Be Wary of Lead-Generation Adviser-Matching Services

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Advisers looking to grow their business are always interested in finding new clients, but almost universally, advisers hate prospecting. Most of them don’t have the time, skill or interest to do the marketing on their own, which is why lead-generation services have become more popular. In fact, these services are banking on demand and specifically targeting advisers. You can find firms that will sell you prospect information in specific high-net-worth zip codes or Google and Facebook ads that will pop up on specific sites investors might be searching.

Some services take it further by promising advisers you’ll never have to prospect again. While adviser/client matching services have some differences in their business models, their core offering tends to be the same: they promise to match advisers with great quality prospects in their area who are pre-qualified and need their services. The adviser pays a fee to participate (usually a setup or onboarding fee, plus a fee for every referral the adviser receives) while the end client pays nothing.

Wow! That sounds great, doesn’t it?

You know what’s coming, don’t you?

There’s a big BUT. Like most things that seem too good to be true, there’s a catch. Let’s look at a few issues that should be considered before you sink money and time into an adviser-matching service.

Quality of Leads Generated

Where do the matching services find all these apparently great, high-quality leads? The leads come predominantly from advertising. The companies tout their multichannel approach for putting information in front of prospects, and they leverage Facebook, LinkedIn, Google organic searches and pay-per-click services, strategic partners and alliances, social media, email, custom landing pages and videos to make it all happen.

With these tools, they can target investors who are looking for information on a specific topic, such as how to leave money to children. Or they could compel a group of investors to reply to a general pitch for retirement planning or request an e-book on a topic after completing a form. While many prospects do complete such forms, they may or may not be told that a financial adviser will be contacting them afterward. Some prospects have expressed surprise when advisers reach out and say they don’t know how their name and number were obtained.

Some marketing agencies go even further by making the most of today’s sophisticated data analytics. They can cross-reference reams of data and extract candidates who might seem to fit a specific lead profile, such as being older than age 60, living in a particular town or zip code, owning a second home, driving a Mercedes-Benz and so on. These prospect pools might not have clicked directly on an ad or requested information, they have simply qualified as lead because they visited a financial planning site or clicked to run a retirement income calculator.

A One-Size-Fits-All Approach

All these services create pay-to-play scenarios, meaning that only advisers who sign up and pay will receive referrals. So, even though the services promise to match clients with advisers who are a great fit, the premise is flawed. A questionnaire for an investor looking for an adviser is likely to ask only the most basic questions to assess needs (e.g., are taxes important?), rely on investors to self-report their income and assets and make no distinctions for adviser experience and education. So, an adviser with a CFP®, AIF®, CFA®, CPA and 25 years of experience will be presented on an equal footing with a rookie adviser holding only a FINRA Series 7 securities registration. Since the job of lead-generation services is to spread the leads around to all advisers, everyone is treated the same—even though that may not be best for the paying adviser or the prospective client. Advisers receive a brief form with the name, phone number, email and total assets for each prospect, and then it’s up to them to follow up.

Compliance Approval

This is tricky territory indeed, and every firm is different. Depending on how the particular lead-generation service is structured, the SEC will likely consider the service to constitute a solicitor arrangement under Advisers Act Rule 206(4)-3. That’s because the SEC defines a “solicitor” broadly as “any person who, directly or indirectly, solicits any client for, or refers any client to, an investment adviser.” In general, the payment of compensation by advisers to for-profit lead-generation or adviser-matching services may be done only in strict compliance with the solicitation rule. And since it is the adviser making the payment who falls squarely under the jurisdiction of the SEC, it is the adviser who will be held accountable for failure to comply with the rule. Given that, before you spend money or time with any of the services out there, be sure to check with your compliance department and see if it’s allowed.

Are the Services Effective?

According to the marketing and websites of the lead-generation services, absolutely! And there likely is a degree of success, or these companies would quickly close doors.

Caveat emptor applies, though. First, carefully consider what you are trying to do with your business and see if these services make sense. Second, make sure you understand the following:

  • Cost: The services can be expensive. For most advisers, the up-front costs and costs per lead could be better spent on other marketing initiatives that would give them more control and better results.
  • Limitations: Geographic location seems to be the biggest factor in assigning advisers to clients, not experience or designations. The heavy zip code weighting seems at odds with the ability of more targeted technological capabilities, as well as the increased mobility of clients.
  • Missing information: Many advisers invest heavily in their learning and have earned a number of credentials and licenses. The services don’t take any of that into account when matching advisers to clients, although prospects can be influenced by reading designations on adviser profiles.
  • Lack of customization: Even though the services tout their ability at matchmaking, there’s no way for the service to get to know either the adviser or the client. Most prospects who fill out the (very basic) questionnaires might not even know their financial issues or the kinds of solutions they need, so how can they choose the adviser best qualified to help?
  • Risk of wasted time: While advisers can pay more for a lead based on the prospect’s assets, they cannot identify or choose their ideal clients. At Commonwealth, we coach advisers to try and find the right people who meet their minimums and ideal client profile. The opposite is happening with these services when the adviser agrees to follow up with all leads, whether they fit the practice or not.

Evaluate Carefully

Where do you want to spend your money, time and energy? What is best for the long-term success of your practice? In my opinion, most advisers’ time would be better spent deepening relationships with current clients, learning the best ways to ask for referrals and introductions and being highly visible in the community.

If you do want to engage in a digital strategy to find leads and prospects for your business, I suggest you check out LinkedIn first. There are plenty of resources to help you leverage the social media platform that are free, easy and put you in control of the people you contact. And that sounds like a lead-generation strategy worth trying.

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Kristine McManus is chief business development officer, practice management, at Commonwealth Financial Network®, member FINRA/SIPC, the nation’s largest privately held Registered Investment Adviser—independent broker/dealer. Since joining the firm in April 2014, she has been working with affiliated advisers to grow their top line through the introduction of various programs, tools and coaching. Kristine holds the Chartered Retirement Planning CounselorSM designation, a master’s degree from Pennsylvania State University, and a BFA from Adelphi University.

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