independent status.
Daems says: “The reality is I want to include stuff on the website our clients care about. If you’re looking for high quality advice and want to select the right adviser, cost might be an issue. But there are a number of factors which we believe clients focus on before cost, like trust, reputation, authority and personality.
“Cost is an important conversation to have but if I’m honest, if there is a potential client looking on our website to ‘cost compare’ we’re probably not right for them in the first place.”
Addidi Wealth managing director Anna Sofat says when someone makes enquiries to her firm, they will be contacted by phone or sent a more detailed fee breakdown on request. But she believes publishing figures on websites can give a misleading impression of value. She says: “The issue about disclosure is how do you make it like for like?”
She cites examples of firms which will quote ongoing fees of around 0.5 per cent, but outsource their investment management, thus adding an extra layer of costs.
Sofat adds: “We can talk through platform charges, advice charges, investment charges, and give clients a figure they can actually use to compare.”
Regulatory consultant Esrar Moitra says as long as the cost and nature of the service is explained before the client starts the service, there is no formal FCA requirement for public disclosure.
He says: “If firms don’t publish fees you could argue they are not being transparent, but you need to think about how consumers buy financial services. It’s not like going on eBay and buying a book.
“With that you can really compare the price for the same goods. For the investment advice market, consumers don’t make decisions like that because the range of propositions and services is vast.
“Buying decisions aren’t just about scope and cost of the service because the relationship is as important. When buying financial services, clients will also be asking, ‘do I like this person, do I trust this person, do I feel comfortable?’ as part of that process which you won’t get from publication of fees online.”
Some advisers are realistic about the competitive advantage fee disclosure offers, as well as giving customers a better idea of which advisers are better suited to them.
In their response to the MM survey, one adviser says: “The clarity of displaying my fees has won me a few clients compared with other advisory firms in my area.”
Rose & North Financial Planning and Wealth Management adviser Hayley North says: “We currently display our minimum charge of £750 online. We plan to add more details of our most common fees as we feel this is a good way to prepare a new enquiry and also to enable someone to shop around, having a clear idea of what to expect to pay in each case.”
The research also examined the extent of online disclosure of a firm’s independent or restricted status.
It found 83 per cent of independent advisers put their independent status on their website compared with 38 per cent of restricted advisers.
Simply listing your fee structure can be a risky business without the context of conversation to put charges into perspective in terms of the client’s needs
Nearly 80 per cent of the independent advisers that declared their status did so on their homepage, whereas no restricted advisers said they put their regulatory status on their homepage.
Advisers were also keen to promote their charted or certified status, with 85 per cent of IFAs and 100 per cent of restricted advisers doing so on their website.
Sofat says some firms may recognise the benefits of promoting their qualifications, but may not think it is an important way of judging their firm.
Sofat says: “We’ve got qualifications, awards, great ratings on sites like VouchedFor. Qualifications alone is not necessarily how we benchmark ourselves. We set out to be one of the best in our industry, but we don’t have a concept of what best looks like and, apart from the exam perspective, no one has that kitemark.”
Keeping up appearances
On adviser websites overall, while 57 per cent of advisers said they use Google Analytics to track the performance of their website, a quarter had not logged in the last three months.
A quarter included video on their site, but one site only had an average viewing time of 34 seconds, according to Yardstick research.
Forty-four per cent of adviser website traffic came from search engines, while fewer than one in 10 visits came through social media.
Yardstick says the average adviser website receives 449 visits per month from 331 unique visitors. On the worst-performing sites, users read an average of 1.16 pages, rising to 3.26 for better performing ones.
Yardstick director Phil Bray says: “We all know the best clients come from referrals and recommendations. A website is vital when you’re designing a referral strategy.”
This article is the latest in Money Marketing’s series on adviser charges and pay. To read the full series click here
How far do advisers need to go on disclosure?
Rose & North Financial Planning and Wealth Management adviser Hayley North
Adviser fees are always a sensitive topic. New clients are wary of not being ripped off, advisers are worried about pricing themselves incorrectly, and the FCA worries about overcharging.
Pricing models are not only many and varied but they change a lot.
We regularly discuss our charges with other advisers, and are always open to suggestions and keen to ensure we are all competitively and fairly priced. It is imperative we can justify our charges to our clients,
old and new.
We take into account all our fixed costs, the nature of the work involved, the risk level and how much time it will take us when we design our pricing structures. We adapt where we need to and when we can.
There is a balance to strike between too much detail which might confuse a prospective client and too little which then does not give someone an accurate idea of what to expect.
However we display our fees, there will always be room for improvement and we actively seek feedback from clients and other advisers. We find clients like transparency and we have nothing to hide.
Yardstick Agency director Phil Bray
Following our adviser survey, there may be a tendency to focus on the fact most advisers do not publish their fees online.
I remain on the fence; I can see as many arguments for online fee disclosure as against. I have always believed fees should be disclosed at the earliest opportunity they can be estimated accurately. If that is online, great, if it is over the phone on an introductory call, or at a face-to-face meeting, so be it.
Advisers may be accused of a lack of transparency for not publishing client agreements, and associated documentation, on their website. I can see why advisers do not do this. My research tells me where they are published, they are rarely read. But prospective clients do want to know whether or not the adviser has the experience to solve their financial problems. This is where advisers must start when considering the content on their website.
Really good websites, and those which are most effective, will also help educate visitors through high quality content like guides, blogs, videos and podcasts. Content is king. Not only does it educate and inform, it engages visitors, something our survey shows advisers need to get better at. It also demonstrates knowledge and expertise and, of course, Google will love you for it too.