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Wealth Firms Need To Sharpen Consumer Focus: Thiel

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

That comes as the current addressable 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, according to Thiel.

“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 they arguably do not have the best technology, have been able to sell three million units of their latest version of their iPad tablet. They have accomplished this by focusing on giving their consumers the best experience they can.

Wealth management firms, Thiel said, should also strive to provide this same level of client satisfaction.

To improve, wealth management firms should focus on three things, Thiel 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 a financial advisor in Florida in 1994, working to meet quarterly with some clients proved to be too frequent for them. What Thiel says he learned from that experience was that he was imposing his standards for advice on the client, and needed instead to adapt to what those clients wanted.

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

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

Other ways wealth management firms need to improve is by making sure they really know their client, Thiel said, even as many as 20 different employees work to service them. They also need to understand the different behavioral tendencies between both generations and individuals.

That comes as firms are having a more difficult time attracting the younger set of investors. Generation X, for instance, has seen basically a zero return from the S&P from 2000 through last year, according to Thiel.

“I don’t think we’re thinking about now as succinctly as we could,” Thiel said of serving consumers. “We’re at risk of losing an entire generation of investors.”

Lorie Konish writes for On Wall Street.








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