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Having a strong back office is critical for financial advisors. They rely on the support this department provides to keep their businesses running smoothly and to meet clients’ needs and expectations.

In fact, advisors across the four major distribution channels in Investment Executive‘s annual Report Card series gave the “back office and administrative support” category one of the highest overall average importance ratings, at 9.3.

“[The back office] is extremely important. [The staff is] always there to help; they’re quick and they’re efficient,” says an advisor in Alberta with Mississauga, Ont.-based Investment Planning Counsel Inc. “I’ve messed up [before] and they’ve fixed it; you can’t ask for more than that.”

Despite the importance of the back office, though, firms have failed to meet advisors’ expectations of this department year after year – and 2018 was no different. Specifically, advisors gave their firms’ back offices an overall average performance rating of 7.5. The difference between the two ratings results in the highest “satisfaction gap” in this year’s survey.

Some advisors’ dissatisfaction with their back office is a result of lack of communication between advisors and the back-office staff. For other advisors, the problem is that their firm’s back-office staff was reduced or is filled with inexperienced people.

However, some firms have managed to get the right teams in place in their back offices and, therefore, received high praise from their firms’ advisors. That was very much the case with regional independent brokerages Leede Jones Gable Inc. of Calgary and Vancouver-based Odlum Brown Ltd., which received the highest overall performance ratings in the back-office category in this year’s Report Card series, at 9.3 and 9.1, respectively.

Indeed, advisors at both firms praised their personal relationships with their back-office staff as the main reason for their high levels of satisfaction.

“You really get a sense that everyone is pulling in the right direction,” says an Odlum Brown advisor in British Columbia.

Adds a Leede advisor in the same province: “I get to talk to real people. You make a request and it gets done.”

Leede benefits from having a tenured back-office department because the firm didn’t reduce its staff during market downturns or when the firm’s two predecessor firms merged in 2015, says Jim Dale, Leede’s CEO: “We kept our experienced people and kept our capacity. There’s a loyalty in that group and across the whole organization.”

Advisors with Mississauga, Ont.-based managing general agency (MGA) IDC Worldsource Insurance Network Inc. (IDC WIN) also mentioned staff as a big reason why they rated their firm’s performance so strongly in the three back-office categories in the Insurance Advisors’ Report Card.

“They always answer our questions when we have anything [of concern],” says an IDC WIN advisor in Alberta. “The key component is the people.”

IDC WIN assigns a dedicated case specialist to each advisor who joins the firm and the ongoing relationships that advisors develop with the back-office staff makes everything run smoothly, says Margaret Lyne, vice president, operations, Eastern Canada, at the MGA: “[The dedicated case specialist] is someone who gets to understand how the advisor operates over time and whom the advisor knows he or she can contact with any questions.”

Although relationships matter, advisors also appreciate their back-office staff’s efficiency and timeliness in providing assistance. Advisors with Montreal-based Peak Financial Group gave that dealer a rating of 8.6 for the firm’s back office because of staff’s willingness to follow up with advisors to ensure problems are solved.

“The people are very competent and follow-through is excellent,” says a Peak advisor in Ontario. “The ball doesn’t seem to be dropped at all. If they don’t have the answer, they keep working on it until [the matter] gets resolved.”

Peak’s back-office management has morning meetings known as “huddles,” which keep the staff up to date on dealing with the latest requests from advisors, says Marc Doré, the firm’s president and chief operating officer: “[At the beginning of each] day, everybody knows that this advisor called last night and he has this issue. If somebody has to be involved, they know right away and can have an impact.”

Advisors with Toronto-based Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) also cited their back-office staff’s professionalism and, in some cases, improvements in the department as key reasons for giving the bank’s back-office a rating of 8.4, the highest in this year’s Report Card on Banks.

“The response time is better,” says a CIBC advisor in Ontario, “and when we ask for something, it comes correctly – whereas before, that wasn’t the case.”

The bank has been exploring ways to centralize back-office roles, says David Nicholson, vice president of CIBC’s Imperial Service division, to improve service and “provide additional training, leadership and consistency.”