Merrill Tailors Mobile Tools to Advisor Demand
From an article published on March 22, 2012 by Tom Stabile
Merrill Lynch has shaped a rolling development strategy to consistently upgrade functionality on mobile devices for its advisors and wealth management clients – an approach that eventually should lead to the ability to construct portfolios and execute trades on tablet computers.
The focus on keeping an active and evolving pipeline of new tools has already led to a wave of features that came online in the past year, most of them in response to advisor demand, says Grande Bucca, managing director for business infrastructure and controls for the wirehouse. Some of the new features for smartphones or tablet computers, such as the iPad, include access to e-mail, research content, client financial data and performance reporting tools.
“We still think we’re at the very beginning here,” Bucca says. “Our people essentially want to be on the [main] platform itself. The tablet especially gives us more real estate and enables us to deliver more tools to the advisor.”
Merrill’s overarching strategy is to let its advisors outline priorities that will help them increase productivity. “The things that they’re telling us they need remotely are going to drive where we go,” Bucca adds.
In addition to evolving advisor demands, another reason the development cycle is becoming more of a constant process is the nature of these smaller devices, which tend to break features down into single-task applications. “They have lots of little ‘apps’ as opposed to single, big monolithic programs, and that’s the approach we’re taking to development,” Bucca says. “We’ll be rolling out new features well into the future.”
Most advisory market firms are using a similarly paced development pattern, in part because the total participation rates of advisors using mobile technology remain relatively low, says Craig Iskowitz, managing director of Ezra Group, a wealth management technology consultancy.
“In most places, it’s 10% or 20% percent of advisors using [mobile tools],” he says.
In the future, as handheld device usage becomes more widespread, having a strong development process in place is going to be a key strength, Iskowitz says. For now, all of the wirehouses and major independent advisor custodians are active and making strides, he adds.
Some of Merrill’s mobile technology tools – opening access to sales lead programs, market data, e-mail and other functions – already have significant usage, with some features reaching up to 6,000 of its 17,300 advisors, Bucca says. More recently, it has built a presentation viewer and “apps store” that several hundred advisors are testing out, and which should be available to the rest of its sales force later this spring.
Another newer feature is giving advisors the ability to synchronize with mobile applications available to a client so that they can look at the same data investors would see on their own devices. Merrill announced today that it is launching a new set of mobile communications features – including the ability to remotely deposit a check to investment accounts – for its wealth management clients who use Android technology, helping it match tools available on other systems, such as the iPhone, iPad and Blackberrys.
More tools are coming down the pike later this year, Bucca says. The broader theme behind many of them is a desire for immediacy – letting advisors produce real-time information for clients during meetings or when they’re out of the office – but the development also traces back to the wishes of advisors themselves to gain functionality they already enjoy as consumers of mobile devices.
“The bar has been raised in terms of what we see delivered on the consumer side,” Bucca says. “Advisors are doing more and more remotely, during and after the client meetings. They want even the downtime to be productive, not just when they’re back at the office.”
Going from today’s level of functionality to a higher plane where portfolio construction and trading is available could require a big leap from today’s technology, Iskowitz says. Indeed, it’s not certain that mobile devices will ever be widely useful to advisors for more than “viewing,” as opposed to “doing.”
Still, Merrill has those kinds of more sophisticated advisor tools in its development roadmap, as well as broader capabilities, such as “briefcase” technology that essentially lets the advisor take almost any content available on a workstation and put it onto a mobile device to review offline. Many of those ideas would come further down the line, Bucca says.
“We want to push various pieces of our existing infrastructure on the [advisor workstation] to the field,” he says. “We’ll enable as much of that as makes sense. For instance, there’s more that we can deliver down to the tablet than to the phone.”
The development process has its share of hurdles, such as compliance and legal reviews, especially as the activities get more complex, Bucca says. A host of security issues also come into play when moving to higher-level tasks. And the technological complexity of certain tasks may not ever make them suitable for smartphones, he adds.
The likelihood that a big share of advisors will use mobile technology widely for core portfolio construction and trading functions appears slim, mostly for practical reasons, Iskowitz says. “It’s a small percentage of clients who would want the advisor to be able to switch a manager on the spot,” he says. “Maybe in a very packaged program, where the advisor has limited choices of managers and wouldn’t need to do a lot of research, you might find that useful. But the iPad isn’t all that easy to use [when you need to] switch windows, so if you want to check performance, account history and client holdings, all of that is hard to present on a 9.7-inch screen.”
Instead, Iskowitz says generating client proposals is likely to be the primary use of mobile tools by advisors, at least until a future stage of technology evolution.
“As people get more comfortable with using these devices, you’ll see more and more functionality,” he adds.
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