Two of the major issues confronting estate planning attorneys are the commoditization of our “products” and increasing low price competition thanks to the do-it-yourself kits and internet trusts. One way to combat these issues is to emphasize and show your prospects how your “product” is superior to what your competitors have to offer, such as by differentiating the services available to the client after the sale. Think about it, when you purchase or lease a car, don’t you usually want to know what kind of service or maintenance program is available and what the cost will be? Estate planning clients often think of their estate planning as a “one-and-done” type of transaction, and educating them about the need for “after care” and providing that service is a great way to position yourself as the preferred consumer choice.
Over the past few years, a number of estate planning attorneys have adopted what are known as “Client Maintenance Plans”, where clients pay monthly or annual fee in exchange for certain on-going services. Theoretically, this is a great way for you to annuitize the value of your practice and create a “guaranteed” base income each year from your existing client base.
However, this is an area (amongst others) where I am a contrarian, as you’ll see.
According to an unscientific survey of estate planning attorneys who have attended my 2-day Ultimate Level program, about 25% of them have some sort of client maintenance plan, for which they charge their client an additional fee. Some of them have done very well in terms of signing up a high percentage of their clients for this on-going client maintenance plan and are generating a significant amount of revenue from it. However, in my own experience (as well those of several other colleagues I’ve spoken with), after about two to three years, these types of client maintenance plans often experience a significant amount of drop off, not only of revenue but clients themselves. As clients begin to look at the expense that they are paying each year and what they are actually receiving, they often times decide that the annual maintenance fee is no longer an expense they deem necessary.
What are clients really getting with a client maintenance plan?
When evaluating a client maintenance plan, we need to ask and truthfully answer, “What are my clients really getting of substance?” Maintenance plans often include anything from free title transfers, a monthly or quarterly newsletter, client seminars on important topics, special client events, free document upgrades (or certain limited, client requested changes), and a fixed price guarantee for later post-death administration. Truthfully, I believe if you do a good job for your clients in getting their assets initially into their living trust (and checking on them periodically, as I will discuss later), clients don’t really see a need to pay for these other service components. Although it is nice for clients to think that their documents will be upgraded each year, they don’t actually have any changes they want to make every single year. And the reality is that there are not significant enough changes in the law that occur each and every year to require an update to their documents (these can be accumulated and done every few years in one change). Plus, they don’t want to pay a fee year after year, indeterminately, to save some administrative fee way down the road. The fact is that when the “ether” wears off, clients start to wonder “What am I really getting with the maintenance plan and do I really need to pay every year for it?”
Okay, let’s assume that you don’t have a lot of drop off of clients from your client maintenance plan. You still have to consider the collateral headaches. You have additional on-going overhead expenses just to get the “stuff” out to each client throughout the year, particularly if you include title transfers and document amendments. You may need additional staff just to provide all the service components of the maintenance plan. You also have the additional management involving your time as well as possible additional client meetings on a regular basis. Plus, after two or three years, you have to scratch your head and become increasingly inventive to figure out what new service components, products, events or seminars to add to the program that members haven’t already taken advantage of or will view as an incentive to keep renewing. And here’s another consequence you may not have thought about – – you are creating a liability on your books, an obligation to continue to service clients for which you’ve already been paid, that may become a roadblock if you ever want to sell your practice or retire.
Believe me, based on the feedback I’ve received from other estate planning attorneys and the feedback they’ve received from clients, it’s only a matter of time before your clients, you and your staff will begin to dislike this type of on-going client maintenance plan (or perhaps I should use a stronger word than dislike!).
So what’s the better alternative?
In my experience, it’s what I call a free service package! You may be thinking, “How can a free service package wind up generating me more revenue?” Bear with me, because I’m going to show you how a free service package will not only trump your competitors who don’t offer a service package, but blow your competitors who are currently providing maintenance fee plans, clear out of the water!
What does this free service package consist of?
The free service package that I have put together for my clients includes such things as:
- Free phone calls
- Free periodic notices and seminars as laws and estate planning technology change
- Free monthly e-mail newsletter (or quarterly snail mail newsletter)
- A free meeting with the successor trustee when the client becomes ill, disabled or passes away
- And (most importantly) a free client “check-up” meeting every three years
Clients have already been conditioned to understand – – from dealing with other professionals like doctors, dentists and CPAs – – that periodic check-ups are necessary and they are accustomed to being quoted a fee in advance if further professional assistance becomes necessary. At our free 3-year check-up meeting, we not only make sure that the client’s plan is up-to-date with the client’s wishes, the law and recent planning technology, but we also check to make sure that all asset titles are in the trust. At the conclusion of this free meeting, we determine what (if any) work needs to be done, we quote the client a fixed fee in advance for any amendments or title transfers and the choice to proceed is up to them. Frankly, this results in a lot more happy clients, who prefer to “pay as you go”, only for what they really want or need.
This free service package approach also results in far more living trust and estate administration work, not only from the happy clients themselves, but from their referrals and their advisors’ referrals. Plus, these happier clients will speak highly of your firm to others because clients don’t want to pay for what they don’t need or want!
When I market and promote this “free service package”, a perk which each client receives when they engage my firm, who do you think a prospective client is going to choose?
But…If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
In reading this article, please don’t get me wrong. I believe in doing what is tested and proven to work.
Not all client maintenance plans fail, as I do know of some practitioners who have been very successful with their client maintenance plans, so it is possible. In fact, that’s why I have enlisted the help of a colleague who does have a successful client maintenance plan to discuss the details of his plan and how he has been able to make it work. >>LEARN MORE
If you have a client maintenance plan that is standing the test of time – – I mean has been in existence for a minimum of three to five years without significant drop-off and you’re still making a tidy net profit (after all your expenses) – – don’t fix it! (And, if you are please drop me an e-mail to tell me all about it, because we’d love to feature your story in a future newsletter for those that are trying to find a maintenance fee plan that really is working!)
But from what I have personally seen and heard, if you are currently trying to implement a client maintenance plan, you may be headed for a big fall off the cliff – – when your clients come out of the ether (or get awakened by your competitors who show why their free service package approach is much better!).
RELATED TRAINING & EDUCATION
If you’d like to learn more about this Free Service Package and how to implement it into your practice, be sure to check out Phil’s 90-minute presentation entitled, “Generate More Revenue & Retain More Clients with a Free Service Package”. For more information and to purchase, click here.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Attorney Philip J. Kavesh is the principal of one of the largest estate planning firms in California – – Kavesh, Minor and Otis – – now in its 35th year of business. He is also the President of The Ultimate Estate Planner, Inc., which provides a variety of training, marketing and practice-building products and services for estate planning professionals. If you would like more information or have a question for him, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 1-866-754-6477.
Image courtesy of iosphere at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.