Commentary: As a benefits professional, the relationship you have with your retirement adviser is an important one. Their role is to help you navigate some of the most complicated aspects of your job. As a result, you may find yourself saying:

"I think my adviser does everything they're supposed to do."

"Performing an adviser search isn't worth the effort." 

"But ... we've been doing business with them for years."

These are some of the phrases we hear employers use to justify sticking it out with their current adviser, even if the relationship isn’t working.

I'm not saying that relationships aren't important in business, but it's not always equitable with getting the best service possible and doing what's right for your organization. What about your employees? Are they being educated about their available investments and saving enough to retire properly?

Speaking of those investments, is your adviser making sure your plan offers the appropriate funds and monitoring their performance? Are you meeting all of your compliance and fiduciary standards? Are your customer service needs being met? Are they keeping you up-to-date with the changing landscape of the retirement plan world?  

Also see: Fee awareness growing among plan sponsors

Not every 401(k) or 403(b) plan is the same and that goes for advisers as well. Different advisers offer different services, charge different fees, and have overall varying philosophies. It's important to take the time to reevaluate your current adviser periodically, which is why we've highlighted some signs to know when you should shop around. 

Your adviser hasn't developed a strategy to identify and measure your plan's success

You've offered a retirement plan benefit, chosen a fund line-up, enrolled participants, ensured you're complying with all fiduciary duties. Your job is done, right? Not exactly. In order to create a truly effective benefit for employees, you should be looking at the bigger picture. Many advisers today are aware of this and will work with you create a targeted strategy with specific, measurable milestones.

These goals can encompass things such as increasing employee participation, improving average saving rates, helping employees make better investment decisions, and whatever other areas you feel are most important to your plan's success. An adviser can set a clear plan that aligns these goals with strategies that will help you achieve them.

Maybe your plan would benefit from implementing new, automatic features, or taking a new approach to employee education, or one of your vendors isn't meeting expectations and you want a change. An adviser can help you with each of these scenarios and see you through the process to promote employee retirement readiness, which is after all, the overarching purpose of this benefit.  

Your adviser isn't sharing the fiduciary liability with you

One of the most stressful components of administering a retirement plan is taking on the fiduciary risk that comes with it. It's your legal duty under ERISA law to provide a plan that serves your employees' best interests, which involves taking on liability with everything from choosing which funds the plan invests in, employee complaints, and DOL or IRS audits that may occur.

Also see: DC plans keeping their cool but disruptions prove costly

One great thing about hiring an independent adviser is that they should be taking on this risk as well. Keyword: should. Not all advisers automatically share this role with you. If your current adviser falls into this category and mitigating the fiduciary risk is something you want, there are many qualified professionals who do this as a standard service. After all, advisers should be the investing experts, and as a fiduciary, you are on the legal hook for making decisions relating to your investment line-up.

Work with your adviser to ensure that they are acting in a fiduciary role, but more importantly they are providing the proactive oversight to help you fulfill your duties across all aspects of the plan, from investments and plan costs to plan design, compliance, and documentation. If fiduciary liability is burdening you and your adviser isn't helping, it is probably time to reconsider your relationship.    

They aren't providing you with plan design and oversight advice 

The ins and outs of 401(k) plans are complicated and there's an array of core services that advisers provide to employers and employees. Some of these services help to address DOL-mandated regulations, but as industry standards evolve, adviser services continue to evolve as well. The bar is rising in terms of what an independent adviser will provide you as part of their core offering. Investment option performance reviews should be held consistently with reports you can easily understand, and new investment options should be discussed regularly.

At least annually, your adviser should review with you the plan's design and its provisions to ensure they match how you operate the plan and your organization's goals. If you do make a change to your plan design or integrate new options such as auto-enrollment, your adviser should walk you through this process to ensure you are meeting compliance requirements and that your employees understand these new developments.

Your adviser should also be ensuring fiduciary documents, such as your Investment Policy Statement, are up-to-date. While the annual performance review is standard, if you feel you need to have more than one formal meeting with your adviser, don't feel like you're asking too much.

Also see: Edison decision could be a slippery slope for plan fiduciaries

Vendor monitoring, plan benchmarking, record retention, etc. are all aspects of your 401(k) plan that your adviser should be leading. If you feel like you should be getting more bang for your buck, it's quite possible a different adviser will easily provide you with just that.   

The employee education program is lacking 

Your adviser came, he saw, he distributed enrollment packets, and he conquered...well, as long as that's the level of interaction you expect between your adviser and your employees. With the right adviser though, employee education can be taken to a different level and it can make a difference in both savings rates and retirement readiness.

Participation rates are one of the most significant markers of plan success, as well as savings rates, and diversification of participant accounts. Group education meetings, webinars, one-on-one consultations, online resources (or a combination), as well as individual access to advisers can make a world of difference in an employee's confidence and ability to save more. A diversified investment menu with an array of solid options is extremely important to a plan's success, but if employees aren't given the opportunity to learn how to best use this benefit, they likely won't fully value your retirement program.

“For our clients, we believe it is critically important to deliver education and communication strategies that are targeted and focused. Investors become bored and disinterested in the same “here is how the 401(k) investments work” presentation, so we strive to create interactive and topic-specific programs based on the needs of a particular organization and their employees. This creates better engagement, more knowledgeable workers, and a more successful plan,” says Daniel Haverkos, lead consultant for Retirement Plans at AFS 401(k).   

You don't understand your fee structure and your adviser isn't helping you understand. 

This also falls under the umbrella of administering a plan in your employees’ best interests. Your plan costs cover everything from fund expenses, record keeping, asset management, and adviser compensation. Many of these costs fall back to the employees, which reduces the amount of earnings invested, and subsequently  employees' retirement savings.

It's important to make sure fees and expenses are both necessary and fairly priced to ensure you're providing the best benefit to your organization and its employees. Straight from the source, the DOL states, "While the law does not specify a permissible level of fess, it does require that fees charged to a plan be 'reasonable’.” These should continue to be monitored after an adviser is hired. On average, plan costs range from 0.50 - 1.75% of a plan’s assets, depending on the size your plan, services offered, and investments used in the plan.

At a minimum, these should be benchmarked against plans of similar size at least annually and it should all be outlined in the required fee disclosures. Of course, your adviser should be your advocate: Helping you to clearly understand your plan costs, who is being compensated through the plan, and how these costs compare with the marketplace.

Further, a specialized adviser will help you negotiate and structure your plan expenses to best match your goals and corporate mission. If your adviser isn't providing you with this disclosure and is not being transparent about their fees, that is a big red flag. Fee structure can be complicated, so if your adviser isn't forthcoming about what exactly the purpose of your plan's fees are and how they're being paid, you should be considering other options.     

As an employer, you have a many roles: you have fiduciary and compliance standards to keep up with, education and oversight needs with the plan’s investments and ever-changing financial markets, and of course, trying to provide a benefit to employees that will ensure they have a dignified retirement.

You have a lot of responsibility. If you are paying someone to help you with these important duties, either directly by writing them a check, or indirectly through plan assets, shouldn’t you make sure they're doing exactly that, helping you? If you're having second thoughts about the level of service your retirement plan adviser gives you, consider performing an adviser search to see what else is out there. Having the right adviser can definitely make a significant difference in your plan's success and employee retirement readiness.  

Alex Assaley is lead adviser, retirement plans, with AFS 401(k) Retirement Services LLC in Bethesda, Maryland;

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