Spray & Pray: There’s A better Way

Most advisors express frustration with the volume and the frequency of promotional communications from investment product and insurance manufacturers. Research conducted by EMI and real client experience confirms this, with emails being especially high on the list. At a recent roundtable I attended, many advisors said: “we’re done with email”. Why? Because most of the communications they receive are difficult to process and deliver questionable value to their practice. So what’s a manufacturer to do?
Despite frustrations with the volume and quality of communications, advisors readily admit that they do read communications deployed by the brands they trust and value. These brands plan and manage communication streams with valuable content, use easy to process copy standards, and create a consistent narrative that demonstrate respect and thoughtfulness. These brands have earned the attention of the advisor and are therefore opened and read before the others (assuming the others are read, which is unlikely given the ease of deleting or navigating away in digital media).

So what’s a manufacturer to do? Build a systematic relationship marketing program that demonstrates respect and delivers real value. Perhaps we can call that SRM.

The Retirement Income Conundrum

A day doesn’t seem to pass without a new, alarming headline about retirement in America.  I was reminded of this today when our head of research sent me this link about the decline in the “Retirement Optimism” index (perhaps an oxymoron these days)  https://www.wellsfargo.com/press/2011/20110602_Retirement.  And consistent with other research, retirees maintain a consistently higher level of optimism than non-retirees.

Despite this morose pre-retiree outlook about retirement, the study reports that about 3 in 4 have no formal plan for retirement.  Why are households unable to address such an important personal challenge and prepare for the days of retirement?  Well, there are many reasons for this, including:

1) The definition of retirement.  What’s retirement?  Has the norm ever been 15-20 years of golf, world travel, and endless vacations on a private yacht in the Aegean?  Maybe “retirement” is a more transitional period of life, when earned income declines, new expenses emerge (e.g. health), and guaranteed sources of income from accumulated financial assets are required to match consumption  liabilities.  So maybe “planning for retirement” is not exactly the caracature we all imagine.

2) Savings.  As we near completion of the transition from a defined benefit to a defined contribution work place, have households accepted responsibility for postponing consumption and saving for a time when they’ll need new sources of income?  This will require a cultural change in how households budget.

3) Investing.  How many consumers know how to build a retirement portfolio?  How many understand the benefits of an annuity and how to select the most appropriate product?  How many understand how to use capital market products to create a stream of guaranteed income?  The accumulation model alone based on risk and return just doesn’t solve the retirement problem yet the airwaves are filled with messaging that encourages this.

4) Advice.  Despite the dramatic increase in advisor clients requiring retirement income portfolios, there is still no acknowledged consensus on the best approach.  Moreover, compensation models based on AUM often conflict with what’s best for the client.  Systematic Withdrawal Plans, Annuities, Time Segmented Allocation Models, laddering with strips….or plain old risk and return…where’s the consensus and why isn’t there one?

5) Insurance.  To some degree, most consumers need income “insurance” in retirement.  Typically, insurance products are sold, not purchased.  Given this paradigm, the financial advisor is key – he/she needs to recommend the right product for the right purpose.    This brings us back to the point 4 – advice.  The financial intermediary is going to be key in helping households efficiently use their savings to create income for retirement.  Manufacturers of retirement income products are going have to educate financial advisors on the benefits of their product from an outcome point of view and when the advisor should incorporate them into their client portfolios and financial plans.

Retirement and The Catchers in The Rye

Leaders of the retirement industry met this week at Morningstar Corporate Headquarters in Chicago to exchange thoughts on the future of retirement income solutions.  The more than 150 industry leaders who attended share a common vision: connecting the silos of the retirement industry to facilitate the delivery of more robust solutions for households transitioning into or in the retired life-stage.   Their interest is in part driven by the increasing attractiveness of the 50+ segment, which, for  example, controls more than 50% of 401k assets under management.   As these assets are converted to streams of retirement income, opportunities and risks will increasingly emerge.

There are many barriers  today that prevent the industry from delivering optimal retirement solutions to households – both in the workplace and outside the work  place.  Some of these are legal, some are economic, some are cultural, and some are behavioral.

Despite all of these challenges, the retirement ecosystem is evolving quickly.  This evolution  is  being driven by changes in consumer behavior and attitudes and the high indebtedness of all sectors of the US economy.  As a result, an  increasing number of intermediaries and distributors are modifying their approaches to serving  households, plan sponsors, and participants.  The pure AUM model is going to be challenged and product selling is  being replaced by more process-centric, solution oritened approaches.   An increaing number of channels hold insurance and securities licenses and therefore consider insurance and investment products to design a retirement income solution.

Manufacturers that want to preserve market share and sustain growth will need to adapt to these changes, particularly in the area of product development and relationship management with channels.

Those that adapt quickly and support this evolution will win the loyalty of their channels.  Adapting means speaking your channels evolving language, helping your channels understand how your products fit into their financial planning processes and for which client types your product is appropriate, giving the advisor comfort when presenting your products to end-clients, and becoming the “go to” retirement income expert.   Most advisors become comfortable with a limited number of providers, so time is of the essence as financial advisors modify their practice to serve the increasingly large transition and retired life-stage segment.  And selecting and investing in the right channels to work with is critical.

Now is the time for providers of retirement income products to “lock-in” their channel relationships.  This will require thoughful marketing and sales.  Distinguishing between early adopters, novices, and laggards is critical and allocating your investments in the right market segments is essential.

And for those who are curious about the title of this post and what rye has to do with retirement:

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all.  Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me.  And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff.  What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them.  That’s all I do all day.  I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.  I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.”  ~J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Chapter 22, spoken by the character Holden Caulfield