About 3,000 financial professionals are testing the new online matchmaking service created by Boston-based Dalbar Financial and Microsoft. Called Advisor Finder, the service links users of Microsoft's MoneyCentral site (www.moneycentral.msn.com) with compatible financial professionals. The service went live July 14.
Salomon Smith Barney, American Express Financial Advisors, U.S. Bancorp Piper Jaffray and J.C. Bradford are among the corporate sponsors of the program. Brokers from other firms are participating as well.
"So far, the Internet has been used as a weapon against the adviser community," says Dalbar spokesperson Robert Powell. "We're turning the equation around here."
Advisor Finder works like this: First, investors visiting the Advisor Finder section of Microsoft's MoneyCentral indicate what type of advice they're interested in (overall financial planning, business succession, tax advice, etc.). Then they identify the value of their investment portfolios and answer 11 questions about their preferences and what they look for in a financial professional (whether they like detailed explanations or brief answers, for example). After plugging in their home state, ZIP code and the maximum distance they're willing to travel, the search engine delivers a list of the top five "best fit advisors" matching the person's criteria, ranked in order of compatibility (see "The Lowdown on Advisers," Page 30). Then the user is invited to e-mail the adviser.
The service is free to investors and can be located at www.therightadvisor.com or within MoneyCentral, which attracts five million unique users a month, according to Microsoft. Advisers pay §750 for a 12-month listing.
"If the numbers are there, we should eventually see some real activity in referrals," says Steven Haas, a producer with American Express Financial Advisors in Southbury, Conn. Dalbar expects the service could deliver an average of a dozen prescreened prospects every year.
Powell says the service, still fairly new at press time, has already resulted in "a handful" of referrals, including one high-net-worth client with §900,000 in investable assets.
About 500 of the 3,000 advisers participating in the service have also been rated for customer satisfaction by Dalbar's Rating System, a separate §1,500 per year service. Reps who've been rated by Dalbar get a "star" next to their names if they pop up as "best fit" advisers in the new referral program.
In late July, Salomon Smith Barney was the only wirehouse that had given Advisor Finder its stamp of approval. SSB's financial consultants are all allowed to join the service, with the permission of their branch manager, says Jay Mandelbaum, co-head of SSB's retail division. The firm's only concern is preventing any inaccuracies in the profiles participating brokers submit to Advisor Finder, Mandelbaum says.
Merrill Lynch and other wirehouses remain more cautious, "waiting on the sidelines" for signs of success before committing any resources, says Dalbar spokesperson Robert Powell. Nashville-based J.C. Bradford may pick up the cost of subscribing for its top producers, and other firms might use Advisor Finder as a carrot to help keep disgruntled brokers from defecting, Powell says.
"One of our goals is to bring new business to our members," says Phyllis Bernstein, director of personal financial planning at the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), a sponsoring organization. "Anything we can do to get them out there in front of a prospective client is worth considering."
Dan Arnold, a Merrill Lynch producer in Fort Wayne, Ind., is one of those AICPA members who jumped at the opportunity. "It'll be interesting to see what kind of activity there is eventually," says Arnold, who added that the only inquiry he received after the service's first week of operation was a telephone call from a colleague interested in joining. "If it turns out that it's a waste of money, maybe we'll approach it differently," he says.
To participate in the Dalbar-Microsoft Advisor Finder service, advisers fill out a two-page application attesting to the fact that they meet the requirements (five years experience with no sanctions in the past five years, and with 100 clients or §15 million in assets). The application also asks for personal information along with the adviser's CRD number, credentials, licenses and number of years in business. It also asks about the broker's firm (accounting, brokerage, insurance, etc.), how he or she is compensated (commissions versus flat fees, hourly fees, etc.), and the specific types of financial services the broker offers.
Finally, the adviser answers two questions about the types of clients he or she prefers (minimum assets, location) and eight questions about the adviser's business style ("Do you prefer clients with A] an arms-length relationship or B] those that depend on you for even minor details?").
Robert Powell, a Dalbar spokesperson, says Advisor Finder brokers are "screened and scrubbed" by their firms and by Dalbar, which checks all the appropriate state and SRO records.
Brokers and advisers who use the service must promise to respond to requests from consumers within two business days and report the outcome to Dalbar. Reps must also provide qualifying consumers with an interview of up to 30 minutes at no charge.
How selective the service will be is unknown. Advisor Finder will ultimately include the names of 50,000 to 100,000 financial advisers, organizers say.