Edward Jones topped J.D. Power & Associates ranking of employee advisor firms, scoring 876 out of a possible 900, closely followed by Raymond James with 857 points. There is a fairly sharp drop off after that, but Merrill Lynch came in third with 710 points, followed by UBS (689 points) Wells Fargo (665 points) and Morgan Stanley Smith Barney (626 points). The industry average is 683 points.

Commonwealth Financial Network took top honors on the independent side, with 898 out of 900 points, followed by Cambridge Investment Research advisors (848 points), Raymond James (845), LPL (817), Waddell & Reed (765), Wells Fargo (763), Northwestern Mutual (747), Ameriprise (735), Advisor Group (718), Cetera (717), Securities America (709) and Metlife's broker-dealer group (648). The average for independent firms is 765.

David Lo, director of the investment services practice at J.D. Power, commented that while independent firms scored higher than employee firms on average, many factors go into advisors' ranking of their firms, not least public perception. "There are challenges still on the wirehouse side with media coverage creating a negative halo, which carries over," he said. "Customer perception of these firms is a lot lower after 2007, and it's not because service has changed much."

Generally, though, brand image is on the mend, and that's helping stabilize advisors' satisfaction levels.

Other factors influence which firms make advisors really happy, though, and compensation isn't the main one. "Compensation is always a piece of it, but once you've decided to do the job, your surroundings and support determine how happy you are," Lo said.

Indeed, firms that make advisors' lives easiest top the rankings. "To the degree to which a firm maximizes time its advisors spend with clients by minimizing administrative tasks, it will be successful," Lo said. "Technology, compliance and administrative support are all really important," and that's true whichever channel an advisor works in.

- Howard J. Stock

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