Merrill Lynch introduces fully digital account opening

The latest step in Bank of America Merrill’s ongoing overhaul of its advisors’ technology is to digitize the account opening process.

With its new collaborative onboarding experience, or COBE, Merrill advisors can open several new accounts simultaneously, across banking and wealth management, in a single, paperless workflow. Clients can verify information digitally, log on themselves to fill in gaps or fix errors, and work with their advisor using real-time screen sharing, chat and video conferencing if they need additional help.

Processes that would traditionally take days or even weeks of collecting signatures and mailing forms can now be accomplished in a matter of hours, says Kabir Sethi, Bank of America Merrill’s head of digital wealth management.

“A large number of accounts are getting opened the same day or the next day,” Sethi says. “It’s a massive step forward in terms of productivity and prospecting.”

In addition to reducing time, COBE brings Merrill one step closer to a paperless future. Real-time status checks and on-the-fly verifications can alert an advisor to any errors (like the way an online store will tell you immediately if your credit card info is wrong), reducing the chance of a dreaded not-in-good-order (NIGO) later on, says Georgio Vuolde, Merrill’s head of wealth management digital onboarding.

In a demonstration, Vuolde showed how an advisor or client associate can bring a new household into Merrill by opening a joint brokerage account, two IRAs, a joint checking account with Bank of America and a custodial account for their niece all in just a matter of clicks.

Before COBE, this would have been five different requests, requiring five separate forms and five separate wet signatures from the clients, says Vuolde. Now it can all be done at once. Advisors can even put an order in for checks while they are opening a client’s new bank account.

This ability to open multiple accounts across the firm’s business lines sets apart COBE from other digital onboarding products currently available to advisors, says Alois Pirker, research director of the Aite Group. But it’s the collaboration technology that allows clients and advisors to go through the virtual onboarding process together that really differentiates what Merrill has built.

“Onboarding across the industry has improved in recent times, however, the processes to be found at most firms have system breaks, i.e. the client needs to provide a wet signature or upload a document, emails get sent between parties,” Pirker said in an email. “[These] all areas when speed is lost as the process needs to be restarted over and over again.”

Advisors across the industry are demanding firms make new account opening as easy for them as it is for consumers going to digital advice startups or robo advice offerings at retail brokerages. Yet building the functionality for advisors at large financial institutions is difficult given the more sophisticated investing needs of many clients and the legacy systems many firms still use, Vuolde says.

“We’re building this for very complex products with a lot of conditional logic,” he says, adding that Merrill plans to continually add account types, including trusts, until COBE can handle 80% of account volume. “You don’t have to do that for a simple, self-directed account. Plus, because it’s an advised relationship, there are internal associates who have a role to play.”

This is why Merrill intentionally built a single user experience for advisors, support staff and clients, Vuolde says. No matter who is opening, approving or providing ongoing maintenance (such as updating an address after a move) to an already open account, the process is the same.

Sethi will join Financial Planning editor Ryan W. Neal on May 12 to share a behind-the-scenes look at COBE and other technology developments at Merrill as part of the Invest conference series.

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