IMHO: “Left” Field

I participate in a number of LinkedIn groups (and “sponsor” a couple).  

In one of those groups last week, a member said they were interviewing potential new 401(k) recordkeepers/advisers—and asked a provocative question: What is the one question that you will be sure to ask the next time that you interview potential 401(k) providers?

Of course, we all know that the search for a new provider entails a lot more than a single question.  And, as I skimmed my way through the suggestions that had already been proffered, there were a number of important and familiar inquiries; things having to do with the fees charged, fee disclosure, the quality of support staff, willingness to stand in as a plan fiduciary…. These are all important—so important, in fact, it was hard to imagine that they wouldn’t be routinely included in even the most casually composed RFP.

Having read the question—and skimmed the answers—I was about ready to move on.  Ironically, the way this question was phrased (or at least how I read how that question was phrased) intrigued me; what WAS that one question I would ask the next time? 

Now, having spent a fair amount of my career on the other side of that question (including a period of time when the group that prepared RFPs for a large financial services organization reported to me), I can tell you there are a nearly infinite number of ways to respond “yes” (with a clear conscience) without really meaning “yes, all the time”; ways to gloss over things like high turnover, to offer broad organizational-level expositions  designed to assuage nagging concerns about profitability or “commitment to the business”; even ways to assure, without committing, on the subject of whether the provider will “stand in” in the event of a lawsuit, audit, or investigation.  None of which should discourage or dissuade one from asking those questions, of course.1 

That said, when it comes down to that one question, I kept coming back to one that gets asked all the time.  One that you probably asked on your last RFP. One to which you may have gotten a response, but, I suspect, not an answer.

The question I would ask is, Can I get the contact information for three clients that have left you in the last 18 months?

Not that you’ll get it, though you might—or that the selections won’t be “tailored”—but the response (or lack thereof) can, IMHO, be “enlightening.”


1If you want to frustrate a potential provider, just make them respond to an RFP where the questions are worded such that the only acceptable answers are “yes” or “no” (or make them put their “explanations” in a separate document).  What many (still) don’t seem to appreciate is that most advisers/consultants take all that fancy verbiage and filter it down to a checkbox on a spreadsheet anyway.  Or maybe they do, and just can’t help going through the motions…