Communications Audits and Architectures
Simplified Communications Architecture – US Private Client
“Chaotic bombardment” of advisors and their clients was addressed through a simplified communications architecture for the Wealth Management division, which produced hundreds of product-focused pieces to support the sale of products and service to its wealth management clients. Multiple, inconsistent formats and conflicting presentation of standard information had led to “chaotic bombardment” of advisors and their clients. Clients were confused and annoyed, and advisors tended not to engage with the full spectrum of Merrill Lynch products and services, focusing instead on the handful of offers they already knew well.
A communications audit led to recommendations for a new, simplified communications architecture for product and service information – one featuring just four templates in place of 700+. The new approach oriented information around client needs, not product jargon. In addition to realizing substantial savings in development costs, the work served as the underpinning for the “Total Merrill” rebranding of the Merrill Lynch offer.
Communications Strategy and Planning
New Client Growth Program
Research commissioned by Merrill Lynch showed many client relationships beginning below the minimum asset level for Wealth Management; when these relationships did not grow in the first 90-120 days, they tended never to grow at all. Merrill Lynch set out to create a red-carpet experience for new clients. We created a comprehensive set of digital and analog advisor tools and client touchpoints, and developed a distinctive look and feel for the New Client Growth Program, which was piloted in some 50 branch offices nationwide. We also created a tracking dashboard that assessed breadth and depth of new relationships under the program.
User-Centered Statement Launch Campaign
A comprehensive communications campaign was key to the successful launch of Merrill Lynch’s new, simplified Relationship Statement. Advisors and clients were key participants in the redesign effort – and their input was also used to shape the campaign and its materials. As a result, all audiences were prepared for the new statement’s launch, and the number of “unwanted” contacts generated was negligible.
E-delivery Launch Campaign
When Merrill Lynch wanted to enroll clients in electronic delivery of statements, correspondence and other required notifications, we determined that the real audience was branch managers – and crafted an engaging communications campaign targeting them and equipping them to become “evangelists” for e-delivery. Multiple creative concepts were tested, with the winner being “Happier Clients in 53 Seconds” – the time it took to go through the enrollment flows, which our team also designed.
Across multiple projects, hundreds of forms letters housed in multiple on- and offline locations were reviewed and analyzed. Through the resulting rewrites and simplified templates, personalized letters become authentic; form letters were transformed into brief messages (often delivered through a channel other than “correspondence”; and an “Important Notice” template eliminated hundreds of overlapping and redundant communications. Finally, a “LetterBuilder” program enabled advisors and their associates to send compliance-approved letters with personalized messages.
Intranets and Practice-Management Tools
PSM Website Simplification
In a pure creative exercise, the team developed multiple “skins” for an avatar that searched multiple Merrill sites for product and service information. “AskMerrill” was the concept ultimately selected and refined for launch.
Client Communications Center
In the context of a broader push for e-delivery of statements and other required information, we developed flows and visual designs for a Client Communications Center. Clients can specify their delivery preferences by account type and by communications type, quickly and easily.
Client Satisfaction Site
One advisor interviewed for this project described her working day as “being on ball bearings.” To help set priorities and focus on key clients, we created the Client Satisfaction Site, enabling advisors to take the pulse of any given relationship based on asset movement and satisfaction surveys, plus helping set priorities by identifying at-risk relationships.
Enhanced Prospect Preview
We researched and developed a desktop prospecting tool for advisors to use in conversations with clients. The tool drew on publicly available data plus a subscription service to estimate prospects’ net worth and suitability for a wealth-management relationship.
Hedge Fund Sales Support Tools
We designed a desktop tool for advisors in Merrill’s Hedge Fund Development and Management Group; the tool and its simplified data presentation enabled them to model client portfolios with and without hedge funds, and clearly explain projected outcomes. The HedgeComplete Proposal Tool was part of a broader initiative to redesign the relevant intranet around an e-commerce model. New functionality included the “Paperless AI” – the ability to send, receive and approve marketing and enrollment packages electronically, as well as qualify advisors to work in this area of the business.
The Owner’s Manual
There is often a disconnect between what a company says in its promotional materials and ads and the experience it actually creates for its customers. Attracted to Merrill Lynch by its promise of a positive wealth management experience, a new client was expecting quality when he opened his account. He also got quantity. In his first 90 days as a client, he received a small avalanche of mail, which he promptly hauled down to his broker’s office in protest.
We recommended that Merrill replace the existing suite of 14 preprinted publications and 30 generic letters with a personalized Owner’s Manual—a single, visually consistent and personalized client guide combining preprinted components and variable information. All account confirmations, disclosures and program descriptions were moved to this single print-on-demand document and, in collaboration with Merrill attorneys, rewritten in plain English.
Information was logically sequenced to track the preferences and practices of Merrill’s financial advisors, and the word count was reduced by almost half. Also greatly reduced were Merrill’s costs for production, fulfillment and printing. The end result was a much warmer welcome for Merrill Lynch clients in their first experience with the firm, and a much simpler and more intelligent introduction to the wealth management experience they were promised.
Plain-Language Agreements and Disclosures
CMA Account Agreement
A necessity can become a virtue when required documentation is rewritten in human language. A close examination of Merrill’s basic CMA (Client Management Account) agreement revealed duplications, inconsistencies and language referring to account types that no longer existed. Rewritten in plain English, the agreement totaled 12,000 words instead of 30,000+; the agreement was then information-designed to enable 1,200 words to fit on a page instead of the previous 550. The result was a human-readable document that was far less costly to produce and maintain.
Our work to simplify the documentation around Merrill’s suite of retirement accounts began with a close review of the legislation that created IRAs in the first place. Then, we worked with the legal, regulatory and compliance teams to write a truly simplified IRA account agreement.
Managed Account Program Descriptions
Reviewing the account packages across Merrill’s suite of managed accounts, we found a great deal of overlapping and duplicate information. Similar products launched at different times had inconsistent agreements and disclosures, and the document packages followed no logical organization. We created a single, consistent package to cover all managed accounts, with provision made for the variable information (chiefly pricing) in a separate section.
Form ADV System
We rewrote Merrill’s own Form ADV in plain language, and reorganized it along more-logical lines. Then, we created and rolled out a system for third-party firms to upload their own ADV documents to Merrill’s system for print-on-demand distribution.
Custom Collateral Roadmap
We analyzed advisors’ needs for customized, yet compliance-approved, marketing collateral, envisioned a process for producing it, assisted with the “build, buy or tweak” discussions, wrote an RFP and managed the proposal process to select a final vendor.
Lead Management Analysis
Ineffective communications happen for a reason. The solution is often found in the operational and organizational underpinnings. Targeted local advertising with vanity urls yielded lots of traffic, but led to few conversions. The reasons were ferreted out in work sessions with call center personnel, where Rapid Experience Mapping soon showed the lack of a clear, consistent handoff process from reps to the branch office. We recommended a new process and roles to turn warm leads into new client relationships.
Product Design and Validation
Extensive input from clients and prospects, via formal and informal testing, went into the proposed branding and rollout of Merrill’s “PlanTrack” account – an early entry into the robo-advisor space for retirement accounts.
We created marketing materials for the launch of “Total Merrill Bundles,” a consolidated product offer for clients.
Statements and Related Reporting
Merrill’s Relationship Statement was named the best in the industry by DALBAR for many years running. The basic concept – to report at a household and relationship level, rather than at the account level – was refined and tested with more than 1,200 users.
The basic tenets of simplified, user-centered reporting were extended across many other geographies and relationship types, including International and Employee Benefits reporting.