Which Clients To Keep; Which Ones To Fire

More clients is good, right? But when you have plenty of clients on the books the question becomes which clients to keep. Or which ones to get rid of. 

Actually, advisers should be constantly asking these questions regardless of how big their book of clients actually is.  They are not questions which should only get triggered because we reached a certain size or volume of clients.

I mean; how many clients are enough for an adviser anyway?





Whatever the ideal volume of clients are for any particular advisers’ business model, there nearly always comes a point where the thinking becomes “drop some clients, and build it back to up whatever the ideal number is/was with better clients.”

Let’s begin by challenging a big myth pervading the industry, being that “Big is good”.

Actually, “big” is NOT necessarily good when it comes to an ideal sized client base for an adviser, as a big client base is often simply an anchor.

It may be that there is strength and better profitability in achieving a bigger client base size.  More clients equal more success.  Continually adding new clients adds more profitability.  It must, surely?

True – it does…IF…overheads are kept at a relatively constant level and do not increase at a rate which equals (or faster!) than the revenue generated from the increased client acquisition.

I do not entirely believe that more is better, or that big is good when it comes to building a practice….and that is a hard won and expensive personal lesson in chasing the “big is good” strategy years ago myself.  What is good is building a practice with the right sort of clients for you, where you can deliver good advice and service to good people you enjoy working with and can make a good living while doing so.  Almost inevitably along the way some wrong clients ARE brought on though.  Some are just wrong for you, or you are wrong for them….and you didn’t (or couldn’t) know that at the time when you took them on as new clients.

There might not be anything “wrong” with the people themselves – perhaps it is just that they are not the right fit for you and your business.  One of things we rarely speak about openly in professional services is that “not all clients are good clients“.  Some you can’t help. Some won’t take help. Some you don’t want to help.  Some are just awful people…you get the point I’m sure: not everyone is a good fit for the service and value your business provides.

A respected adviser once said to me when he was reviewing his business model, “I decided to go through my 800 clients and only keep the ones who trusted me, actually followed my advice,  and would never sue me“.  He kept 8 of them, and sold the rest of the business.

That is pretty radical.  It is also potentially commercial suicide for most advisers, however it graphically illustrates the point that not all clients are ones you should be working with.

That same adviser then rebuilt his business over a 3 year period to about 170 clients, serviced by himself & 2 other advisers, and with an unbelievably high turnover (we are talking many millions in revenue in that business).  He began to focus just upon who were “the right” clients and relentlessly pursued them, and built a new and different practice model which superbly delivered to their requirements and was valued accordingly.

Clearly the business referred to is an exceptional one, operating in a particular niche and providing the very highest possible range of personalised service and expertise.  Not a “normal” advice business in other words.  But it did start out as a fairly normal type of advice business, doing the things that all other advisers were doing to build a good business.

Small can clearly be very good.  Big can be very good too of course – but it should not be thought of as an automatic path to business security.  While it is true that many fixed costs inside a professional service firm are reasonably static, or not proportionately related to number of clients one has, there is usually some sneaky overhead-creep that goes along with increasing the size of the client base being serviced.  The variable costs directly related to marketing & servicing naturally go up with increasing client base size.

One of the more interesting and worthwhile things an adviser business can ever do is to spend some serious effort analyzing the business they have.  Work out what your servicing costs per client are each year for example.  Work out what the overheads per client are.  Understand what your clients cost you – and not just in hard cash, but in support personnel time and in adviser time.  If you go through the exercise I would venture that you will be quietly amazed at what you are spending on average per client.  And we haven’t discussed the lost opportunity costs….

A big client base can be, and often is, actually an anchor preventing forward movement.  So the first step in deciding who to kepp or who to ged rid of is to do some commercial analysis.  Go to the numbers and work out which ones cost you moeny and which ones make you money.  Later you can decide on a case-by-case basis perhaps which ones cost you money but because you love them dearly or whatever you are going to keep them on…but thatnis for later when you know wht the consequences of your decison are.

For example:  Let’s say you send a greeting card 1 x p.a, some newsletters p.a., review letters and reports mailed 1 x p.a., disclosure 2 x p.a., maybe a seminar 1 x p.a. for clients, and perhaps one invitation to a function each year.  These things are pretty typical and can easily add up to a cost per client of $150-200 in direct servicing costs.  Apportion out your fixed costs amongst the clients….often another $150/head fairly easily.  Staff time dealing with a couple of calls and emails a year?  Another $50-75.  Adviser time?  Another 2 hours a year – call that a minimum $300.

So, the client is costing you perhaps $800 a year to keep….before you apply any serious “advice” time to them.

The really interesting part though is when you begin the process of segmenting your client base and working out what each segment brings in revenue each year.  Your very top end clients, that follow your advice, and think about their affairs will be presenting you with average revenue of thousands of dollars per year on a reasonably consistent basis.  Every 2-3 years there will be a big bit of work done with them that provides a lot more.  And they will, if the relationship is nurtured well, provide you with more clients of that type.  The lifetime value of these clients is immense.

Clearly a good investment.  “Get more of them” is definitely a good plan.

However, at the other end of the scale I regularly witness advisers holding on to smaller clients.  Perhaps they purchased something from the firm 9 years ago, or sought some advice and paid for their plan 4 years ago, or were handled as a bit of a pro-bono exercise.  Often they have a policy or a savings plan in force.  When you drill down and look at the ongoing value these “clients” present to the practice the numbers are startling.  It is not uncommon to see an average ongoing revenue per client below $100 p.a. at this end of the client base.

Yet advisers think that those clients should receive the same “basic service” (albeit without the function invite) as every other client.  Result?  They cost you many many hundreds of dollars a year to keep.

The primary rationale for keeping these types of clients is flawed.  It is usually “I don’t have to spend money marketing for new clients – these are my new business opportunities for years to come“.

Really?  You’ve already had them for years and haven’t been able to make inroads yet, so what are the chances that will change in the next couple?  Really?

Some advisers take it further and actually go out looking to buy client bases of this sort – so you get to pay a lump sum in today’s dollars that represents some multiple of anticipated future earnings for people that cost you money to keep right away.  That one doesn’t look like a good commercial proposition.  Well, I suppose it is for the person selling them, but not the buyer.

The reason for outlining this is to challenge 2 common misconceptions:

  1. Big is good
  2. Every existing client presents future value

Big MIGHT be good, but it might not be either.  A big revenue base is certainly good.  A big fistful of profit each year is good too.  A big reputation is good.  But a big “client base” that is predominantly low-value transactional customers is not a good client base at all if the servicing costs are high.  Which of course brings us to the second misconception doesn’t it?  A big client base is a prospect bank perhaps, but often it is not even that.  Such customers who do not value advice, or the adviser, or place any significant store on the service they receive are not worth keeping.  Often they are the greatest servicing burden…frequently taking more time and effor to complete basic tasks, frequently the complainers and vexatious mischief-makers…rarely providing “satisfactory ratings”….they are usually where “Trouble” lies.

To build a better business begin by analyzing your client base.  Segment it, and decide logically what each segment represents in terms of current and future value to your business.  Understand what each segment costs you to maintain.  Understand the risks of continuing to be seen as the possible professional adviser to apportion responsibility to, for people who do not actually value the advice or the adviser, and who are a drain on the firms resources.

It may be that simply providing different service or support offerings for different classes of customers is the way forward.  There is merit in doing that.  Perhaps some simply need to be culled.  Some will undoubtedly benefit from increased attention and can be moved up the value chain…but not everyone.

Working out who to drop, and who to invest further time and effort into, is often the best way forward.  It is not a quick process, but it will be one of the most beneficial things you can do for your firms future.  It begins with understanding who makes commercial sense to work with, and who doesn’t.  Overlay that with who you like working with, and who you don’t.  Then overlay that again with who represents disproportionate risk….and drop them.

You’ll be glad you did.

Related: Selling Change Inside Your Own Practice