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6 Questions For Your Next 401(k) RFP

RFPs, or requests for proposals, come in all shapes and sizes. Mostly they are long, drawn out affairs, frequently copied from templates drawn up to capture a broad sense of capabilities. The problem is, for most plan sponsors it’s akin to going shopping for a car armed with Chilton’s auto repair manual (that said, if you need one, a quick Google search on “401k RFP” will turn up plenty).

So, aside from all the general information that you’ll want to get from every provider during the RFP process – the size of their business, the quality, tenure and turnover of their key staff, their capabilities, service structure, years and investment in “the business,” fees, services offered and references, there are some questions that aren’t in every RFP — but to which the answers can be enlightening.

1. What plan design changes would you recommend, and why?

This question has two payoffs. First, in order to recommend changes, they have to know what your current plan looks like. Secondly, it gives you a chance to evaluate the quality of their recommendations. As an extra bonus, if the changes recommended indicate they don't know what your current plan looks like, that tells you something as well.

2. How many other clients like me do you have?

There are many ways to answer the “like me” question — comparable size, similar workforce demographics, geographic proximity, etc. Hone in on the ones that have similar plan provisions (particularly match, eligibility, and withdrawal) and employee population sizes. Then get their contact information.

3. Are there any restrictions on fund choices?

Many providers place boundaries on the funds available on their platform. Some of this is in the interests of efficiency in education and processing, some of it doubtless ease their evaluation of suitability and review, and some of it may simply facilitate revenue-sharing structures. Regardless, if there are restrictions as to which fund(s), particularly proprietary offerings, must be on your menu, or in what proportion, you need to understand that upfront. And understand why.

4. What’s your preferred QDIA?

Admittedly, everybody doesn’t have a “preferred” qualified default investment option (at least not labeled as such). That said, industry surveys suggest that target-date funds are the most common default fund option today, though managed accounts are making inroads. Knowing what’s available (both what type, and which specific one(s) — and what’s “preferred” — can give you insights not only as to the breadth of offerings, but the perspective of your potential partner on what may well be the primary investment selection of participants in your plan.

5. How — and how much — do you and your other partners get paid?

Sure, fees will be part of any self-respecting RFP response, though since such things are often variable, you’re more likely to get a fee schedule than a fee quote — particularly during the “getting to know you” phase that accompanies most RFPs. Still, it will be worth your time to find out what variables need to be quantified to provide a precise calculation, and then provide them. Because there’s nothing like a bottom line number to help you focus on the bottom line.

As for the “how” — revenue-sharing arrangements, and the potential conflicts of interest that can be obscured by some arrangements — are a current and growing litigation concern. Knowing not only how much, but how, can shed light on potential issues before they become real ones.

6. Please provide the contact information for three clients that have left you in the last 18 months.

It’s normal, and natural, to ask for references — and you should. But references are one thing; ex-clients are another. It’s an awkward question to ask, particularly at the outset of a potential relationship. But we’ve all lost clients for reasons good and bad, and there’s value in talking to someone who, for whatever reason, has opted to go elsewhere, if only to find out how the provider handled the transition out.

Odds are you’ll get the names of clients who left via merger or acquisition, not those who have actually fired them. But you never know. And you’ll never know until you ask.

Got some other suggestions? Post them in the comments section below. Or email me at [email protected].