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6 Tips on Shopping for a Provider

My single memory of venturing out on Black Friday to shop came at the instigation of my “little” sister, who has long undertaken such forays. Nor was this to be a random shopping expedition — armed with circulars and coupons, she directed me and my two brothers with the fervor and furor of General Patton as to which stores we were to invade, the objective(s) of these intrusions, and in some cases, the line(s) in which we would take up residence while she pursued items she (apparently) did not trust to the pursuit of mere amateurs.

Shopping for a new provider is not something one would normally compare with a Black Friday foray, but if you have a plan sponsor — or plan sponsor prospect — who’s thinking about shopping for a new provider, here’s a list they may find useful.

Make a list — and yes, check it twice.

In an area fraught with as much potential complexity as searching for a retirement plan provider, it’s easy to think you’ll learn what you need to look for by simply going through the process. Though learn you will, shopping for a retirement plan provider without a sense of your core needs is a bit like going grocery shopping on an empty stomach; everything will sound good, and you’ll likely overload on “sweets.” Santa Claus makes a list — so should you: of plan design features (real and anticipated) that you want supported.

Know your pain points — and be ready to share them.

If you’ve had a plan in place before, you have almost certainly experienced at least one bump in the road, and perhaps several (and perhaps more than a mere “bump”). At the core of those experiences is something someone either did or didn’t do that contributed to the problem(s). Or maybe you simply have certain areas of sensitivity. Regardless, make sure you’ve detailed those, and be certain to share them with potential providers, preferably with a preface of “what procedures/protocols do you have in place to prevent something like….”

Have — and know — your budget.

These services aren’t free, though they may well be packaged in such a way that the plan sponsor doesn’t have to write a check. At a minimum. know how much you are able — and willing — to pay. And while you’re at it, you’d be well advised to be attentive to the cost(s) of the plan, who’s going to be pay them, and how those who provide services to the plan will be paid, and by whom.

Remember that provider rankings are only a starting point.

Think about it — an unknown number of plan sponsors about which you know nothing in terms of complexity of plan design, capabilities of staff or breadth of perspective/experience or tenure with the provider rate those provider capabilities, and from that a satisfaction score is gleaned.

It’s not a bad place to start — but like those rankings on Amazon, they have a limited value in predicting your satisfaction with that platform. They’ll likely affirm your preexisting preferences or fuel your imbedded concerns, but they aren’t much benefit in creating new ones.

Trust — but verify — references.

Proffered references are, almost by definition, going to be positive. (If they aren’t, and aren’t positioned as negative, that will tell you something valuable about the provider who provided them.) But having taken the time to request them, you shouldn’t assume that no value can be gleaned. Press for references that are like you in terms of plan size, design and complexity. Try to get someone who has converted to their platform in the past year — better still, someone who has left that platform in the past year (though it will likely be due to M&A activity, not service or fees). And ask them what questions they wished they had asked when they went through their process. If you ask them if they are satisfied, they’ll likely say they are. The question is, shoulkd they be? And will you be?

Get help.

Unless you are a serial provider shopper, odds are you aren’t an expert at the business of shopping for a provider. It is a complicated and time-consuming process, with an abundance of opportunities for disconnect in expectations simply because you don’t ask the right question(s). As an ERISA fiduciary, you are expected to review (and subsequently monitor) those that provide services to the plan with the skill and expertise of a prudent expert. If you lack that, you are expected to engage the services of someone who does.

Or else run the risk of winding up with a lump of coal.