The battle to win more retirement clients is heating up, as Merrill Lynch rolls out Merrill Lynch Clear, a new approach that integrates sleek technology with a big picture focus on clients' lives.
The Merrill Lynch Clear program begins with an iPad app that advisors use with clients to start conversations about what's important to them, and then to adjust their financial plan to meet those goals.
The lead question is no longer Hows your money? Its Hows your life? explains David Tyrie, head of retirement and personal wealth solutions at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
Merrill has been running the program in pilot mode for the past eight months. About 3,000 advisors are currently using the iPad app to help clients identify their financial goals. Merrill executives expect the number to rise to about 12,000 advisors this summer.
Ken Dychtwald, president and CEO of consulting firm Age Wave, sees this effort as a natural response to the progression of the baby boomer generation. He notes that as boomers pass through life's stages, they have flooded institutions, beginning with nurseries and later high schools and universities, forcing them to successively change how they function under the force of the boomer generations demographic weight.
According to U.S. Census data, there were 79 million Americans over age 55 in 2012, representing about 25% of the nation's total population. The percentage of boomers among advisors' client base is even more disproportionate. Slightly more than half of all advisor clients are now between 50 and 70 years old, according to data from Cerulli Associates.
A Sleeker Approach
Merrill advisors say their new app is a much more useful than previous approaches for engaging with these clients.
"When I first started ten years ago as an advisor, it was here is an 8-page questionnaire, please check these boxes. This is a stunning realization for the client that we get it," says Kiernan Watson, a Merrill advisor in Alexandria, VA.
The app functions as a kind of conversation starter. When meeting with a client, an advisor simply asks them how important seven factors are: health, family, leisure, finances, giving, home and work. Then, with a swipe of the finger, the advisor highlights those areas that are important to the client, opening additional Web pages with research on college tuition, long-term care or other topics of relevance. Sometimes the data is illustrated using interactive graphics, to further provoke discussion.
"It's a simple, visual way of saying, 'did you know that X people need long-term care by age 85?" explains Tyrie.
Acquiring New Clients
Merrill executives hope the initiative will bring in new assets as impressed clients share their financial planning experiences with others.
Watson, who has been involved in the pilot program since the beginning, says that it has provided a framework for retirement conversations, such as legacy planning, and that he's subsequently obtained new clients through referrals. "They can't help but share what I've done for them," he says.
Of course, advisors have long worked with clients on retirement issues like long-term care and estate planning.
"We've already been doing this piecemeal," acknowledges Michael Davis, a Merrill Lynch advisor based in New Orleans. "But this helps us bring it all together."
Davis adds that "People spend more time planning a trip to Disney World than they do planning their retirement."
The Merrill Lynch Clear iPad app was developed in house, says Tyrie. The firm will begin a marketing push this summer, targeting Web sites that address specific client interests such as healthcare and travel.
The program represents the latest effort by the wirehouse to better equip and train its advisors with regard to retirement planning.
But the program doesnt end with baby boomers, says Tyrie. Merrill Clear may be targeted at baby boomers now, but executives and advisors expect to expand the program to embrace younger Generation X and Millennial clients.
"From a business perspective, this almost demands working with the next generation because these life priorities can't be addressed without their involvement," says Watson.
Jeffrey James, a New York-based Merrill advisor for nearly 50 years, says clients in the pilot program loved the new approach. James, himself 67, adds that participating in the program has given his lengthy career a second act.
Its given me the vitality not to retire," he says.
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