Desperate accountant head in hands surrounded by bills on paper tape, 1950s style office

There’s widespread dissatisfaction among the majority of financial advisors surveyed for this year’s Report Card on Banks regarding their banks’ back offices because of staffing issues, significant changes or outdated technology.

Advisors gave the Big Six banks an overall average performance rating of 7.1 in the “back office and administrative support” category – the lowest such rating for all categories in the Report Card. In comparison, advisors gave the category an overall average importance rating of 9.4. The difference of 2.3 points between these two ratings resulted in the largest “satisfaction gap” among all the categories in the Report Card.

For advisors, having a strong back office is critical. In fact, an advisor in Ontario with Toronto-based Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) described the bank’s back office as the “backbone” of her business. But when advisors believe they aren’t getting the support they need from the back office, they didn’t hold back.

In fact, advisors with Toronto-based TD Wealth Financial Planning, a division of Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD), gave their back office a performance rating of 6.7, down from 7.3 in 2017. They’re unhappy that the staff are inexperienced and poorly trained.

“There are a lot of inexperienced people who make a lot of mistakes that make us look unprofessional,” says a TD advisor in British Columbia. “We always have to redo paperwork, which leads to a lot of unnecessary extra work.”

Adds a colleague in Atlantic Canada: “The [back-office staff] are not very well trained or experienced. I think the people in those positions need more mentorship and coaching.”

However, Rowena Chan, senior vice president of TD Wealth Financial Planning, pointed out that advisors most likely were referring to the centralized team of sales associates rather than the back office itself. (She noted that the term “back office” isn’t used internally, which may have led to confusion about the two groups.)

Although the sales associates receive thorough training, Chan says, there are many new people being brought in to accommodate growth in that department.

“I understand how [advisors] feel because we’re [all part of] a fast-growing business,” Chan says. “Just this past year, we hired 100 new [advisors]. To do that, we have to hire a lot of new support staff. While we’re continuing to hire new recruits, there could be times that some new hires may not have the same experience as those who have been on the job for two to three years.”

Advisors with Montreal-based National Bank of Canada gave their bank the lowest back office rating of all the banks, at 6.1, but also pointed to their assistants as a reason for the dissatisfaction. The advisors noted that there aren’t enough assistants, and the ones who are there are stretched too thin. This means advisors often get bogged down doing a lot of the administrative work themselves.

“[Assistants] do their job, but there’s maybe too much being asked of them,” says a National Bank advisor in Quebec. “We have to hunt them down. There are always delays. It’s very important to keep up for the client’s sake. I have to spend 10% of my time doing administration stuff.”

Adds a colleague in the same province: “A lot of things have been cut and branches now are lacking assistants. This is incredibly important because we now have to spend hours doing administrative work when we should be doing our jobs.”

Nancy Paquet, vice president, investment, with National Bank, says the bank has optimized certain technology tools recently to streamline administrative processes that were handled by the back office in the past.

“Some tools that we’ve provided give [advisors] the possibility of doing something themselves compared with asking an assistant, ‘Can you do this for me?'” Paquet says. “So this is a change for [advisors]. But it doesn’t take more time to do it themselves than to write it down and give [instructions] to an assistant.”

Toronto-based Bank of Nova Scotia has also been going through a reorganization in its back office during the past few years. Specifically, the bank moved all back-office functions to a call centre in Toronto in 2016.

For the most part, Scotiabank’s advisors remain dissatisfied with the new setup, rating their back office at 6.6. However, some advisors are adjusting, as the rating increased from 5.9 in 2017.

“There isn’t really a back office. Everything is centralized and you’re put in a queue,” says a Scotiabank advisor in Ontario. “You don’t have a contact that you actually go to. And when they do get back to you, they don’t leave a contact name or a number, so you have to go through the whole process all over again [later].”

In contrast, a colleague in Atlantic Canada adds: “[The call centre staff] make sure everything’s done right. They actually call me on stuff and it’s very personable. I enjoy the hands-on approach.”

“Anytime you go through any change, there are some growing pains,” says Laurie Stang, executive vice president, Canadian branch banking, with Scotiabank. “We have a continuous feedback loop so that we can [find out how things are going and] improve upon the current processes.”

In the case of Toronto-based Bank of Montreal (BMO), its advisors have not dealt with any major changes to their back-office processes. Quite the opposite: these advisors complained that their bank was stuck in the past, as it still relies on fax machines for communication between advisors and the back office.

“The staff mostly does an effective job,” says a BMO advisor in Alberta. “The issue is how we communicate with them. We still use fax for a lot of processes, which is sloppy at best.”

Adds a colleague in Ontario: “Dealing with the back-office staff seems to be the biggest headache. Some transactions we can do right on our desktop, but others have to be faxed off.”

Meanwhile, advisors with Toronto-based Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC) gave the highest rating in the Report Card for the category, at 8.4 (up from 8.1 last year), because of the high-quality support they get from the staff.

“Anytime we need any assistance,” says a CIBC advisor in Ontario, “we’re talking to someone who is very knowledgeable and accessible.”