Wealth management firms need to be more nimble in meeting the demands of clients in order to best capture the surge in available assets over the course of this decade. This is what Merrill Lynch Wealth Management executive John Thiel recently told attendees at the SIFMA Private Client Conference in Boston.

His message comes as the current investable wealth, measured by $1 million-plus asset households, was at $39 trillion worldwide in May 2011. Those assets are predicted to grow to $87 trillion by 2020 for a 9% compounded annual growth rate.

If wealth management firms are able to capture that growth, they could double their assets by the end of the decade, said Thiel, who serves as head of U.S. wealth management and the Private Banking Investment Group at Merrill Lynch Wealth Management. To do that, wealth management firms will have to adapt to what is now the age of the customer, he said.

"For years we have asked the client to bend their structure to ours, versus us bending our structure to theirs," Thiel said. "We need to adapt our organization away from silos to being relevant."

Thiel pointed to Apple Inc. as an example of a company that, though it arguably does not have the best technology, has been able to sell three million units of its latest version of the iPad tablet. Apple has accomplished this feat by focusing on giving its consumers the best experience possible‚ÄĒespecially when compared to its competitors.

Wealth management firms, Thiel said, should also strive to provide this same level of client satisfaction. To improve, wealth firms in this industry should focus on three things, he said. That includes organizing a financial advisory practice around the client, moving from measuring success based on benchmarks to how well clients' needs and desires are met, and recognizing the need to prepare financial advisors for this new emphasis.

Thiel remembered how, while working as an advisor in Florida in 1994, trying to meet quarterly with some clients proved to be too frequent for them. What he learned from that experience was that he was imposing his standards on the client. Instead, he needed to adapt to what those clients wanted.

The same is true for wealth management firms today, Thiel said. One meeting that he had with a Merrill Lynch client recently led to a new revelation: that client would prefer video conferencing meetings with his financial advisor.

When that same client objected to the reams of paper statements he received on his investments that he would have to shred, the firm moved to electronic statements. But those email versions only clogged up that client's email inbox. The revelation, Thiel said, is that investment firms need to make their technology offerings more consumer-friendly.

Other ways firms need to improve is by making sure they really know their clients, Thiel said, even if it means using as many as 20 different employees to service them.

They also need to understand the different behavioral tendencies between both generations and individuals. This comes as firms are having a more difficult time attracting the younger generation of investors. Generation X, for instance, has seen basically a zero return from the S&P from 2000 through last year, Thiel said. "I don't think we're thinking about now as succinctly as we could," he said of serving consumers. "We're at risk of losing an entire generation of investors."