Brokers have been overlooked in their firms' online offerings, according to a study released in July by Gomez, the Waltham, Mass.-based Internet research firm. Researchers analyzed firms' sites and interviewed 50 brokers and advisers. Gomez analysts Dan Burke and Alyssa Sibley share their thoughts.
RR: So brokers are being left out of online offerings?
Burke: Yes. I don't think firms and brokers have been able to get on the same page. Everyone says the Internet is a great communications tool, but then you go online as a customer, and you wonder, “Where's the communication?”
RR: Your study noted basic contact information is lacking, like an e-mail or phone number for a broker.
Sibley: We do see more and more sites bringing their advisers out to some extent, like having an e-mail link. But there's really nothing that we call integrated contact-sensitive help, that is, being able to say, “Are you having problems with this tool? E-mail your adviser here.”
RR: Brokers are actually de-emphasizing their firms' online service.
Sibley: There is a very product-heavy nature with a lot of the existing offerings. That undermines the [client] relationship. The adviser doesn't want his firm pushing products.
Burke: So [online] adoption stays low because advisers decide they're not going to promote it. … That leaves the firm using a statement stuffer, which doesn't carry near the weight as an adviser who walks you through the set-up process.
RR: Your survey found collaborative tools will be important.
Burke: Yes. If you ask any adviser what's the best outcome from a client communication, it's where [each side] departs with information. Imagine a financial planning tool where the client has the capability to input some information online — a salary change, the birth of a child, a new educational goal.
RR: Is any firm doing that now?
Burke: No. But we expect that to be an integral component of these online offerings within the year.
RR: I'm going to kind of take issue with one recommendation you made — incenting branch managers to push online adoption.
Burke: Well, you know, something needs to be done, because the reality of it is that it's not being pushed. The older advisers are kind of stuck in their ways. We talked to some branch managers and found that the Internet is not a top priority with larger producers.
RR: But that's the same old product-pushing approach that doesn't work.
Burke: Well, true. But it has to be presented as a solution as opposed to a product. Imagine if you could go to a senior producer and say, “Look, we have hard data that shows when people go online, their inquiries go down. They spend time taking care of administrative issues that would normally bog down your sales assistant. Here's an opportunity for you to focus on doing more business.”
RR: Where do firms go from here?
Burke: A lot of firms rushed to put their sites together, and essentially cobbled together pieces of the architecture — their equity research, their account information engine. What they need to do now is start to put the pieces together and integrate the adviser. So if you as a client are looking at your position, you should have an e-mail link to your adviser that says, “I'm on the position screen. I want to ask you a question about this.” Or, “I've been using a financial planning tool. I have a question about after-tax yields.”
It's spooky how when you go online now, the adviser is so under-represented. You're almost hard pressed to find information on them. And that's gotta change.
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