Account aggregation is one of the most powerful tools in a financial advisors’ growth kit. It’s one of the areas where advisor technology is better than personal finance apps like Mint.com.
We put together this detailed guide to help advisors understand what aggregation is, how to use it, how to decide if it makes sense for your business and what to look for when you buy.
Account aggregation automatically collects financial information from accounts at different institutions – your custodian(s) and your clients’ held-away accounts – brings it to one place, and makes the information available to other systems. It eliminates the need to collect paper statements and manually key data into financial planning, performance reporting, CRM, client portals or other systems.
Account aggregation works by compiling information from different accounts which may include bank accounts, credit card accounts, investment accounts, and other consumer or business accounts. Account data is gathered by means of direct data connections and also “data scraping” where a user provides the account-access information allowing an automated system to “scrape” or gather the information from an interface designed for humans.
Direct connections, as the name implies, are connections directly between computer systems and are designed with the kind of consistency and specificity that computer systems require. That typically means the connections and data quality are very reliable. Maintaining these connections requires little to no attention from humans making them the preferred method of connecting.
Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, it is not possible to get a direct connection to accounts held by individuals outside of the control of a financial advisor. As a result, data scraping technology must be used.
“How can you tell if your connection is made by data scraping? If you have to provide a password you are typically using some form of data scraping”
Data scraping solves the problem of allowing a computer to access information that has been primarily designed for humans. A computer must sign in to another computer by using a person’s security credentials and then find and extract information.
Generically, there are two levels of scraping. 1) Downloaded: Information may be downloaded in a consistent format but must be accessed via a login form designed for humans. 2) Fully scraped: There are no useful downloadable files and a computer “scrapes” or reads information from the web pages (by extracting information from the HTML) and creates a file for use in another system.
So what goes wrong in data scraping? In a word, change …
Changing Credentials – When the username, password, or security questions and answers change, data scraping technology stops working. The system can no longer log in with the credentials it has stored and must look to the user to update them in order to restore a working connection.
This can become homework for an advisor since many vendors ask an advisor to fix the problem rather than going directly to the client who has the information.
Changing Interface – Website refreshes are great for users (sometimes) but they are really bad for computers. If a website is changed it will typically create garbage data or fail altogether until the aggregation vendor can re-map the changed website.
Changing Security Technologies – Updates to security technologies are often necessary. Security changes also often stop the aggregation technology from signing in which stops aggregation technology from collecting data at all. Vendors must adjust their login process to match the security changes in order to get the data flowing again.
Changing labels and references – Marketers will often change the way that things are labeled to make information easier to understand. Unfortunately, this too often can lead to errors in data collected via aggregation technology to the extent that labels were relied on to identify important data.
The varying ability of each vendor to deal with the difficulties of data scraping leads to a wide variety in the quality and reliability of aggregation technologies. Some vendors have developed a host of strategies for dealing with the problems of data scraping and can achieve high levels of reliability and automation. You’ve just got to know what to look for.
Many are using it already and many more are signing up everyday. Mint.com (17 million users) led this change with others following closely behind. Personal Capital (an investment version of Mint.com) now has over 700,000 users.
Clients expect to have one place to go where they can log in and see everything. They expect their advisors to give them a 360-degree view of all their assets and liabilities. No matter where they hold them or who manages them. Younger clients are especially used to all their data being a mouse click away. They are sick of remembering lists of websites, passwords, user names, and security questions. Yet, they want to know where they stand. Companies like Mint have educated consumers to expect this convenience.
The free services do have a revenue model. Mint use the aggregation data to make offers to the customers including investments.
Personal Capital (an investment version of Mint.com) supports over 700,000 customers. Personal Capital is a RIA looking to upsell their customers to their investment service.
Account aggregation can be one of the easiest and fastest ways for an advisor to demonstrate value for a new prospect and improve service with existing clients.
Dramatically reduce the work of gathering and entering data. No more hassling clients to bring in statements, no more keying and re-keying their data, no more manual data-entry nonsense.
Faster and easier access to client data. Give new clients quick and easy data-sharing from day one.
Monitor and manage assets you previously couldn’t, and charge appropriate fees on held-away assets.
Advising clients’ on everything they own gives them full service with one provider, you.
Having access to a client’s entire financial profile – what they have, where it is, how one account relates to another – allows an advisor to leverage that knowledge to deliver comprehensive financial advice.
Information for each synced account is accurate, up-to-date and available online. This enables effective collaboration, reduces client questions, and allows advisors to spend more time on value-add services.
Using account aggregation even as early as the prospecting process can have an enormous impact. The fastest growing advisors use aggregation to gather data before they attempt to gather assets. This approach allows prospects to participate in the same system the current clients do allowing them an unprecedented “try before you buy” experience with their financial advisor. As a result, closing rates skyrocket.
Aggregation gives you access to all custodied / held away assets and liabilities. Because better account aggregation systems update at least daily, you can monitor your client’s assets with unprecedented vigilance. In many cases that means you and your systems will know what is happening before the client does (even on assets that you don’t manage).
Aggregated data creates lots of opportunities to add value to your clients. Whether it’s a weekly summary or an alert so you can proactively deal with client issues before they even know about them through natural extensions of aggregation including portals and performance reporting. A range of integrations means that you can bring data from other tools CRM and financial planning to get an even more complete view.
You don’t want to be the “Geek Squad” for your aggregation software. Your vendor should handle all support for your clients without requiring you or your staff be involved.
Some features to look for include:
From Citibank to Green Mountain Credit Union, you’ll want a broad coverage of institutions across the country, big and small. This means that you don’t have to do manual updates.
You want custodial, held-away, offline assets and liabilities managed from a single platform, enabling you to monitor, report and make decisions with context.
You want the data presented well so it makes sense to have a client portal as part of the package. You and your clients can then see balances, performance, allocation and holdings – anytime, 24/7.
The data also allows for performance reporting to be included. Reports that are always ready, on demand online or printed. There should be no more ‘running reports’ or hectic quarter-ends. You can eliminate traditional quarterly reporting altogether.
Aggregation data allows for automatically monitors of your clients accounts with notifications.
1. Clean, accurate data
Clean data with the availability of the largest possible number of institutions is vital. This means that you and your clients get the most comprehensive view of their net worth with the least hassle.
A good aggregation provider should give you over 20,000 institutions as well as direct feeds to major custodians. Data should include balances, performance, allocation and detailed holdings. It should be easy to add and maintain accounts on the system.
3. Growing available institutions
Some platforms are inflexible. You may have specific institutions that are not available but you need to add. Ask how many institutions the provider has added in the last 12 months. If an institution that you need is missing, ask how long it will take to add it. The correct answer is days.
4. Provides the lowest possible error rate
No account aggregation system is perfect. The system gathers data from a range of sources. These include custodians and financial institutions and feeds the data into one system. The challenge involves the lack of consistency and uniformity in the data. For example, what Schwab calls a “buy” is a “purchase” at Fidelity. Aggegration software should interpret these terms and understand that they mean the same thing. No manual fix required.
Additionally, errors happen sometimes based on subtle changes. Custodian sites that can leave holdings with no descriptions or missing tickers. Sometimes even prices and quantities can be missing. Some systems do a better job of clean up than others.
Some target systems are less picky about data completeness than others. For instance, most traditional performance reporting systems need clean data to function. You need a system that cleans up and fills in data gaps.
5. Functionality that uses the data you have
Data is much more useful if the system uses notifications. Looks for notifications that are real-time and customizable. Look for reporting, secure data sharing & collaboration technologies.
6. Advisor friendly pricing
Cost can and should be a concern. Some advisors will cherry pick clients for this kind of ‘extravagant’ service. That approach introduces problems of its own. Treating some clients one way and others a different way adds complexity to operations. How do we decide which clients to offer it to? How do we make certain that other clients don’t hear about the services we only want to offer to a few? It’s a minefield. Clients who may not be the largest today are often the future of our business. Giving it to the ones we want to grow, is a great use of account aggregation.
Aggregation pricing should let you to offer aggregation as a standard. All your clients and select prospects get it. Look for charges by the client with no limit on the number of accounts per client.
7. Highest available value
The data is too valuable to just aggregate accounts. The system can help you fundamentally change the nature of your business.
It should help you:
Aggregation is all about providing a comprehensive view of a client’s net worth. This includes not just investment but held away assets and liabilities. Ask the question.
Blueleaf tip: Don’t assume that you know about all your clients’ assets. One new Blueleaf Advisor called concerned that the system had an issue. It showed that one client had a net worth of $6M when the advisor know they had only $2M. More research showed that $6M was correct. Within a year, the advisor was managing those assets.
Many advisors don’t bill on held-away assets because they don’t know how. It may seem too complicated. Worse, many advisors don’t think clients will see the value and pay. Actually, clients do. Almost ½ of all RIAs are charging for this kind of service.
Advice on held-away assets is an extra service offering. You should be compensated on services. Most advisors are charging between 25-40 basis points for this service. Advising on held-away accounts involves research, recommendations, and often rebalancing instructions.
By advising on held-away accounts you create new value for your clients. Also, you create an extra revenue stream for your firm.
Blueleaf tip: Ask the aggregation vendor how they can help with billing for held-away asset management.
“Getting organized” with their finances is a top goal of many prospects. Getting access to your prospects at the right time in the sales cycle is a powerful way to show value. It also lets you better assess their growth potential as a client.
It should be easy for you to invite prospects and for them to set themselves up. A good test is how many clients complete the setup. Ask for usage statistics to test this.
Aggregation should be simple for the advisor as well. In some aggregation systems, set up and operations can be labor and time intensive. In fact, it can take weeks just to review and buy a new system. A good aggregation system should be set up in minutes.
Blueleaf tip: Watch out for “training”. This shows that the aggregation system is difficult to use. This time is lost for you, staff and each client. Ask if the vendor what their approach is to making the application easy-to-use. Ask if the vendor is data-driven in its development. This means that they use usage data to constantly test and refine the user experience. Data-driven development makes for a much better user experience.
9. All-in-one functionality
The system should include other important systems. Client portals, document management, invoicing and reporting are relevant. Your clients get a consistent and simpler user experience. This means a reduced client learning curve and the elimination of many support calls.
10. Integrations – Easy, Fast and Simple
Ask if the technology is an open system. Beware of vendors wanting to be all-in-one. Great new CRM and financial planning systems have emerged in the last couple of years. Acquisitions have changed the landscape. We want you to have the flexibility to take advantage of this innovation and do what is right for your business. Look for an open API allows for deep integrations without manual work. The result is flexibility and a great user experience.
The truth is no system will have perfect coverage, nor integration with every possible vendor, but some are better than others. Some make it simpler to create new integrations. A simple integration process means that you will get access to new systems faster. This is key to your future flexibility.
Blueleaf tip: Integrations are good but the number of integration partners alone may be misleading. An integration for some vendors means being able to manually move data. Ask if the integrations are automatic and then ask how long it takes to add a new integration. The right answer is days. A long integration time means that the process is expensive for both sides of the integration. The story behind that is outdated technology. Fast and inexpensive means more integrations with more functionality.
11. Simple credential management by clients not the advisor
Most retail accounts, passwords and security questions are set to expire. Once the credentials expire it will stop the flow of data into the system. This can create a huge operational headache for the advisor. Some systems expect the advisor to solve the problem. The advisor can’t do anything other than pass the message along to the client. This can turn into a daily task for an advisor, creating work rather than relieving it.
The aggregation system should alert the clients and give them a simple update process. No advisor involvement needed.
Account aggregation can turn into aggravation. Ask the vendor what steps they take to make aggregation hassle free. They should include the following.
Expect personal help getting started so you can get the most from your investment and the platform. This onboarding help is coaching not training. Best practices to help you understand how other advisors use the platform successfully. No “training” on how to use the platform.
There will be issues with set up. You don’t want to be the one resolving the issues. Make sure that your vendor deals with all client issues as part of their service. Don’t become your aggregation provider’s free geek squad.
13. Simple business practice DNA
Simplicity is cultural. It is not just in the usability of the product. It needs to be present in every aspect of dealing with the product and the vendor. You want simplicity in technology, in the business relationship, and support. Look for a solution that is easy to trial and simple to set up an account. Focus on finding a system that doesn’t need training for you or for clients. It’s obvious.
Blueleaf tip: Look at the company behind the product. Are they burdened by a large company mentality and bureaucracy or lean and nimble? Are there complicated contracts? Are there long-term obligations? Does the vendor have big minimums?
Buying aggregation services should be as simple as the service itself. If you can’t buy the service in the same day that you’re ready, it should cause you to stop and think. If the vendor can’t make it easy to buy, how could they possibly make it easy to use?
14. Risk mitigation as a core feature
The aggregation technology should be built from the ground up to make sure that the benefits of aggregation don’t open up risks for the advisor.
Advisors entering client’s credentials into the system is a bad idea. It is time-consuming. It also might mean that they have custody of those assets under the “custody rule” (SEC Rule 206(4)-2). An advisor should never see or have access to client credentials. You don’t want to stumble into “constructive custody” territory.
Most advisors are held to standards of conduct in varying degrees. Recommendations they make must be in their clients’ best interests or be suitable. There is debate about how good an advisor’s recommendations are without the whole picture. You may need to prove that you’ve acted in a client’s best interest. This means a big paper trail of historical account data from held-away accounts. Your aggregation system should let you grow without requiring an army of people to maintain records.
The core to a successful advisory business is focusing on what matters; making your clients happy with your service as quickly as you can, and helping them as much as you can after that. The right aggregation system will help you do those things better than anyone else out there. Aggregation can help you win.
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