While broker/dealers have thrown practically everything technology-wise but chicken soup at advisors over the past several years, they’ve learned that choice can be overpowering.

Sure, having a wealth of software programs and tools can ensure that an advisor can do his job, and do it well. But sometimes having too many options is stifling, causing advisors to divert precious time away from clients as they sift through the options in front of them. A surplus of programs can also lead to technological headaches–red flags as programs crash, networks freezing when trying to speak to each other, systems that need to be rebooted and advisors, or worse, clients, growing frustrated.

With dozens of programs at an advisor’s disposal, opening up each one can create a virtual logjam on a desktop where account forms or plans can then be buried. “Why do you want less clutter?” asks Andrew Duggan, CIO for San Diego-based LPL Financial Services. “Because you want more efficiency. Then you have more time with your client.”

So broker/dealers anxious to weed through the number of programs their advisors must sample during the day are working on new ways to converge them into fewer and fewer tools. Firms are pulling errant software in-house, stitching them into the network rather than having them run externally, linking data tools for better information flow, and automating compliance programs.

Streamlining the process of opening an account, running a report, making sure an e-mail is compliant, or even pulling metrics on a client’s history saves an advisor time that he can then re-channel into quality time with existing clients and prospects, ultimately growing his business, and therefore that of his broker/dealer at the same time. We caught up with a number of leading B/Ds to see how they’re attempting to achieve the streamlining goal.

LPL: Multiple Views, One Window

LPL has constantly been upgrading its Web-based network, BranchNet, since it launched the program to its advisory staff in 2001. While last year’s upgrade featured iDoc, a tool that allows advisors to fax documents into LPL’s server, the broker/dealer is now focusing on embedding more external programs into the network. The newest? eMoney, an independent financial planning tool that LPL spent nearly a year tying into BranchNet, which allows data to flow from one through the other. Its aim is to have eMoney at advisors’ fingertips by July.

The goal of LPL’s Duggan is to get as many programs into BranchNet as possible so advisors have fewer places to travel online, or across their desktop, to complete work. “I think of it as the concept of going to one place,” he says. “I don’t like that they have to go somewhere else to do things. Or even have to push a button to pop up a new screen.”

When advisors do have to run several tasks at once, they can track the multiple workflows in what Duggan refers to as active pages, window panes that run simultaneously within the main window. Screens don’t overlap, he says, allowing for multiple views–and ideally less clutter–at the same time.

Up ahead is a contact management tool that LPL plans to stitch into BranchNet sometime in 2008, if not sooner, Duggan says. He knows that most of LPL’s advisors, for the time being, still have at least two windows open: BranchNet and a CRM-like program that gives them details on their clients. Fusing those together is the closest LPL can imagine to a one-window world. But like eMoney, and last year’s add, iDoc, Duggan says these will be offered as premium add-ons, with an extra fee on top of the $100 or so advisors are currently charged each month. Streamlining comes at a price. “But you build technology to automate these business processes,” says Duggan. “And then you hope these add up to efficiency.”

Cambridge: All About Choice

Eric Schwartz, president and CEO at Fairfield, Iowa-based Cambridge Investment Research believes that even in a perfect world, only 20% of the broker/dealer’s advisors would ever choose a one-program/one-window environment. “It’s hard for me to imagine one broker/dealer having the best of everything,” he says. “Even if they do offer all of that, I imagine some reps are still going to have personal favorites.”

Schwartz agrees that advisors want integration, but they also want the best of breed when it comes to tech tools, which is why the firm has been careful, he says, in making sure programs work the way they should before weaving them into its platform.

Recent additions include a system that allows advisors to scan in anything from tax returns to handwritten notes into a network supported by Cambridge, and store them while also keeping them separate from the system for client and advisor privacy. Another is an electronic blotter which creates a detailed account of all trades made by an advisor during a single day, as required by compliance rules, even if they were through multiple custodians.

Committed to making sure its products are competitive with outside stand-alone products, the firm has grown its IT staff from three to 35 people in just the last few years, and claims it would hire 20 more in the next year if it could find the right ones for planned projects. “We’ve moved aggressively to building tools in-house rather than buying them off the shelf,” says Amy Webber, Cambridge’s COO.

Instead of buying off-the-shelf financial planning and CRM platforms, Cambridge is creating some of its own — while at the same time, acknowledging it needs to support some of the existing programs that its representatives are already using. Schwartz hopes to have all the tools fused into its system sometime in 2008 or 2009. Why the lag? To Schwartz, it’s about offering his advisors the best choices. “Because we’re a la carte, our programs have to be just as good or better than what’s out there on the street or no one will take it,” he says. “Still, there’s going to be some advisors who have been using the same software for 10 years and don’t want to convert.”

Cadaret, Grant: Make Sure Data’s Clean

Marypat Ganley, VP of business development and director of operations at Syracuse, New York-based broker/dealer Cadaret, Grant, understands that finding short cuts to the work flow is something even her advisors are clamoring for during their day. Her concern? Jumping too quickly on the bandwagon without having some sort of stopgap in place should errors get made, especially with data automation. “Advisors have said, ‘I want to be able to push just one button,’” she says. “But you want to make sure that the data going into your network is worthwhile. It’s like putting cruise control on your car. Cruise control can make your life better, but you still have to drive the car.”

So Cadaret, Grant has been hesitant on installing automatic data population on its network. Ganley believes that errors are bound to happen–even if once a month. The firm has narrowed its choice of data providers to two, but is still running tests to make sure that information flowed into the network can be reviewed before it populates a new field, and that if errors are found they can be cleaned up–automatically–without the advisor having to get directly involved in the process.

The firm’s advisors have already been able to make universal address changes, automatically shifting that data from one server to another, in just the last year. “When we’re providing data to another source, we’ve already cleaned it up,” Ganley says. What Cadaret/Grant is more concerned about is the data flying into its network from another. As Ganley notes, it’s a matter of volume size. An advisor may make 50 address changes a month. But data flowing into transaction forms? There could be 1,000 of these a day. “The broker/dealer has to be responsible for the information going into the platform,” Ganley says. “There could be double trades, or a dividend that doesn’t send. We need to be able to flag those errors.”

Commonwealth: Technology and Service–Interchangeable

Making the many changes to underlying technology that B/Ds are now trying to accomplish–and making them correctly–has forced many to recast themselves as technology companies. “I think of myself as a software shop within a full-service broker/dealer,” agrees Darren Tedesco, director of business systems and strategic development at Waltham, Massachusetts-based Commonwealth. “As far as I can see, technology and service at this point are interchangeable.”

With the number of upgrades Commonwealth has pushed across its network recently, Tedesco’s comments are understandable. The broker/dealer’s advisors have logged several complaints over the years of having to toggle between software on their desktops, and those that ran off Commonwealth’s servers. So the firm has stepped up to bring as many programs into the network as possible, including sunsetting its support of an external portfolio management tool from Advent by the end of this year. Instead, Commonwealth took the data that exists in Advent, flowed that information into its B/D platform Client 360, upgraded the look of the performance reports, and offered it all under one umbrella. “Some people like to brag about how many programs they have,” Tedesco says. “We like to help our advisors jump around less and manage less software.”

The key to much of Commonwealth’s ability to streamline workflow, and the advisor’s daily tasks, is automatic data population–being able to have details flow into different programs and forms, even if they exist in different places. In the newest release of Client 360, a button tagged Easy Fill allows advisors to populate new account forms with pre-existing data.

Other new adds include the ability to change a client’s address on all his accounts with just one click, which the firm launched this spring. Advisors will also soon have an outside account aggregation tool which will allow them and their clients to look at accounts the advisor is not managing–such as an account at Merrill Lynch that needs to stay with that firm. Commonwealth hopes to have that tool to advisors by late summer.

“If an advisor can offer his client an aggregated view, the client will more likely move assets to him, such as a CD when it retires, because you’ve already been showing them their complete holdings for so long,” says Tedesco. Transitioning those accounts to the advisor obviously helps him by increasing his assets under management, and, as Commonwealth is betting, the broker/dealer’s bottom-line as well. And having all the data online, and in one place, streamlines not only the work but simplifies the cleanup should something go wrong. “We think this gives our advisors peace of mind,” Tedesco says. “

Raymond James: Errors Be Gone

At Raymond James, the 850-person IT staff is constantly looking for ways to streamline its network for its 4,500 advisors. This year, the firm has turned its attention to compliance programs, and embedding them into its network. Mike Shelly, VP of business technology management at the St. Petersburg, Florida-based firm, didn’t want software that just caught mistakes, but tools that flagged errors before they actually occurred, and that were seamlessly woven into the platform so that advisors are only flagged when something is caught.

Raymond James is installing not just one, but two compliance programs this year, one which will search e-mail by its context, rather than a key word, to make sure a disclosure needs to be attached, and the second, a tool from SunGard, that will go through trades, scan for problem areas, and offer up 115 different alerts for violations, such as front running–where an advisor puts in his trade before a client’s. “They’ve become quite the partner of ours,” says Shelly of SunGard. “When they don’t have something that a client needs, they just buy it.”

Up ahead for Shelly’s team? A new CRM tool that will allow advisors to create a new account from one button push as they speak with a new prospect. Shelly hopes to have that in place sometime in 2008.

But streamline the process to just one program, and one window? Even Shelly, techno enthusiast that he is, doesn’t see that happening, primarily because advisors often have at least one outside tool open on their desktop even as they’re running their broker/dealer’s network. “Ideally you might have three or four running at once, but have it look like just one to the advisor. For a long time people were playing the catch-up game, worried they didn’t have a certain product. Then they’d have a product, but it would be standalone. Now everyone wants to be streamlined, so that the advisor can be as efficient as possible.”

ING Advisors: Data Driven

Randall Ciccati, president of the New York-based ING Advisors Network, says what reps believe they need for efficiency is more integrated data. “We’ve all heard that knowledge is power,” he says. “I believe data is power.”

So ING launched the advisory portion of its SmartWorks platform in 2006 that allows data to automatically flow through its network so that the advisor does not have to travel across several platforms to create reports.

SunGard’s Blaine Maxfield couldn’t agree more with Ciccati that one of the biggest headaches for advisors is locating data–having to open several windows, sites, and programs to find information to flow into financial plans. He hopes a new partnership with Albridge, a data solutions firm, will alleviate some of that, at least for the broker/dealer clients who have a relationship with both his Salt Lake City-based firm and Lawrenceville, New Jersey-based Albridge. “This will be automatic,” says Maxfield, the president of SunGard’s WealthStation business. “You won’t have to slug in the data, at least from Albridge.”

To Maxwell the key is not only streamlining existing programs, but also having a more unified look and feel for platforms. But a one-window world? He too is skeptical. “It’s nearly impossible when some broker/dealers still want to pick and choose what they offer advisors,” he says. “There are firms that are looking for just one vendor, but that’s not the norm. The norm today is, ‘I want to take most of your tools, but I also want to boutique some things and cobble them together.’”

As advisors continue to compete over clients and capital, those who can offer better service will have an upper hand. If an advisor is spending the bulk of his time managing data, surfing across several platforms to create a financial plan, or manually sifting through reports for compliance problems, he runs the risk of ignoring his primary asset: his client. Having more time to focus on the person rather than a program will truly be the secret weapon a broker/dealer will be able to offer its advisors. “If we can make it easier for our reps, they will keep their clients longer, and get more clients easier,” says ING’s Ciccati. “And if our reps are successful, we’re successful.”


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.

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