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.’”