Charles Schwab remains upbeat about its ongoing integration with TD Ameritrade this year, but is reviewing some of the decisions it’s made on that front as part of its efforts to improve client service, Walt Bettinger, the firm’s CEO and president, said during the firm’s Winter Business Update webcast.
Meanwhile, Bernie Clark, head of Schwab’s RIA business, called the industry’s lack of diversity a major worry.
Despite a challenging year, Schwab reported strong earnings for 2020 and, with its TD Ameritrade acquisition finalized on Oct. 6., it’s set up for even stronger results in the future, Bettinger said. The company is “healthy and strong — we have a solid balance sheet and a winning strategy,” he said.
Client Service Challenges
“Just to be clear, that’s not to say that in 2020 everything was ideal,” Bettinger conceded. “With client engagement volumes at multiples of prior peak levels, it has clearly been a challenge to serve our clients in the manner and timeliness that we aspire to and that they’ve grown accustomed to expect from us.”
Last year, “service delivery to clients was uneven at best and disappointing to us as well as clients at times,” he said. “Frankly, the volumes overwhelmed even our most aggressive projections.”
As a result, the average time to answer a client phone call grew from about 30 seconds in 2019 to about 2 minutes in 2020 and was “well beyond that in times of high stress and volatility,” he said.
On top of that, average handle time — the amount of time spent on the phone with each client— also grew, from about 8 minutes to nearly 10.5 minutes because of the complexity of issues clients were engaging with the company on, he said. “Those challenges are continuing into this year.”
The dip in client service metrics was not surprising to hear, given that advisors recently reported 45-minute wait times on the phone and weeks-long delays on service tickets, among other service problems with Schwab and TD Ameritrade in recent months.
The company will “continue to make investments in scale and in system stability and in client service and I do remain confident in our strategies and commitment to delivering outstanding client experiences,” Bettinger said Tuesday.
For one thing, “we’re carefully reviewing some of the decisions around the TD Ameritrade integration, because we want to ensure that we don’t take steps that would risk any further degradation in our service quality,” he said.
“As part of that, we’re examining locations that we might have previously thought we wouldn’t maintain” that Schwab may opt to keep open, Bettinger said.
However, he was quick to add: “We remain as committed as ever to saving the $1.8 [billion] to $2 billion of expenses that would otherwise come from our combined run rates” through the completion of the integration with TD Ameritrade.
In 2020, “new clients joined Schwab in record numbers and existing clients brought their assets to Schwab in record numbers,” Bettinger said.
Schwab topped financial analysts’ expectations for both earnings and sales in the fourth quarter of 2020, its first quarterly report following the TD Ameritrade acquisition.