Wirehouses race to upgrade adviser tech amid pandemic

As digital adoption among advisers continues to accelerate during the pandemic, wirehouses are addressing the industry’s latest technology needs with investments in new adviser platforms, according to second-quarter earnings calls from a number of top firms. 

Merrill Lynch, UBS and Wells Fargo all experienced increases in usage across digital platforms during the second quarter, the companies reported. As a result, the wirehouses are looking for upgrades — from robo-solutions to revamped workstations — to ensure they meet the heightened level of tech tools advisers need in the new remote-work reality. 

Six weeks since Merrill Lynch Wealth Management unveiled its tech-driven adviser workstation and nearly half of the wirehouse’s 22,000 financial advisers and client associates have already adopted the platform, according to Kabir Sethi, head of digital wealth management for Merrill Lynch and Bank of America Private Bank. 

“We often say that we expected to make this type of progress,” Sethi said in an interview. “We thought it’d take four to five years, and now we are here in four months. Nothing changes behavior like clients wanting to engage with you differently.” 

To date the firm’s Client Engagement Workstation has about 9,000 weekly users, representing a 64% increase in users since the wirehouse announced the launch last month, he said.

In fact, digital adoption and engagement has catapulted among other platforms, too. Advisers hosted approximately 98,000 Webex meetings during the second quarter, a more than fivefold increase year over year, according to the bank’s second-quarter earnings report. Moreover, Merrill’s mobile app saw a 28% year-over-year increase in users during the quarter. 

The focus moving forward will be on increasing digital adoption figures while maintaining the sustainability of technology usage, Sethi said. “The [Q2] numbers seem pretty high, but honestly we still have a long way to go,” he said. “In many ways, we are just getting started because we’ve laid the foundation, which is the CEW platform, and now there’s a ton of financial planning tools we’re working on.” 

LIVE STREAMS

UBS Group, too, highlighted an increase in digital adoption among advisers during its second-quarter earnings call last Tuesday. “Recent months have shown quality of advice is just as critical as one’s technology and platforms,” CEO Sergio Ermotti said during the call. 

In the second quarter, the firm’s CIO set up approximately 50 live streams that reached close to 45,000 clients and prospects, Ermotti said, adding the firm also introduced live streams, which allow clients to talk to advisers about their investment interests.

Moving forward, UBS is reviewing areas where the wirehouse can accelerate tech-driven plans to build on that momentum, Ermotti said.

For example, the firm plans to roll out more robo-solutions and accelerate its migration to cloud-based platforms to enhance the digital client experience. With more than 95% of its workforce remote, UBS is reassessing the impact of its real estate footprint. “As we speak, we are working on plans regarding our offices and branch networks,” Ermotti said. 

DIGITAL USAGE

At Wells Fargo & Co., CEO Charlie Scharf shared how digital usage has increased during the bank’s second-quarter earnings call last Tuesday. Mobile deposit dollar volume was up over 100% compared with a year-ago, Scharf said, while digital logins were up 21% year-over-year.

Still, one analyst challenged the new CEO during the earnings call asking Scharf to give “some sense of [Wells Fargo’s] need to spend more on technology areas that you’re behind in,” said Vivek Juneja, an analyst from JPMorgan. 

“We’ll see when we get closer to the level of detail that we go through with you,” Scharf said in response. “But certainly the work that we’re doing contemplates the fact that we don’t want to stand still in our businesses.” 

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