These Tips Can Help Advisers Attract—and Keep—High Net Worth Clients

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By Robert Powell, MarketWatch.com

For many advisers, high net worth individuals or households — those with more than $1 million in investible assets — are a kind of Holy Grail.

The reasons are clear. HWNIs, which represent just 0.7 percent of the world’s adult population but own 45.2 percent of the wealth, are good for business. They’re highly profitable and loyal, according to Rebecca Li-Huang, a wealth adviser at HSBC, who wrote a chapter in the June 2017 book Financial Behavior: Players, Services, Products, and Markets.

Consider: An adviser can earn one-half of 1 percent of assets under management on a $10 million account, say $50,000 a year. By contrast, the very same adviser would earn only $1,000 a year on a $100,000 account. For financial advisers, the attraction should be obvious.

But there’s more to the story, and advisers should get to know the psychology of HNWIs before taking them on as clients. Just like regular folks, Li-Huang wrote, they are prone to behavioral biases and judgment errors, not perfectly rational, utility-maximizing, unemotional homo economicus.

In short, wrote Li-Huang, they are humans. And in the U.S., according to Li-Huang, they often share a particular way of thinking about what they want from their money that financial advisers should consider when trying to serve them.

American HNWIs like to direct their investment according to their personal beliefs and values, and they play a large role in public life through philanthropy and politics, according to Li-Huang. And many want to leave a legacy by giving back to society while generating a financial return on their investments.

“The holistic returns on cultural, environmental, social, and political causes are gaining importance in wealth management,” wrote Li-Huang. “The trend toward helping HNWIs address their personal aspirations and social-impact needs is part of a broader wealth management industry transition toward giving holistic wealth advice.”

Focus on goals while mitigating stress

How can advisers do that? For starters, according to Li-Huang, advisers can focus on goals-based financial planning, holistic wealth management, and services that address investments, lending, tax and estate planning, insurance, philanthropy, and succession planning.

With goals-based planning, wrote Li-Huang, success is measured by how clients are progressing toward their personalized goals rather than against a benchmark index such as the S&P 500 stock index. (Publicly traded securities don’t necessarily contribute that much to a HNWI’s wealth, notes Li-Huang, as just one in eight millionaires say equities were an important factor in their economic success.)

Still, she argues, HNWIs do need to invest in diversified markets and use tax-efficient strategies. And advisers can add value by “mitigating psychological costs, such as reducing anxiety rather than improving investment performance” and by focusing on financial planning and advice on savings and asset allocation.

Li-Huang cited research that suggests that investors don’t necessarily want the best risk-adjusted returns but, rather, the best returns they can achieve for the level of stress they have to experience, or what some call anxiety-adjusted returns.

In the cast of HNWIs, they tend to practice something called “emotional inoculation.” They outsource the part of the investment decision-making that induces stress, according to Li-Huang.

HNWIs are especially looking to their wealth manager for help with philanthropy. They are looking for “support and advice, such as setting goals and defining their personal role in their areas of interest, identifying and structuring investments, and measuring outcomes of their social impact efforts,” she wrote.

Given that advisers need to provide their HNWI clients with tax and philanthropy specialists.

In advisers they trust

When HNWIs consider selecting an adviser, they tend to focus more on honesty and trustworthiness than past investment performance or standard professional credentials, according to Li-Huang.

That’s not to say that professional credentials and competence don’t matter — they do — but, rather, that they are not sufficient in and of themselves, according to Li-Huang.

HNWIs — who tend to have less time and resources for due diligence than typical clients of financial advisers — use something called “trust heuristics” when searching for an adviser with whom to work.

In other words, they’re even more likely to assume that the category leaders are among the best in a highly regulated world even as they hold advisers referred by family members, friends and acquaintances in high regard, according to Li-Huang.

Consequently, perhaps, HNWIs tend to trust their advisers much more than less wealthy retail investor trust their financial advisers.

So, what is trust to a HNWI? According to Li-Huang, HNWis trust advisers who show signs that they’re acting in the client’s best interest, reach out proactively, charge reasonable fees, deliver mistake-free work — and admit when they’re wrong.

In many ways, attracting and retaining HNWIs isn’t much different that getting and keeping what are called “mass affluent” clients, who have with assets of less than $1 million. But the differences are worth noting, because the stakes are higher, and a bit of extra knowledge can pay off.

This story first ran on July 21, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

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