For all the effort independent advisors make to be clientcentric sometimes the technology is anything but

For all the effort independent advisors make to be client-centric, sometimes the technology is anything but.

The Amazon Experience

Clients won’t compare your technology to your competitors. They’ll compare it to Amazon and Apple. The smoothest, most useful and intuitive online experience wins.

For a financial advisor, Mark Engberg is about as tech-savvy as they come. From screen-sharing apps to online scheduling programs to digital performance reports, he advises more than 150 clients across the country.

Still, he feels something is lacking—not more tools, but a way to streamline what he has so clients have an effortless experience. They should be able to log on once and see the details of their financial life easily, quickly and concisely. Instead, their experience is too often ad hoc and patchy. Clients juggle user names and passwords, and jump between different screens.

“Aggregation is critical,” says Engberg, a Salisbury, Md.-based advisor with Comprehensive Financial Services. “But even aggregation does not give clients a comprehensive seamless experience with accurate performance reporting or a financial statement right at their fingertips. They get confused with multiple sign-ons, and different ways to view data. We try to bring it together each quarter with a nice summary, but it’s still a work in progress.”

Independent advisors relish the fact that they offer their clients a more personal experience and a more tailored financial plan. Yet for all the effort they make to be client-centric, sometimes the technology is anything but.

Indeed, clients won’t compare your technology to what other advisors offer. The bar is much higher. They’ll compare your technology to sites like Amazon, Facebook and even Bed Bath & Beyond, where they click, connect and execute transactions quickly and easily.

“I think Amazon is a reasonable analogy,” says Engberg. “You can get anything from books to bicycles all under one hood. And ultimately that’s what we want—to bring a client’s financial life all under one hood.” Not to mention the ease of executing transactions, the clean record-keeping, and occasional prompts guided by a user’s interests or past transactions.

What They Want

Consider that some advisors still think a face-to-face, paper-based quarterly performance review is what their clients want and expect. That may be so for some, but the expectation for the vast majority of consumers now is to be able to see the status of an account—including the performance of their portfolio during whatever time frame they choose—anytime, anywhere.

“Some high-net-worth individuals are quite technologically advanced, using iPhones and iPads and having consumer experiences on these devices,” says Ralf Dreischmeier, a partner with The Boston Consulting Group, who leads its global Technology Advantage practice from London. “They’re bringing that expectation to the financial services world, as it fits better with their lifestyle.”

Joe Duran has become a prominent advocate for improving the way investors of all stripes engage online. As CEO of the Newport Beach, Calif.-based investment advisory firm United Capital, he oversaw his firm’s development of The Guidebook, a platform for online reports that read like flip books—clean read-outs that clients can peruse as if they were reading an online magazine, that aggregate all of their financial data into an easy-to-digest form. To date, the reports can bring in data from insurance holdings to financial plans, performance reporting to bank accounts, from programs including eMoney and Salesforce, along with custodians from Fidelity to Schwab. Mortgage details and budgeting options are up ahead.

Duran says the firm has never had more inbound calls from advisors hungry for a way to bring all of their clients’ financial data together—and then repackage the details in a way that clients can see, understand and actually enjoy.

James Poer, President of Austin, Texas-based broker/dealer NFP Advisor Services Group, agrees. The firm has spent millions of dollars in the last six years developing technology that services both advisors and staff. Now NFP is expanding its focus to technology for the actual client, he says. Poer notes that the average 40-year-old investor is from a much more “technologically astute generation,” bringing a higher level of comfort with tech tools—and an assumption of how they want them to integrate easily in every facet of their life.

“They’re the first generation to pay their bills comfortably online, pay for gas at the pump, go through airport security with their iPhone, and buy their tickets online,” he says. “It’s a generation very attuned to tech in terms of how they manage their life, and that’s extending into the investing world.”

The focus for NFP now is a tablet-based program that competes with what big banks offer—an all-in-one look at a client’s financial details in a single viewing experience. Investors could log on at any time, even daily, to read a synopsis of their net worth: hard assets, managed money and 529 plans, among other details, reaching beyond their investable assets to show a bigger overview, with very little effort on their part to find the data.

“I want a full picture of my true net worth within three touches of my iPad,” says Poer. “A sophisticated investor may not check that every day. But they might want an email that says my personal net worth went up $10,000 this week, or down 2 percent when the market was down 5 percent.”

How They Want It

Advisors and clients have access to vast troves of data. But transforming those details into information that is helpful and actionable is crucial. Clients want information presented in a way that takes account of their actual needs, rather than a blanket push of everything at once. Think a Michelin star meal with select courses rather than a smorgasbord on steam trays.

“Today you have so much information, you don’t know what to read or not to read, so you don’t know what to do or what not to do,” says Dreischmeier. “When we talk about the Amazon experience for the consumer, we also look at the recommendations given that are relevant.”

Imagine a tool that can know if a client is on vacation and suggest travel insurance options or remind them they may need extra cash. Or think of a mobile tool, connected to your advisor site, that allows an investor to take a quick snapshot of a home they’re considering buying, pull up its current market value and recently sold properties in the area, and then link over video chat to a broker who gives provisional mortgage approval—all while standing in the driveway of their potential new home.

“What consumers want is an end-to-end experience,” says Dreischmeier. “Recommendations made on data that is available, rather than subjective.”

Where They Want It

Jim Crowley understands the need for added value very clearly. As chief relationship officer and a managing director of custodian Pershing, Crowley is currently focused on developing a consumer experience that does more than just aggregation.

“They want the experience to come to their device, which might be a cell phone or a laptop or a wristwatch or Google Glass,” says Crowley. “They are looking at the experience to fit into the device of their choice, not the device of the person leveraging the technology.”

Financial services firms must be able to offer investors the kind of experience they’ve grown to expect—and will continue to have—or find a diaspora of clients moving towards those firms that are more user-friendly.

“If the digital ecosystem is not arranged so it’s friendly to the consumer and also easy to use, that will be a roadblock for any firm, financial services or not,” says Crowley. “If they’re not able to accomplish these details, they won’t be successful.”

Financial services firms that don’t deliver simple and engaging client-facing tech tools for independent financial reps are going to have to answer to their own clients—the advisors. Reps might be willing to put up with technology that works adequately for their own use. But they’re not going to stay quiet if the digital tools they serve their clients fall short. Their clients are unlikely to stay quiet as well.

“If we’re going to compete, we really need it to be all about the client experience,” says Engberg. “The advisor can deal with some of the complexities backstage. But the front stage needs to be simple, seamless and really just a good experience.”

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