From the October 2017 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

Merrill’s Big Tech Push to Reshape Client Interaction

Kabir Sethi describes the different areas of focus for Merrill Lynch Wealth Management’s technology efforts, including social media

From MyMerrill.com to its online investment service Merrill Edge, Bank of America Merrill Lynch says it is introducing changes to boost how clients and advisors interact with it via information technology.

These IT improvements support Merrill Lynch Wealth Management's 14,811 financial advisors, who have about $2.2 trillion in client assets as of June 30. Average yearly fees and commission for the group are $1.04 million, while veteran advisors produce $1.35 million.

To get insights on the thinking behind the firm's innovation, Research on Wealth spoke with Kabir Sethi, managing director and head of Digital Wealth Management for Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. Sethi has worked for the company since 2004 in a variety of roles, such as serving as head of Digital Banking and head of Platform Integration and Delivery for Merrill Edge.

What is Merrill Lynch Wealth Management's view on client expectations regarding technology (online, mobile, etc.) for the next year or two? And what is it doing to meet those client expectations?

We’re continuing to invest heavily in technologies to meet client demand for access to financial services through mobile devices and online access. We recently announced major enhancements to our mobile apps and other technologies in recognition of this increasing demand.

Our new capabilities include the ability to initiate wire transfers from mobile devices as well as enhancements to our website. We’ll continue to evolve our mobile and online capabilities over the next few years.

What does Merrill Lynch believe advisors want for both their office and mobile technology over the next year or two? How is it trying to meet those advisor expectations?

For advisors, we recently created state-of-the art websites with substantial LinkedIn capability built in. By the end of the year, every Merrill Lynch advisor will have a personalized website with dynamic content, with video capability soon to follow.

Our advisors are allowed to access LinkedIn directly from their workstations. In addition to creating their profiles — including credentials, skills and hobbies — advisors can also post timely and thought-provoking articles and white papers from our broader organization.

To support advisor mobility, we recently launched Salesforce 1, enabling our advisors to update client information and tasks on the program while on the go. With Salesforce 1, advisors can collaborate with their team, organize their day and retrieve client contact information.

Advisors are already leveraging tablets for client presentations and reviews outside the office with apps providing real-time information on their clients’ progress in reaching their financial goals.

Does Merrill Lynch have a tech-focused committee of advisors, and what does it do? Likewise, how does the firm regularly solicit and integrate advisor feedback on technology?

Yes, our Advisory Council to Management (ACTM) has advisor “technology champions” who act as a conduit for advisor feedback and suggestions on potential enhancements. Advisors provide feedback to their ACTM representatives, and the appropriate committees work to evaluate and prioritize requests to share with corporate partners in the lines of business.

Is there a specific expectation for how active advisors should be on social media? If so, why is that expectation in place, and how are advisors doing in terms of meeting that expectation?

Our advisors have broad capabilities on LinkedIn, including access to LinkedIn Finder, which enables prospects and clients to find advisors based on common connections. This allows them to build on the strong social networking capabilities available at our firm and is a more personalized approach to searching for an advisor.

Although there is not an “expectation” of social media advisor usage, we strongly encourage advisors to spend a minimum of 15 minutes, three to five times a week, to engage with their LinkedIn network and identify potential opportunities.

Approximately half of our advisors are on our compliant LinkedIn platform. Of those, about 75% are actively using the tool.

What is Merrill Lynch's overall philosophy with regards to technology in the long term?

We are firmly committed to maintaining and building our technology lead. We currently have the best workstations, platforms and websites available anywhere in the industry. Technology has always been a competitive advantage for us, and we plan to keep it that way.

What is Merrill Lynch thinking about in terms of robo-advisors, automation, artificial intelligence and the like for the next five years or so?

We publicly launched Merrill Edge Guided Investing (MEGI), our online advisory platform, in January 2017. It was met with substantial interest from clients.

MEGI is the latest addition to our continuum of investment offerings. It offers investors another way to pursue their financial goals, whether they have a little or a lot to invest.

Rather than algorithms, MEGI provides investment strategies based on the deep financial expertise and world-class research of the Merrill Lynch Global Wealth and Investment Management (GWIM) Chief Investment Office, helping clients set, pursue and achieve their financial goals.

Would you like to share more thoughts on advisors, clients and technology strategy at Merrill Lynch?

We are guided by a commitment to making our clients’ financial lives better by helping them attain goals that are personally meaningful. Making investments in technology helps us to continually improve the platform that allows us to do this.

--- Check out Want Clients? Use ‘Little Data’ to Get Big Results on ThinkAdvisor.

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