Christopher Sullivan is one brokerage official who wishes he had more competition.
Sullivan runs Merrill Lynch's program for deaf and hard-of-hearing investors--a program that's unique in the range of services it provides for people with auditory disabilities. Yet Sullivan thinks the entire brokerage industry could, and should, do a better job for this population group. "I have been waiting for a copycat to come along," he says. "No one has ever mimicked our program."
The number of hearing-impaired investors is large enough for brokerages to take notice. Some 2.5 million Americans are deaf, while another 19 million have less-severe hearing problems, says Sullivan, who is deaf himself. The number of prospective clients with hearing problems seems likely to expand with the first of the baby boomers now in their 50s. All of those years spent listening to loud music almost certainly will take a toll. Even President Clinton, the nation's boomer-in-chief, was recently diagnosed with a hearing problem.
Yet people with auditory disorders traditionally have been overlooked by brokers and, consequently, their portfolios have suffered.
"Before 1990, if you were deaf, you had to ask a hearing party to make a phone call for you," says Sullivan, a former commodities analyst who helped found Merrill's Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Investors Services Division in 1990.
That meant sharing your financial secrets with a third party, which many hearing-impaired clients didn't feel comfortable doing. As a result, many people in this group settled for plain-vanilla products like low-yielding bank deposits and failed to increase their investment sophistication.
"The majority are very conservative and keep their money in CDs," says Chris Schneck, a Merrill Lynch broker in Mesa, Ariz., who lost most of his hearing to a childhood illness. "Many never had anyone to work with or trust."
One of Schneck's clients, retired electro-mechanical technician Ira Mitchell, says he often felt like he was being suckered in dealing with financial advisers before meeting Schneck through a support group for the hard of hearing. Mitchell now says he views Schneck almost as a son.
"We share a common bond knowing what we both go through in life," says Schneck of the relationship. About 20% of his clients have hearing problems.
Yet while generally neglected by financial advisers, hearing-impaired people also make up a tight-knit group, especially those in the deaf community. Thus, brokers who target this area successfully sometimes can look forward to a steady stream of referrals.
Merrill's program relies on several approaches to help brokers reach out to the hearing-impaired. For starters, the company offers TTY or teletypewriter access. TTY systems, sometimes known alternatively as TDD or Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf, involve the use of special typewriters, through which one or both parties can send messages over the phone, with responses showing up as text on the other end, either on paper or an electronic screen.
"It's like two typewriters talking to each other," says Sullivan. Merrill Lynch isn't the only brokerage or mutual fund company with TTY access, but these systems are not standard.
Many Merrill brokers also make use of "relay" services, which allow a hearing-impaired person to converse over the phone with someone possessing normal hearing. The conversation is made possible by a relay operator who gives voice to the deaf person's comments, while transmitting the other party's words as readable text. Relay services were established in 1990 by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act and operate throughout the country. Calls are placed at no charge through 800 numbers. The financing for relay services comes from a fee all phone users pay. Conversations are confidential.
Schneck says the TTY option is faster than relay services because there's no intermediary. He cites one deaf client who transferred her account to him from another Merrill office because she got tired of using relay services. The other office lacked a TTY connection. "It was a hassle for her to get through," Schneck says. Many of his clients also like to communicate via fax.
To smooth out other wrinkles, Merrill makes available a range of closed-caption investment videotapes for hearing-impaired clients. In addition, the company provides free sign-language interpreters for seminars, broker-client meetings and other situations. Merrill also is working to make its mainstream brokers aware of the various methods of communication that may prove helpful to hearing-disabled clients, including such simple tasks as meeting in conference rooms where background noise can be kept to a minimum. About 1,400 Merrill brokers have hearing-disabled clients. In addition, company representatives attend various deaf and hard-of-hearing conferences around the country.
The recent advent of E-mail and the Internet promises yet another avenue through which brokers can communicate with hearing-impaired clients. Terry Topin, a deaf Merrill broker in Palm Beach, Fla., agrees, predicting that the new electronic channels will help him boost production. Roughly 80% of Topin's clients are deaf or hard-of-hearing, and he maintains two TTY machines--one each for him and his senior administrative assistant, Deborah Baltrush.
Including the other computers in the office, "I feel like I sit in the cockpit of an airplane," Baltrush jokes.
Eventually, the Internet will supplant TTY machines, says Sullivan, especially since many mainstream brokers don't have enough hearing-disabled clients to justify an investment in TTY apparatus. "E-mail is really important to folks who are hearing-disabled," says Schneck.
Despite the progress made in serving investors with auditory problems, the market remains largely untapped. Even Merrill Lynch counts only about 5,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing clients with a combined $630 million in assets.
"We've just barely scratched the surface," says Sullivan.