Marbles sliding on a wood array

This article appears in the November 2022 issue of Investment Executive. Subscribe to the print edition, read the digital edition or read the articles online.

If comments shared for the 2022 Investment Executive Report Card series are any indication, when a dealer’s software rollout goes poorly, financial advisors feel overlooked and underserved. As one bank branch advisor put it: “I don’t want to be a guinea pig.”

So how can wealth management firms make a smoother transition to new software? “Where the industry typically falls flat is in not allocating sufficient time, resources and education to ensure proper implementation, and not being 100% clear on what the software does and doesn’t do before they commit,” said Jason Pereira, partner and senior financial consultant with Woodgate Financial Inc. in Toronto. Pereira regularly evaluates fintech offerings from vendors.
“When it comes to dealers,” Pereira added, “that is a far greater challenge because that decision is typically being made by a small group of people who may or may not be fully understanding of the needs of the larger community.”

More engagement, earlier on

Preparing for a software release is a two-way street, said Donna Bristow, chief product officer, wealth management, with Broadridge Financial Solutions (Canada) Inc. in Toronto. Broadridge provides its wealth management software to financial firms that in turn roll them out to advisors.

Advisor engagement is important, not only at the beginning of a software project but throughout its life cycle, Bristow said:“What we typically do is create a vision or roadmap and share it with our clients.”

That roadmap should outline the firm’s desired features. Broadridge shares this plan up to five years in advance, taking into account predicted industry movements and technology advancements. The company foresees more focus on personalization and digitization in the future, for example, and has been sharing this vision with clients.

Financial firms and their advisors then are invited to provide feedback on that roadmap. That is the time for advisors to propose features that the developer can consider in the software’s design.

Broadridge considers various user profiles when developing its software. This consideration is especially important when crafting the user interface, Bristow said. An advisor and an assistant will each have different tasks, as will users at head office.

Eventually, the developer will create a proof-of-concept software product that users can evaluate. The ideal situation is a continuous cycle of feedback and product refinement, which reduces potential misunderstandings before the vendor ships the final code.

Companies can avoid making advisors feel like guinea pigs by hand-picking a group of willing participants for testing software prototypes.

Mississauga, Ont.-based Investment Planning Counsel Inc. (IPC), for example, uses a three-month testing period to iron out product wrinkles, said Reggie Alvares, executive vice-president. That policy applies whether the firm is deploying third-party software products, such as the wealth management platform from Toronto-based d1g1t Inc., or developing its own in-house platforms. IPC also pilots the new software across several user roles.

“We bring in not only our internal testing resources, but also advisors who can help test over an extended period,” Alvares said, “so we can iron out the bugs.”

Taking software live

Releasing the software to production occurs after the testing period and any subsequent product adjustments. This is when the real work begins, as the developer must persuade a larger audience to use the software.

Companies needn’t roll out advisorfacing software to production all at once. Broadridge and IPC both use progressive releases, which are increasingly common, and involve switching on the software for limited groups of advisors over time. This process allows the firm to identify and fix production issues before they affect the entire advisor base, and potentially roll back the deployment if necessary.

Setting proper expectations is important, Alvares said. For example, companies should set what he calls a “warranty period,” a window during which the development team is available to fix post-deployment issues.

A firm should also be prepared to differentiate between a bug report and a feature request, Alvares said, as many advisors may not understand the difference. Ideally, the company will outline expectations for bug fixes, but will table feature requests for a subsequent release.

Tailored training and support

Creating groups of advisors and other user roles is a useful way to customize other aspects of delivery — especially training, said Hilda Tang, senior vice-president, strategy and enablement, with Sun Life Financial Distributors (Canada) Inc., which has recently rolled out new software as part of its digital transformation initiative.

Tang suggested segmenting groups based on level of digital experience and then tailoring software training to those groups: “For example, offer higher-touch training for those users who are nascent in leveraging digital in their business.”

Training goes a long way toward reducing the support burden associated with a new product, Pereira said. Self-service and online training often are easier to provide than delivering a three-hour classroom session, especially for independent advisors or managed employees who work remotely.

Savvy software teams also will collect data on how their products are used in the field, Pereira added. Now that most software runs in the cloud, measuring which users are interacting with the software, how often and what they are doing is easier. That telemetry can help identify emerging usage problems. Marry this with data from the support desk about which topics come up frequently and you can identify and resolve common software problems.

An audit mechanism also can help ensure that people are using the software, Pereira said. He encourages senior staff to visibly use the software they’re asking their staff to use. Companies can always tie their employees’ compensation to the use of the software, he added.

And there are even more aggressive alternatives. “One of the most militant ways to do this is simply to burn the bridges behind you,” Pereira said. “‘Oh, you don’t want to use the new portfolio management system? You want to use the old one because you’re comfortable with that? That’s too bad, because it’s not going to work in three months.’”