The Frugal Fiduciary Blog

4 Traits of the Best Small Business 401k Providers

Posted by Eric Droblyen on Jan 11, 2017

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There are thousands of 401k providers in the U.S. – many with very different fees, services and expertise. This abundance of choice can make choosing a competent 401k provider with reasonable fees seem overwhelming for small business 401k fiduciaries.

This problem is made worse by the highly technical nature of 401k services – which give providers an asymmetrical information advantage over 401k fiduciaries. That advantage can make it easy for a smooth salesperson to sell overpriced or unnecessary services to unwitting fiduciaries.

In the past, I recommended a 3-step process to help 401k fiduciaries overcome these issues and hire qualified providers with reasonable fees. I would like to supplement this guidance with 4 key traits of the best small business 401k providers. Fiduciaries should look for these traits when shopping for a new provider.

  1. They treat 401k plans like a service, not a product

Lots of providers treat 401k plans like an off-the-shelf product by limiting investment or plan design options. The consequences of these limitations are often severe. When investment options are limited, they’re generally limited to expensive funds that pay hidden provider compensation. When plan design options are limited, administration expenses can explode unnecessarily.

Other providers take a different approach. They treat 401k plans like a service, helping fiduciaries choose the best options available to their plan. A 401k fiduciary’s need for expert advice doesn’t stop once a plan is up and running either. They often need to tweak their plan over time due to up-and-down corporate profitability, changing goals, or failed annual testing.

The best 401k providers do not treat a plan like a box of cereal. Instead, they continually keep 401k fiduciaries on track to meet plan goals or lower administration expenses.

  1. They don’t make promises they can’t keep

If a 401k provider says they will remove fiduciary liability from you – run! Regardless of what a provider might say, a 401k plan sponsor can never fully outsource their fiduciary liability due to a plan’s fiduciary hierarchy. When a provider is hired, 401k fiduciaries retain a fiduciary responsibility to monitor the provider’s job performance – regardless of whether the provider is a fiduciary themselves.

The best small business 401k providers don’t make promises their services can’t keep. Instead, they’ll make their role in meeting fiduciary responsibilities clear. The good news? There are only a handful of fiduciary responsibilities that can result in material liability. An expert provider can help you avoid fiduciary liability easily.

  1. They don’t just ask for your trust; they earn it

Small businesses have a fiduciary duty to monitor their 401k provider for job performance. This job is made more difficult when a provider’s services are not transparent or understood. Given the fiduciary liability that can result from poor 401k provider oversight, I recommend fiduciaries only hire providers with easy to understand services.

The best 401k providers don’t say “I’ve got this, trust me.” Instead, they’ll make your fiduciary oversight duty easy by demonstrating how their services meet your 401k fiduciary responsibilities.

  1. Their fees match their value

Too many 401k providers still charge 401k asset-based fees for administration services – which includes asset custody, participant recordkeeping and Third-Party Administration. The problem with asset-based administration fees is that plan assets have little to do with a provider’s level of service, meaning a 401k plan with lots of assets can pay way more than a 401k plan with fewer assets for the exact same administration services. That’s not right and a potential source of liability for fiduciaries with a responsibility to keep 401k fees reasonable.

The best 401k providers for small businesses do not charge high asset-based fees for administrative services. Instead, they charge fees that match their level of service.

Don’t be overwhelmed when shopping for a 401k provider!

Shopping for a new 401k provider can be a challenge for 401k fiduciaries, given the thousands of providers in the U.S. - each with different fees, services, and expertise. Making matters worse is the technical nature of 401k services, which can make it hard for fiduciaries to pick a provider they can trust.

To keep shopping simple, I recommend 401k fiduciaries use a 3-step process to evaluate quantitative provider attributes while looking for the 4 key traits of the best small business 401k providers.

Download our 401k Shopping Companion

Topics: Provider Shopping

Written by: Eric Droblyen

Eric Droblyen began his career as an ERISA compliance specialist with Charles Schwab in the mid-1990s. His keen grasp on 401k plan administration and compliance matters has made Eric a sought after speaker. He has delivered presentations at a number of events, including the American Society of Pension Professionals and Actuaries (ASPPA) Annual Conference. As President and CEO of Employee Fiduciary, Eric is responsible for all aspects of the company’s operations and service delivery.