In wanting to encourage long-term relationships with its retail brokerage customers, Bank of America has very much a 21st-century outlook. Until recently, however, it had to make do with Stone Age tools.
Only about 20 percent of its 850 financial advisors, or brokers, had access to software that allowed them to create financial plans. Instead, they relied on a hodgepodge of standalone desktop applications that did not talk to each other.
With so many brokers, keeping track of data "was almost physically impossible," said Ted Bowden, senior vice president and director of products and services at Bank of America Investment Services, the bank's retail brokerage subsidiary.
The goal was to relieve advisors of the data entry hassles that were taking them away from their main task of growing customer assets. Bank of America Investment Services rejected as too costly the option of building its own internal wealth management decision support application.
"We looked for a software application we could run on central servers and deploy to the desktops of different advisors," said Bowden.
Bank of America found the solution in netDecide, a Web-based, real-time wealth management tool that integrates with the back office to help brokers view all or part of a customer's financial landscape. The software pulls relevant information from Bank of America's databases, automating data entry and thereby saving advisors time.
netDecide "enhances the customer satisfaction we have and builds customer relationships," Bowden said.
All 850 advisors are developing financial plans using netDecide. Bank of America Investment Services created about 25,000 plans in the first year after installing the software in Dec. 2000, and that is expected to grow to 40,000 by the end of this year.
"We're trying to change the way financial advisors work today," said Bowden. In the past, the firm was transaction-based, whereas today the focus is on gaining an understanding of the customer's financial situation and goals. "Today, we're more holistic."
Developed by a Tysons Corner, Va.-based company of the same name, netDecide is a workflow and productivity aid that allows brokers to collaborate on customers' plans. netDecide will eventually feature more collaboration between clients and brokers; today, it's strictly for advisors' use.
The product includes more than 80 modules to help clients with retirement, education or estate planning; tax issues; stock options and more, either individually or as a portfolio. The software, which operates behind the bank's firewall, allows executives to control which advisors can view which data.
Scalability, modularity and back-office integration were the key factors that influenced Bank of America, said Rob Groat, netDecide's chief products officer.
Bank of America Investment Services chose netDecide because it was ready for market and because, unlike traditional financial planning tools, the system could connect to the back office. The software also provided an additional benefit: since data is stored centrally, Bank of America Investment Services retains client information even if an advisor leaves.
But the netDecide package does have one shortcoming according to BofA-it doesn't do account aggregation. For that reason, Bank of America Investment Services is limited to accessing information from in-house accounts.
That will likely change going forward. Bank of America Investment Services is considering adding aggregation to its wealth management offerings, Bowden said. Fortunately, netDecide is compatible with aggregators such as Yodlee and WealthTouch, and will remain a valuable broker tool in this new environment.
Bank of America's Private Bank, which like Investment Services falls under the Asset Management Group, installed netDecide after witnessing the retail brokerage's success, Bowden said.
Investment Services installed netDecide first because it had more advisors and hence a greater need to consolidate applications. Also, Bank of America Investment Service slacked a wealth strategist team to support planning.
But both groups wanted a common application, and Private Banking, which deals with Bank of America's wealthiest clients, needed software that could handle its customers' more complex tax and estate-planning issues, among other high-end needs, Bowden said.
Private Client Services, also part of the Asset Management Group, is also considering netDecide, Bowden said.
INSTITUTION: Bank of America
ASSETS: $622 billion
BUSINESS CHALLENGE: Free up brokerage advisors from tedious data entry chores and allow them to focus on increasing customer assets.
KEY QUOTE: "We're trying to change the way financial advisors work today." - Ted Bowden, senior vp, Bank of America Investment Services