Merrill Lynch reveals new advisor workstation technology

Is Merrill Lynch setting a new benchmark for advisor workstations?

The firm’s new digital platform, which uses a custom-built web browser to help advisors serve more clients, is a sign of how the biggest players in wealth management hope to advance their growth by tapping big technology budgets.

In development for 18 months, the Client Engagement Workstation is part of the $3 billion that Bank of America allocates annually to new initiatives, many of which focus on client experience, says Kabir Sethi, head of digital wealth management at the firm. Overall, Bank of America invests $10 billion annually in technology.

CEW pulls together market data, client information, account servicing tools and artificial intelligence into a single dashboard. With it, advisors can manage client relationships, activities and interactions with more customization than Merrill’s previous iteration, Wealth Management Workstation, Sethi says.

William Trout, head of wealth management at research firm Celent, says that with the possible exception of Morgan Stanley’s WealthDesk, few other competitors will be able to match CEW’s capabilities.

“Schwab has made enhancements, Fidelity has great tools as well, but this is a powerhouse,” Trout says. “Both in terms of natural language processing and access to Merrill’s product suite, this is just at another level.”

Alois Pirker, research director of research firm Aite Group’s wealth management practice, says the depth of integrations, the inclusion of AI and natural language processing, and the user interface all reflect the resources Merrill dedicated.

“The Merrills of the world will continue to set the benchmark for where wealth management desktops need to be,” Pirker says.

The success of CEW will ultimately depend on how heavily it’s adopted by advisors, Pirker says. Merrill’s brokerage force still has access to its old workstation, but CEW will become the default by November, according to the company.

CEW is now available to 22,000 employees (including more than 17,000 advisors), and it currently has 5,500 unique weekly users, representing a 200% increase since the beginning of March, Sethi says. He attributes the increase toadvisor’s ability to use the platform while working from home.

Merril Lynch (1) by Bloomberg

“In fact, we’ve achieved a level of digital adoption in the last 10 weeks that we had hoped to achieve in five years,” Sethi says.

At CEW’s core is Book 360, a consolidated view of an advisor’s practice, priority tasks, business analytics, corporate news relevant to portfolios and upcoming events like client reviews and birthdays. Book 360 is where advisors can open new accounts, make trades or even order checks for clients.

To create CEW’s “Ask Merrill” — a natural language search function — the firm leveraged the AI technology behind “Erica,” the digital assistant on Bank of America’s consumer-facing banking app.

Andrew Burns, a Merrill Lynch advisor in Hingham, Massachusetts, recently used “Ask Merrill” to answer a client question about IRA distribution and the CARES Act. “I went into the tool, typed [inherited IRAs] in and got the information,” Burns says.

CEW also has an AI-powered “Insights” feature to surface new opportunities for clients, similar to Morgan Stanley’s “Next Best Action” engine, which debuted in 2018.

While Insights can be used to cross-promote products across banking and brokerage, the AI isn’t intended solely as a sales tool, Sethi says. For example, if a client is donating to charity, Insights can recommend an advisor have a conversation about charitable giving.

Merrill built CEW using a customized version of Google’s Chrome internet browser. Advisors can “favorite” certain features as they would bookmark a website, customize CEW’s layout and use tabs to manage multiple clients on a single screen. By cutting down on the time it takes to navigate the workstation, advisors will be able to serve larger books of clients, says Sethi.

Merrill’s browser-centric approach makes CEW portable, which can be a differentiating factor in a post-coronavirus world, says Trout. “It could be a powerful tool for advisor recruitment and retention.”

“I’m thinking [CEW] is really going to appeal to a younger, tech-savvy advisor,” he adds.

Burns says CEW made the transition to working at home seamless.

“With the previous workstation, I’m one of the advisors that has four screens up at all times. The thought of me working remotely and not being able to utilize four screens or even two screens, as you might imagine, is a little anxiety-ridden,” Burns says.

Burns has not only been able to do everything from a single iPad screen, but he can more efficiently work across multiple client accounts, he says.

Overall, Sethi says Merrill is working on financial planning technology and improving historically painful processes like new client onboarding and account maintenance.

“[Technology] is not something where we can take our eye off the ball,” he says. “We are continuing to push very, very hard on every platform. We feel pretty good about that.”

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