With advisors’ business models constantly evolving, the pressure on independent broker-dealers to continually enhance their technology platforms has never been more intense. From portfolio management to client relationships, advisors are demanding that competitive brokerage firms up their tech games. This article looks at how five broker-dealers are trying to satisfy those demands.

Raymond James
Over the last year to 18 months, Raymond James has significantly upgraded the four core areas of its Advisor Access workstation for advisors, according to Patrick O’Connor, senior vice president of wealth, retirement and portfolio solutions at Raymond James. Those four areas are: client relationship management, goal planning and monitoring, client reporting, and the portfolio management center.

For CRM, the Raymond James platform deploys a custom version of Microsoft Dynamics CRM. The CRM application is integrated with Advisor Access. It is integrated with the Client Center, Goal Planning & Monitoring and Microsoft Outlook, allowing advisors to manage their interactions with clients efficiently. Raymond James recently upgraded to a newer version of Microsoft Dynamics. This upgrade provides a number of benefits. These include: a more intuitive layout consistent with other MS Office products, a team-based approach for client records, and support for recurring appointments when planning client meetings.

Raymond James rolled out its new Goal Planning and Monitoring module (a custom version of MoneyGuidePro) in October 2012, and the results have exceeded expectations. By July 2013, approximately 45% of Raymond James’ 6,000 advisors were creating at least one financial plan per month. In comparison, the previous application never eclipsed 30% per month in the seven years it was deployed. In the first nine months of full deployment, Raymond James advisors generated 41,000 financial plans, versus an average of 20,000 plans per year during the seven years with the previous application.

One benefit of the new planning software to both Raymond James and advisors that O’Connor cited is that, on average, those 41,000 plans uncovered $400,000 in outside assets per plan. Although many of those assets are now held in 401(k) plans, the deeper relationship that advisors are forging with their clients increases the likelihood that a percentage of those assets will find their way to Raymond James in the future.

More recently, Raymond James has integrated its version of the full MoneyGuidePro into Investor Access, its client-facing portal. This means that Raymond James advisors have the ability, if they wish, to grant one or more of their clients access to the financial planning summary page, the “meters” (likelihood of success based upon current and recommended plans), the “What Are You Afraid Of?” page (a portfolio stress test), the Play Zone and the details tabs. The goal is to keep the client engaged, on an ongoing basis, in the financial planning process.

On the reporting side, a number of additions have been made. One noteworthy one is an asset allocation drift report, which ties into the investment process within the Goal Planning & Monitoring module. Advisors can run this report right out of the reporting module to identify portfolios that may require rebalancing.

The Portfolio Management Center module, powered by FolioDynamics, is designed to facilitate model-based trading and rebalancing. It contains a product research database of over 30,000 products, including proprietary Raymond James research, a proposal tool, model building, discretionary trading and rebalancing tools.

According to O’Connor, Raymond James advisors now have the quality tools needed to operate their business. Over the coming months, his firm will devote substantial resources toward training advisors to use these tools effectively in order to run their businesses more efficiently.

At its recently concluded Focus 13 Conference, LPL announced a number of important enhancements to its technology offering. One is eSignature and document submission powered by DocuSign, which provide straight-through processing of the most commonly used LPL operational forms. This system provides increased efficiency, a reduction in paper and an enhanced signing experience for clients.

Now advisors can electronically transmit forms to clients. The client can launch the form, provide any required data and electronically sign the form. If multiple signatures are required, the form will then be electronically routed to the next party. When the form is complete, it will be routed back to LPL for processing. When it is processed, usually within an hour, the client and advisor will receive an automatic notification. The file will automatically be uploaded to the advisors’ BranchNet Documents tab, with metadata, so it can be easily accessed in the future if necessary. The new eSignature system can also be used with clients in an advisor’s office. In this scenario, the client could electronically sign documents using an iPad, and would be routed directly to LPL for processing.

LPL is also revamping Account View, the client portal. Now advisors will be able to brand their client-facing portal with their own colors, themes, logos, etc. The new site will make liberal use of HTML5 charts for a richer, more modern look.

LPL Mobile provides advisors with the ability to look up clients and associated Account View information. Initially, advisors will have access to client account, position, transaction and statement information. In addition, market data, including stock quotes, indices and headlines will be available. Furthermore, Mobile allows advisors to securely exchange information with their clients. LPL plans to add BranchNet features in subsequent releases. The LPL mobile app is available for iOS (iPhone and iPad) as well as Android devices.

Remote deposit is now available. With remote deposit, advisors can deposit checks into LPL Financial accounts by simply taking a picture of the check with a mobile device. Remote deposit is secure, and it allows advisors to skip a trip to the bank, providing them with quicker access to client funds for investment.

In addition, LPL unveiled its new trading and rebalancing application. “This application is fully integrated,” says Christopher Giles, SVP Advisor Technology Product Management at LPL Financial. “It marries trading and rebalancing together seamlessly.” Giles contrasted this deep integration with most RIA products in the marketplace today, where the trading app often resides on a custodial platform and a separate third-party app is required for rebalancing.

According to Giles, the application is quite sophisticated. It can rebalance at the account, client or household level. It can trade to a dollar target or a percentage target. Models and models of models can be created and traded. The ability to create custom drift alerts is available as well. It does not yet, however, include asset location logic.

“All of these technology advances have a common theme,” says Giles. “They are all about improving advisor efficiency, but they are also about providing a great client experience.”

United Planners
With approximately 375 reps, United Planners is smaller than the other broker-dealers profiled here; however, its business structure and approach to technology are noteworthy. United Planners is privately owned, and it is structured as a limited partnership. Advisors working with the company have a 55% ownership stake. “Because of our unique ownership structure, our technology is designed to support the needs of our independent advisors,” says Billy Oliverio, vice president at United Planners.

According to Aaron Spradlin, vice president of information technology, the firm makes available to its advisors two technologies that set them apart from the competition: connectUP and linkUP.

ConnectUp is a platform that provides integration between the United Planners back office and various best-of-breed technologies. According to Spradlin, these include Redtail CRM, Finance Logix (financial planning, client portal, client vault) and Albridge (portfolio management).

Spradlin describes linkUP as “a specialized service to help identify, adopt and orchestrate technology partners with the goal of customizing technology in an efficient manner.” Essentially, linkUP is a middleware service, powered by Cleverdome Solutions, that provides a deeper level of integration and more powerful automated work flows than the industry norm. United Planners is currently working with a number of strategic partners, including Redtail, Orion, Finance Logix and Advisory World to automate processes that advisors typically perform manually.

For example, with linkUP, United Planners can ensure that addresses and other client information that reside within the Orion platform are always up to date and never need to be manually updated. If an advisor updates a client record in the Redtail CRM system, the updates will automatically be reflected in the Orion platform.

Householding is another business problem that linkUP can address. United Planners has the ability, through linkUP, to maintain unified, household-level data. That household data can then be maintained across Redtail CRM, Orion and Finance Logix. United Planners is also working with a number of partners, including TD Ameritrade, Genworth and Orion to enable straight-through processing of account openings and client onboarding powered by Laser App Anywhere and DocuSign.

Another business problem that linkUP is solving is the approval of advertising. Previously, the submission and approval of marketing letters to clients, for example, was done manually. Now, with linkUP, advisors can submit letters electronically for approval to United Planners. When a letter is approved, it will automatically be uploaded to the client portals of all specified clients, without any further intervention by the advisor or the advisor’s staff.

Both Oliverio and Spradlin emphasize that the whole platform is open architecture. “We are not trying to lock advisors up in proprietary products,” says Spradlin. “All of the software applications (CRM, financial planning, portfolio management, etc.) can be purchased independently of us. We believe advisors stay with us because we provide value-added business solutions such as linkUP that help them run their businesses more efficiently.”

Wells Fargo Advisors
Wells Fargo Advisors has a number of ongoing technology initiatives, according to Joel Nadreau, managing director of the company’s Strategic Solutions Group. Over the last two years, Wells Fargo Advisors has focused a great deal on advisor mobility solutions. It has developed apps for the iPhone and iPad, BlackBerry and Android devices. It has also embedded device detection on its site for mobile browsers, so if an advisor accesses the Wells Fargo mobile site, the screen will be rendered in a fashion optimized to the device being used. Wells seems particularly focused on the iPad. “We have a lot of financial advisors using iPads today,” Nadreau says.

Speaking of operating systems, Wells Fargo has yet to embrace Windows 8. “We have not seen much adoption of Windows 8, so we are not supporting it yet,” Nadreau says. In the future, he envisions a “dockable tablet” with the power of a laptop but the mobility of a tablet. If the Windows 8 platform were to support such devices, Nadreau thinks that adoption of Windows 8 among advisors would improve. “I don’t see much benefit to Windows 8 until we see dockable tablets,” he says.

Another area of concentration for Wells Fargo Advisors is social media. According to Nadreau, Wells Fargo is the No. 1 liked financial institution on Facebook. By the end of 2014, the firm wants all of its advisors to have a robust LinkedIn profile, and it has initiatives in place to help advisors reach that goal. “The purchasing journey is different from what it was five or 10 years ago. Then, you got a phone number from a friend at a party, and called the advisors for an appointment. Today, before a prospect calls an advisor, they are going to Google them first. In this environment, a robust LinkedIn profile is important.”

Wells Fargo also has a pilot program in place that offers a “crash course” training program in social media for advisors who wish to post content on social media sites. Successful completion of the program, which covers regulatory issues, etiquette, etc., allows advisors to begin posting. Currently, only 50 advisors have completed the program, but Wells Fargo hopes to increase that number to 1,000 over the next 12 months.

Mobility is also a focus of client-facing technology initiatives. “The propensity of clients to favor mobile access over the desktop is even higher than we anticipated,” Nadreau says. He believes that, to date, Wells has done a good job providing mobile apps that address mobile collaboration between the firm and advisors, as well as communication between the firm and the end client. It will now devote more resources to facilitating digital collaboration between the advisor and the client.

Nadreau also highlights the importance of the firm’s Envision planning process. Envision is part of an ongoing process to keep clients focused on their financial goals, as opposed to short-term market movements. That being the case, the firm features Envision goals and progress prominently on statements and online. 

According to Darren Tedesco, managing principal of innovation and strategy at Commonwealth Financial Network, his firm’s focus in 2013 and beyond is strengthening its core offerings and simplifying. “We believe the tools we offer our advisors are among the best in the industry,” he says. He adds that there is always room for improvement, however. “We gather extensive feedback from our advisors, and much of our future development is driven by the needs of our advisors.”

Tedesco says that deep integration is part of Commonwealth’s “secret sauce.” He says that the company not only integrates data but integrates the look and feel of the applications, making them easier for advisors to work with. He adds that the firm also integrates operationally for greater efficiencies.
One improvement Commonwealth advisors have been requesting is the ability to rebalance at the household level in Commonwealth’s rebalancing tool.
Tedesco says the firm anticipates adding this capability before year’s end. Currently, Commonwealth offers straight-through processing of trades with Fidelity, but not with other major custodians. Tedesco says that his firm expects to add straight-through processing of trades with Schwab and Pershing in 2014.

There are other improvements in the pipeline, including the bolstering of Commonwealth’s mobile apps and some new third-party integrations, but Tedesco says it is premature to discuss details at this point.

In Summary
While priorities and progress across firms may vary, it seems clear that across the industry, some common trends are in play. Integration is still a challenge for many firms. The situation is much improved from where it has been historically, but true seamless integration is still a work in progress. In particular, firms want to enable efficient work flows across multiple technologies to free advisors from administrative tasks so they can spend more time with clients and prospects.

A number of firms, including Raymond James and Wells Fargo Advisors, are putting increased emphasis on financial planning, particularly in trying to get clients to measure success in terms of financial goals as opposed to short-term market performance. As part of that shift, goal tracking is playing a more prominent role with regard to integration, as well as in client portals, mobile apps, etc.

Most firms have some mobile presence at this point, but many are still striving to improve their mobile technology for both advisors and end clients in order to improve work flows and improve satisfaction. All firms are aware of the power of social media, but many are still experimenting with how to best leverage this technology in the financial advisory space.

Other issues that are on the minds of top technologists in the independent broker/dealer space include e-signatures, straight-through processing of forms, straight-through processing of trades, householding and more sophisticated portfolio modeling and rebalancing capabilities.

A great deal of progress has been made in the industry over the last several years, but it appears there is still some work to be done in the years ahead.