With technology playing an increasingly prominent role in the practices of financial advisors, they rely more heavily on their firms for technological tools and a user-friendly desktop, according to the results of Investment Executive’s 2016 Dealers’ Report Card.

Although these results show that many firms have improved their tech offerings during the past year, firms across the board still have work to do in this category.

“Every firm in our industry is in the dark ages still,” says an advisor in British Columbia with Oakville, Ont.-based Manulife Securities.

Adds an advisor in Alberta with Calgary-based Portfolio Strategies Corp.: “There’s always room for improvement when it comes to technology.”

When advisors were asked how important “technology tools and advisor desktop” are to their businesses, advisors rated them at 9.0 in overall average importance, higher than in any of the past eight years.

Furthermore, the difference between the overall average importance rating and the overall average performance rating (7.7) for this category was 1.3 points. This “satisfaction gap” was tied for the largest among all the categories in this year’s Report Card, which means that firms still have much to do to meet advisors’ high expectations.

Still, the overall average performance rating rose from 7.4 last year as five of the 11 firms in the survey saw their performance ratings in this category increase by half a point or more – a sure sign that firms are taking steps to improve their technology.

For example, Lévis, Que.-based Desjardins Financial Security Independent Network is in the midst of overhauling its technology platform, according to Mia Chang, vice president of distribution, Western Canada, in Burnaby, B.C.

“We are changing our technology tool suite for our associates to allow them to provide excellent service and advice from one single platform,” Chang says. “We also recognize the mobility needs of our associates, and we’re investing to provide them with tools that have 24/7 access.”

The firm’s tech tools rating increased considerably this year, to 7.5 from 6.7 in 2015, with Desjardins advisors indicating that they are beginning to see improvements.

“[Desjardins] is changing the tech tools right now, and when the new stuff comes out, it will be better,” says a Desjardins advisor in Ontario.

However, many Desjardins advisors complained that the upgrade process is slow and the adjustment period is challenging.

“There are some improvements coming, but they’re just not coming fast enough,” says a Desjardins advisor in Ontario.

Winnipeg-based Investors Group Inc. also is updating its technology. But the firm’s rating in the category dropped to 8.2 from 8.7 last year. The firm’s advisors said they’re anxiously awaiting certain upgrades.

“Improvements tend to take longer because of the size of the company,” says an Investors Group advisor in Ontario.

The changes underway include a new platform and new financial planning software, according to Todd Asman, senior vice president of products and financial planning at Investors Group.

“We have been talking to [our advisors] for a while now about some new platforms that we’re going to be delivering this year,” Asman says. “You may have some [advisors] who are nervous because they haven’t seen the specifics yet of what it looks like.”

Despite the uncertainty, Investors Group still has one of the highest ratings in this category, with advisors praising the firm for having strong software as well as accessible support staff.

Similarly, advisors with Windsor, Ont.-based Sterling Mutuals Inc. praised their firm for having a technology platform that few firms can match.

“[The firm] is just light years ahead of its competition,” says a Sterling Mutuals advisor in Ontario.

Nevertheless, the firm’s tech tools rating also dropped, to 8.3 from 8.7 year-over-year, as some advisors indicated that they’ve experienced glitches with the platform in the past year.

Those problems were related to Sterling Mutuals’ acquisition of Armstrong & Quaile Associates Inc. and the process of consolidating the two firms’ systems, according to Nelson Cheng, Sterling Mutuals’ president and CEO: “Even though we tested [the technology] as much as we could, there’s always going to be something that you miss.”

In contrast, advisors who gave their firms the lowest ratings in the tech tools category complained of high costs, poor software functionality, lack of hands-on support and lack of choice.

Advisors with Richmond Hill, Ont.-based Global Maxfin Investments Inc. rated their tech tools higher this year, at 7.2 vs 6.1 in 2015. Yet, training is still one of the biggest challenges for these advisors.

“We need more training on the different platforms,” says a Global Maxfin advisor in Alberta. “All these dealers have programs, but they just give you the systems without much explanation.”

Meanwhile, advisors with Manulife Securities said client-facing technology is the component with the most room for improvement. Says a Manulife advisor in Ontario: “Our client portal stinks, and the client-access web is an integral part for my clients. It needs attention.”IE

© 2016 Investment Executive. All rights reserved.