Bank of America is in the process of rolling out a client referral program for its global wealth management division, which includes Merrill Lynch and the bank’s former Banking & Investments division (BAI), with a combined 18,000 financial advisors. BofA launched a pilot for the program in three states in early March, and will take the program national in the next 30 to 60 days. It is one of several referral programs the bank is putting together as part of its integration with Merrill Lynch, including one that would offer leads from the commercial banking division to certain Merrill Lynch advisors.
Several Merrill advisors expressed enthusiasm about the program, especially considering difficult market conditions. “I think it’s very positive. I feel like it will be a great source of opportunity for BofA clients as well as Merrill lynch advisors,” says one advisor who heard about the program from management on a conference call yesterday.
So far, executives say BofA has passed on 500 leads for banking-only clients to financial advisors in Florida and two other states. As for who qualifies to get the referrals, Lyle LaMothe, head of U.S. Wealth Management, the combined brokerage business, says that technically all advisors are eligible. “The opportunity is so great here, between the two organization, that in order for us to adequately address it, it’s everybody,” he says. They will try to match the referred client with an advisor who specializes in the business area appropriate to that client—personal, corporate, or retirement. “We’re looking for advisors who have built a model around the client’s particular area of interest,” he says.
The referrals come through branch managers, who then assign them according to the structure already in place at Merrill for account redistribution, which creates a pecking order among advisors according to their tenure, rate of growth, designations and areas of expertise. Branch managers get the referrals from bank personnel responsible for calling clients when they need to roll over a CD. The clients are asked whether they would like to have the opportunity to talk over their financial situation with a Merrill advisor. Only those clients who answer “yes” get passed along as referrals.
Todd Starkey, a financial advisor based in Merritt Island, Fla. who has been with Merrill for nine years, and conducts fee-based business for affluent families, says some of the referrals he’s gotten have decided after meeting with him that they don’t need financial advice. (He was not allowed to provide specific numbers.) “In some cases they’re very anxious, in other cases, they say, ‘Not right now.’ Others say, ‘Hey, thanks for your time, we just want to roll over the CD.’”
In all, the bank has 15 million affluent clients it can theoretically pull referrals from, say executives, though it’s hard to say exactly how many of these clients will want to work one-on-one with an in-house financial advisor. Some of these “affluent” have just $100,000 to $250,000 in assets, clients the bank says would be best served by the firm’s call center, called the “financial advisory center” and inherited from Merrill Lynch. LaMothe emphasizes that Merrill’s call center is different from most in that the advisors staffing the call center are highly trained and they not only receive calls, but make calls to clients.