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.