Just as any fashion starts to look old after a season, so, too, does technology. Moreover, those early-adopter advisors who rejoice while playing with the new bells and whistles pushed out by their broker/dealers may find their eyes starting to wander when a competitor has a newer toy that’s not just fun, but streamlines workflow and leaves them more time to spend meeting with current and potential clients.

This hunger for the next new thing is why independent broker/dealers upgrade their platforms often. But this fall, many of those firms are in high gear launching entirely new interfaces, offering true solutions to make possible a truly paperless office and even playing with the ultimate in mobility-moving an advisor’s workstation, or parts of it, into the palm of his hand.

Several years ago the plea heard by broker/dealers from their representatives was to get platforms integrated with the Web. Now independent advisors crave a more seamless application-one that allows them to trade, pull up client information, and even transfer and retrieve documents, from just one system. “Reps now want everything aggregated, and in one place,” says Michael Ford, VP of client relations and sales with software firm ADP in Wheat Ridge, Colorado.

Mobility too, is coming back into vogue, and not just the kind that lets an advisor log on from his hotel room, but also from his car or while he’s lounging on the beach. While liquidating a client’s retirement portfolio in Tahiti may not be in the cards, at least for now, one broker/dealer, Waltham, Massachusetts-based Commonwealth Financial Network, is already testing a platform that will let its advisors check client data and account status from a PDA.

While there are naysayers, such as those advisors who believe that the 12-hour workday does not need to intrude further into their downtime, when one competitor has a new toy, usually everyone else wants to play with one, too. Here’s what four leading members of the competitive independent broker/dealer industry are offering tech-wise these days. In sidebars on the following pages, we take a peek at what’s in development at three technology companies that supply products to B/Ds.

Commonwealth Financial: In the palms of advisors’ hands

Commonwealth Financial Network ran a survey nine months ago among its more than 1,000 advisors to find those areas reps believed needed some improving. The firm discovered that 10%-12% of its advisors now use PDA devices regularly during their workday, up from just 5%-6% during the last few years. Before that jump, the firm had tabled the idea of adapting their technology platform for a mobile device. “But now it makes sense for us to dedicate resources to handhelds,” says Darren Tedesco, Commonwealth’s director of business systems and strategic development.

Commonwealth has long prided itself in upgrading to a Web-based system in the 1990s, but held back from migrating its platform onto a mobile device because it saw PDA adoption as more of a fad than a helpful tool for advisors.

But once it got its survey results, the company moved quickly to create the new mobile interface, and had a beta version in the field to some advisors this summer. Commonwealth hopes to have the system completely up and running for Treos and Blackberries by the early fourth quarter of 2006. Reps will be able to check commissions, log on to their workflow engine, and pull up documents from client portfolios. What’s not in the plan, at least for now or even in the near future, says Tedesco, is allowing advisors to conduct trades. “There are obvious security issues,” he says. “We have discussed it, and we can handle it. But at the same time our advisors aren’t asking for this piece. While they’re traveling, their assistants can usually place trades.”

Although some of Commonwealth’s programs are customized versions of off-the-shelf products, the firm built

its PDA application from scratch. “We actually have some in-house developers who are handheld experts,” Tedesco calmly boasts.

Even with the planned mobile upgrade, the firm’s tech staff found the time to add to its standard desktop array. Enhancements on its platform include EasyFill, which populates required data onto a brokerage form by taking the information from pre-existing completed applications already stored in the system. Now, after a few clicks, all that’s needed is a customer’s signature.

There’s also the aptly-named Work in Progress, which tracks more than 250 actions taken by a rep and moves the tasks needing extra attention to a new online folder, which then pops to the front of an advisor’s screen each time she logs on to the system. That’s coupled with an e-mail or phone call from Commonwealth’s service center. “If they’re missing paperwork we can call them,” Tedesco says. “The advisor used to have those notes put into the same file as his normal work, and have to find it. We make it like an FYI.”

LPL: Streamlining the operations

San Diego-based LPL also surveys its 9,000 advisors periodically to see what its reps believe the firm is missing in its tech warehouse and what can be improved.

While the company is no stranger to innovation, moving its system onto a PDA-like device is not in the cards for now, mainly because its reps, the firm believes, are not interested. “Our advisors like the idea of having it on a PDA,” says Jen Bergman-Gloss, LPL’s VP of technology marketing. “But when they realize it’s not as easy as just accessing an e-mail, they’re not interested.”

LPL received 1,500 suggestions on technology improvements from its reps just in the last year. While curiosity in how they could move some functions onto their PDA does come up on occasion, when pressed the issue remains low on reps’ priority list. “When you ask them, ‘How important is mobility to you?’” says Andrew Duggan, LPL’s chief information officer. “They say, ‘Not very much.’”

Troy Miller, an LPL advisor based in Gold River, California, agrees with that sentiment. “The day they make my handheld my office, I’m getting out because I need to be able to get out of my office,” he says. “I think the day’s coming when we could get encrypted devices and do all our work from our Palm. But personally I’m not looking forward to having my office in my hand.”

Instead, LPL is looking to lighten an advisor’s load in a different way–by eliminating the stacks and cabinets full of forms and contracts currently cluttering and weighing down their offices. This newest add-on to the B/D’s platform is a service it’s tagging as BranchNet iDOC, which will allow advisors to fax any piece of paperwork related to their clients, have it imaged directly onto LPL’s server, and then toss their filing cabinets out the door.

Already, the company’s advisors are required to fax documents used to open accounts, which are then scanned into the system. Of these, LPL estimates that advisors go online to retrieve 7,000 documents a day when they need to refer back to information on these forms. Since nothing can be changed or deleted on the documents once they’re in LPL’s system, Duggan says they meet compliance requirements to boot, and allow an advisor to toss the paper copy.

With the new system, Duggan believes that LPL’s advisors will be able to reclaim 30% of their office space just by faxing, scanning, and shredding the paper copies of documents. “Moreover,” says says Bergman-Gloss “from an advisor’s perspective there’s no learning curve. They just get rid of the paper.”

While some modules, like the one the company offers for financial planning, do carry an a la carte charge, this new service will be free to the firm’s advisors, and folded into the B/D’s monthly service fee.

Advisors are also given free tech support and encouraged to attend several meetings LPL holds annually, including its yearly national sales conference, which about 6,000 advisors attend, says Bergman-Gloss. There, reps can get some hands-on training, practice how to use new upgrades, or enroll in tutorials on customizing their workstations so that support staff, for example, can be locked out of areas such as trading if they’re not licensed, or from files that give details of an advisor’s commissions.

LPL’s technical support, and its platform, clearly has supporters among the rank and file. “They try to reinvent themselves every year,” says Miller. “Everything is stored on their server, and the data is there forever. I don’t have to worry about backing up software. I need to open an IRA? I pull up the form, [the system] puts in the data, I get my client to sign, and I’m done. It’s that fast. Everyone thinks his or her technology is strong. [LPL's] technology is really out there.”

However, Duggan believes that the core of the firm’s 17-year success is not just with its technology, but also with the connection forged between the firm and its advisors. “It’s how the technology is integrated with our service,” he says.

Cambridge: The Human Touch

Amy Webber is another fan of putting resources into the human side of a business, as well as into a firm’s technology. “We’re pretty tech savvy, but at the end of the day I still have huge resources going into the people at our service center,” says the COO of Fairfield, Iowa-based Cambridge Investment Research. “Our receptionist still answers the phone and transfers people. Ultimately we’re still in a service environment. There’s something about engaging with the client and getting a signature on a document. Technology enhances the relationship but can’t replace it.”

Still, Cambridge has invested heavily in its new platform, which for now the company has tagged “the dashboard,” currently in phase one of its beta test, and which the firm hopes to have in place at the latest by the first quarter of 2007. Before, its 950 advisors made do shuttling between three different systems. There was one for checking personal data like commissions, another for making transactions, and a third for pulling up electronic documents related to client accounts. Webber explains that off-the-shelf buys and customizing caused the rabbit warren its advisors have been navigating through for the past several years. “But now we’re right on the edge of a true point-and-click, one-stop shop,” she says excitedly.

The new system will allow advisors to do everything from downloading product lists to checking compliance issues, from opening new accounts to transmitting documents, all from one platform.

Other advances, such as moving its platform so it’s usable on PDA devices, or even upgrading its e-mail retention program, are not on the schedule. “It isn’t like our reps need to be trading from taxicabs,” says Eric Schwartz, president and CEO of Cambridge. “They can already be on a boat working on a financial plan for their client. Our advisors live on their laptops.”

Webber agrees, and notes that the hesitancy to create these enhancements doesn’t arise because the firm thinks creating a PDA-based platform would be difficult. Cambridge already allows reps to check in from mobile devices on data that is clearing, but very few people ask for it, she points out. Ditto for providing electronic signatures for their reps or even clients, which few advisors appear to want, like a mobile platform. “It isn’t that it’s tough to do,” she says. “But at our national conference only one advisor out of 350 attendees asked us to [make a PDA-friendly platform], so there doesn’t seem to be much demand.”

Instead, Webber is more excited to talk about the compliance piece of Cambridge’s new dashboard, which will take an advisor’s transaction and automatically run it through what she calls a compliance engine. If any rules are violated, the program will trigger an automated response to the advisor and to Cambridge. But again, Webber cautions that no one is going to be dunned without a real person entering into the situation. “The computer doesn’t know everything,” she says. “We believe this will make our operation more efficient. But we’re also going to encourage people to pick up the phone and talk with us.”

As always, the promise of technology, and its irony, is to make advisors so efficient that they can spend more of their time speaking to clients in a lower-tech way, such as face-to-face meetings. Eventually, mobile technology may enhance the advisor-client relationship even further, and not distance one from the other.

Lauren Barack is a New York-based freelance business writer who specializes in stories on technology, finance, and parenting. She can be reached at lbarack@earthlink.net.