Broker-dealers are providing more sophisticated services for financial advisors and their clients in an effort to systematize best practices, bolster both efficiency and support, and prepare for potential regulatory reform.

For example, Schaumburg, Ill.-based Genworth has homed in on four different areas to boost advisors in their wealth management endeavors - business development, client solutions, marketing and technology.

Through a new dashboard on their Web site called Goal Planning, advisors are now able to track and calculate the year-over-year growth of their practices. "The problem we had with business planning is you write out a paper business plan and it gets set in a drawer and two months later it's like, 'I forgot I did that business plan,'" explained Michael Abramowicz, vice president of advisor recruiting at Genworth. "Now the goal planning pops right up on the computer screen."

On Genworth's intranet is a fee-based application called Marketing AdvantEdge that allows users to upload contacts, choose a marketing package that includes their own logo and branding, and provides unlimited communications with clients.

Genworth is also rolling out a new program called "The Academy," which will introduce new advisors to products and services that are offered, and give them the opportunity to meet the company's senior leaders during a two-day introductory overview. "After the two-day academy," Abramowicz said, "the consultants are going to build personalized development tracks - one on product and sales and the other on practice management best practices -that are going to last roughly six months. It's going to be the official development engine for new people joining us."

TOP-TIER CLIENTS

Marketing also got a facelift at 1st Global in Dallas. A new Target Market Development Program was introduced, a nine-week initiative that helps advisors introduce wealth-management services to their current tax clients, according to Brian Finnigan, the firm's chief marketing officer. A partnership with marketinglibrary.net was also inked last September that gives advisors free access to financial commentary, articles and other items of interest for their clients.

"It's really a point and click for our advisors to be able to send high-end communications to their client on a regular basis," Finnigan explained. "It's very hard for advisors to stay constantly in touch with their clients because of the time it takes to draft compliant communications, so we're excited about that."

In January, 1st Global entered into a partnership with Pareto Systems, a business-development firm, which is helping advisors replicate the top 20 percent of their client base by focusing on how advisors ask for referrals. The aim is to provide a systemized process so advisors can boost their profit per client and bolster revenue opportunities with new clients. "The CPAs with whom we work didn't necessarily grow up in the wirehouse or national broker-dealer environment, where the concept of asking for referrals has been hammered into them," Finnigan said. "But it's absolutely vital that they integrate those systems into their practices ... . The best advocate for your business is your best client, and this gives them a process to find more of those top-tier clients."

The firm also recently launched 1st Global Pathway, a wealth-management portal that allows advisors to establish and maintain client accounts, request sales support, create high-end risk profiles and generate customized proposals in a centralized location.

But perhaps most notable was the recent partnership with Dr. Harry Markowitz, a Nobel laureate known for the introduction of the Modern Portfolio Theory. Markowitz will advise 1st Global on asset allocation model development processes, risk and return measurement, and investment strategies, and is scheduled to speak at three of the broker-dealer's upcoming conferences.

BEST PRACTICES

At Raymond James in St. Petersburg, Fla., one of the new strategies the broker-dealer has deployed is the Raymond James Advisory Process, where fundamental elements of financial planning are distilled into process-driven "roadmaps" for its clients.

"We're taking best practices and trying to simplify and automate them to a greater extent so people can use these organized, disciplined processes in a very usable way," explained Chet Helck, chief operating officer and head of the Private Client Group.

Now its advisors can go online within the Raymond James Network to access resources and tools such as checklists, articles, presentations, educational materials and other best practices designed to help guide and support them in establishing their customized advisor processes. For example, if a client was interested in charitable giving, an advisor could go to the site and access tax rules, trust strategies and deduction limits that would be relevant, print them out and offer them to the client.

GIRDING FOR REFORM

Helck said that offering this more streamlined process for advisors started to pick up steam when lawmakers began calling for broker-dealers to follow a fiduciary standard - putting the client's interest before their own - on all advisor processes, rather than the current suitability standard - where they only need to have "reasonable grounds" to believe that the financial products they recommend to clients are suitable for their needs.

"If you are going to be held to a fiduciary standard, which we feel we already are, but may become more specified in federal law soon, we believe there is going to be a need to demonstrate and document an effective process to meet that fiduciary standard. We need to be able to comply with all the expectations of the client as well as the regulatory world going forward," Helck explained. "We think Raymond James is well-positioned given this platform for complying."

Roger Ochs, president and chief executive at H.D. Vest, said that he's not too concerned with the proposed fiduciary standard; instead, his energy is going toward the current administration's intent to curb abuses around independent contractors.

"In general, there is a concern at the White House and sometimes the Internal Revenue Service that some companies take advantage of their employees as a way not to provide them with benefits," Ochs said. "They purposely try to re-characterize them as independent contractors rather than employees. We're communicating to our legislators so they understand how we are different."

Aside from lobbying, Ochs said that H.D. Vest, through its Vest Forward initiative, is also offering its advisors more resources. The broker-dealer is taking advantage of the merger between its parent, Wells Fargo, and Wachovia Securities, which allows their financial advisors broader access to more products and services. An investment management online advice tool called the Envision Program allows advisors to help their clients, through simulations, to determine where they are in reaching their financial goals based on accumulation and spending rates.

Also on the front burner for H.D. Vest is educating advisors in helping them decipher which clients would benefit from Roth conversion now that the $100,000 adjusted gross income ceiling has been lifted.

"It's a pretty hot topic right now," Ochs said. "We're not saying everybody should convert from an IRA to a Roth, but it's a conversation that every tax professional should have with their client and it's a great way to start the conversation about retirement."

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