For the most part, firms’ back-office departments remain a huge source of frustration for financial advisors, as many of those who were surveyed for Investment Executive‘s (IE) 2015 Report Card series said they’re fed up with how unreliable back-office staff and related support services have become.

Yet, there were some advisors who praised their back offices – and the nature of these compliments can shed some light on what the rest of the financial services firms in IE’s Report Cards can do to improve their back-office departments to serve advisors better.

Advisors’ dissatisfaction with their back offices was evident in the difference between the overall average performance rating (7.8) and the overall average importance rating (9.2) that advisors gave to the “back office and administrative and support” category. In fact, this difference of 1.4 points, known as the “satisfaction gap,” was tied with the gap in the “technology tools and advisor desktop” category for the largest in this year’s Report Card series. (See story at right.)

Complaints regarding the back office are nothing new; advisors said there’s a dearth of communication between advisors and their back-office departments due to a shortage of employees, terrible training and a culture of indifference in the back office.

“I didn’t realize how important the back office was until it stopped working,” says an advisor in Ontario with Toronto-based HollisWealth Inc. “They’ve gutted the back office in the past year and a bit, so everyone who is left is overworked. And [the firm] took individual phone numbers away, so now you have to email [back-office staff] or stay on hold for an hour on some generic helpline.”

Similarly, an advisor on the Prairies with Toronto-based Bank of Montreal said it’s almost impossible to communicate with back-office staff: “We have to fax transactions [to the back-office department] and there’s nobody you can call if it doesn’t get processed. You have to just fax them again and hope for the best.”

Adds an advisor in Quebec with Toronto-based TD Wealth Private Investment Advice: “There’s no accountability; the staff isn’t well trained and things fall through the cracks. Nobody can take something from A to Z and finish it – the puck gets passed many times.”

Regional independent brokerages Leede Financial Markets Inc. of Calgary and Vancouver-based Odlum Brown Ltd. could offer their counterparts a blueprint for how to have solid back-office departments that draw praise from advisors. Specifically, Leede and Odlum Brown received some of the highest ratings in the back-office category, at 9.1 and 9.7, respectively – the latter being the highest rating in this category among the 40 firms in IE’s Report Card series.

Leede and Odlum Brown advisors have a luxury not all advisors share: close ties to their back-office staff. Says a Leede advisor in Alberta: “Our back office is local and just down the hall. You can talk to someone literally 10 feet away.”

“You’re not phoning somebody 3,000 miles away whom you’ve never set eyes on before,” says Debra Hewson, Odlum Brown’s president and CEO. “You’re talking to somebody you just got a coffee with in the lunchroom or you rode in the elevator with, or you were talking about your kids and their kids playing baseball on the weekend. There are personal relationships between our front office and back office. They are very forward-facing and they all know each other.”

Although not all advisors may be able to grab a coffee with members of their back-office team, receiving personalized support from the back office does make a substantial impact, regardless of the distance between the advisor and the back office.

“I know the people [in our back office] on a first-name basis,” says an advisor in Atlantic Canada with Calgary-based managing general agency PPI Solutions Inc. “People treat us like acquaintances and friends rather than as a number.”

But it’s not just personal relationships that matter. Given the competitive and fast-paced nature of the financial advisory business, advisors want back-office staff they can rely upon. Thus, accountability and timeliness within the back office was directly linked to how advisors rated their staff’s competency.

“The timeline for getting back to us is very good. Typically, someone answers on the first ring. We also have very good question-and-answer tools [through which] you can just type in a query and get a response,” says an advisor in Ontario with Toronto-based Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce.

“The individual who handles our work is phenomenal and saves me regularly,” adds an advisor in Alberta with Mississauga, Ont.-based IDC WorldSource Insurance Network Inc. “[This person is] super-proactive and follows up on things before I do.”

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