Beginning Tuesday, all 15,000 advisors in the Merrill Lynch Thundering Herd will have access to a new set of enhanced tools that better integrate the financial planning and portfolio analysis processes and experience for both clients and the advisors themselves.
Part of the Merrill Personal Wealth Analysis portion of the Client360 platform, the underlying tools and backend for them have each existed and been available for some time. However, this latest release melds the tools far more tightly together, allowing advisors to not only more easily access them but paint a picture for the client digitally and in real time in a way not seen before.
“The Holy Grail in wealth management has been seamlessly bringing together financial planning and asset management, and with this rollout Merrill Lynch has achieved it in a way no one else has,” said Aite Group senior analyst Dennis Gallant. “It sets them [Merrill Lynch] up very well coming out of this pandemic; how the firm has been able to successfully connect the dots here, it is going to put a lot of pressure on the rest of the industry.”
While Kabir Sethi, head of digital wealth management for Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, said the firm does not share budget data for particular technology initiatives and projects, he added over the past 18 months, a total of 5,000 employees, including thousands of advisor trainees and more than 800 senior advisors, have been given access to the tools, putting them through their paces.
“It is part of a journey we’ve been on for a few years now,” he said, describing how advisors have been provided with search that is powered by natural language processing and machine learning, granting them a “digital prowess” they have not experienced before.
“This project is bringing together multiple end-to-end tools always with digital output in mind—there is an experiential aspect as well as the workflow—it mirrors just how an advisor works with clients,” said Sethi.
During an online demonstration of the features, executives showed off the re-designed interface starting with the primary client dashboard. On the advisor side, as soon as a client calls in, the platform automatically relays and opens that client’s plan and portfolio on the advisor’s workstation. The program has already re-run the client’s data and updated it to its current status as it renders it on the screen.
Within a few keystrokes on that initial screen, the advisor can easily get insights for the client and share with them whether the client is inquiring about being overfunded in a portion of their portfolio or has questions about some goal or aspect of their current plan. The interface has been rebuilt using responsive design, meaning the advisor or client can seamlessly examine it using whatever device they are on, whether at a desktop computer, using an iPad or tablet or even a smartphone. The buttons themselves have even been sized with touchscreens in mind.
On the home dashboard, clients and advisors now have a “Goal Planning & Portfolio” selection side by side with a “Portfolio Only” view. With this set of features, among others, advisors can work directly with clients in bringing up multiple scenarios and quickly show the impacts of changes immediately and predictions over time. This represents just a sliver of the functionality available.
“Goals are obviously critical, everything starts from there but we also have a super-robust cashflow modeling system and underlying engine—anything they [the client] can come up with, the advisor can come up with a goal and cashflow model for it immediately,” said Sethi.
As Aite’s Gallant points out, with this rollout Merrill Lynch has resolved one of the most significant challenges confronting advisors who want to lead with advice.
“One of the impediments to financial planning is it ends up a multi-stage process,” he said. “Efforts to date have either been too complex or not intuitive,” especially when you have to access multiple applications, something you generally cannot do in real time with a client.
Merrill’s Sethi said the firm has done a careful job tracking and analyzing the conversations and feedback from clients, trainees and advisors alike surrounding the project.
“Overall in terms of the pilot, the feedback has been really strong, and has exceeded our expectations, hence why we feel confident in a national rollout,” he said.