Despite vast increases in the availability of investment advice online, affluent investors continue to use advisers and shun the Internet.
Bankers and analysts say that though wealthy clients do visit bank Web sites, they still want, and often need, individualized attention before making purchases.
"People are beginning to realize that this infatuation with Internet-only platforms cannot work for high-net-worth individuals," said Damien Kozlowski, global head of business development and strategy for Citigroup's private banking division. "Everyone got very enchanted with using the Internet as the primary distribution platform. High-net-worth individuals don't want distribution channels - they want advisers thinking in their best interest."
Part of the problem, Mr. Kozlowski said, is that the products high-net-worth clients purchase are customized to their individual goals. "Those products are hard to sell to individuals unless they have contact with their banker," he said.
And several studies have shown that wealthy investors also prefer working face-to-face with advisers to getting advice online. According to a survey released Tuesday by Spectrem Group, 74% of high-net-worth households - those with $1 million or more in investable assets - use professional advisers. (The study also found that they are happier with the service and advice given them by independent advisers than by advisers affiliated with banks, brokerage firms, and insurance companies.) And, it found, in 2000 only 23% of the 19 million households surveyed obtained financial advice online.
But many companies continue to push the channel on wealthy investors. Goldman Sachs, for example, directs customers with less than $10 million of assets to the bank's Web site - a policy Mr. Kozlowski said is misguided.
The wealthy do not invest all of their assets in one place, he said. "So when you start segmenting them based on how much they invest with you, you cut yourself off from additional market share."
High-net-worth customers want technology to enhance, rather than replace, advice, Mr. Kozlowski said. He said Citigroup uses its Web site to aggregate its clients' accounts and provide information and educational tools, rather than as a replacement for the role of the branch adviser. It also provides customized Web sites for its high-net-worth customers through Destiny WebSolutions Inc. of Conshohocken, Pa., which also offers the service to Mellon Private Asset Management group and Northern Trust's private banking group.
Citi's sparing use of the sites may prove to be the right approach. Already some of its competitors in the high-net-worth advice arena, such as Morgan Stanley Dean Witter Online and niche Web sites like MyCFO.com, have been forced to rethink their strategies.
Lucinda Duncalfe Holt, chief executive officer at Destiny, agreed that high-net-worth individuals do not want the Internet to replace their advisers. "The Internet is in a process of being reengineered," she said. "One bank, one Web site, can't do everything."
Bank advice providers, she said, also have to decide what services they want to provide and how they want to provide them. Bank units that manage portfolios for high-net-worth clients must choose whether they want to be distribution centers for other people's products or providers of investment products to also be distributed by other banks, Ms. Holt said.
"Banks and brokerage firms have to decide what their core competency is - whether they want to be relationship hubs or providers of products," she said.
A relationship hub is exactly how Janey Place, an executive vice president at Pittsburgh's Mellon Private Asset Management, said she sees the Mellon adviser's role. Mellon, like most banks, wants to provide advice customers will use to buy investment products. She said the advice, especially when clients are looking for insurance products, hedge funds, or other alternative investment vehicles, can lead them beyond Mellon.
"We want to be a successful advice hub - the hub of a client's financial life," she said. "Advice reaches farther than just distribution. Customers want to be able to go somewhere they can have a single relationship, and buy the best products available" - whether Mellon makes, or even sells, those products or not.
Bob Kottler, senior vice president of delivery channel management at Hibernia Bancorp in New Orleans, agrees that being a full-service bank does not mean offering only proprietary products. For example, he said, even though Hibernia bought an insurance company, Rosenthal Insurance, six months ago, it still makes PNC Insurance available to its business customers.
"Our advisers knows their customers. They know what they need and which product is best for them," he said. "They don't care where the products came from and neither do our customers."
Even though PNC Advisors has strong proprietary products, including BlackRock mutual funds, PNC Advisors does its best to provide independent advice, said Thomas K. Whitford, its chief executive officer. Mr. Whitford said PNC Advisors wants to "be the adviser of choice" and it is impossible to do that if saddled with products it must offer first.
"We have to offer the best product available. One thing we view as critical is that we are always objective. We have to do what is right for the client and that means selecting from the widest range of products," Mr. Whitford said. "If you have done your due diligence and provided the best products, then you've done so."
Jamie Punishill, an analyst with Forrester Research, said investment products are just like anything else - the wealthy demand the best, regardless of the price.
"An empowered consumer who wants the best isn't going to choose the house brand," he said. "They want easy money movement, simple statements, and the best returns. They want best of breed, not the best you've got. I mean, would you shop at Wal-Mart if all you could get was Wal-Mart products?"
Mr. Punishill said if banks want to get more of a customer's wallet share, it has to begin by offering personalized face-to-face advice about products.
Judy Danielson, a director at Spectrem, said this quest for the best has led one-third of high-net-worth investors to use independent advisers, such as registered investment advisers or certified financial planners, to provide financial advice.
"Clients may be more informed about investment options, but they want help discerning the best choices. They want their advisers to point them to the best choice to make their decision process simpler," Ms. Danielson said.