Wealth management firms are taking steps to better customize their services for clients with more than $1 million, industry observers say.
A survey by NorthStar Systems International Inc. of San Francisco concluded that wealth managers have room for improvement in this area.
In the software provider's January poll of 5,500 wealth management professionals for "The NorthStar Wealth Manager Challenge Quiz Report," the average score for service was 32 on a scale of 80 points.
"There's a general consensus that firms have to customize their services to differentiate themselves," said David Irwin, senior director at VIP Forum, a division of Corporate Executive Board, a research firm in Arlington, Va.
He said the industry for the most part appears to be headed in the direction of providing better-tailored service.
Experts say it has become difficult in recent years to find the people required to provide such service, however.
Then there are bottom-line issues.
"You want to profit, but also deliver a good product, and you have to reconcile those two. It's a balancing act," said Gail Cohen, executive vice president at Fiduciary Trust Co. International, a wealth manager in London.
Some companies bend over backward.
Joan Crain, a senior director of wealth management strategies at Bank of New York Mellon Corp. in New York, said she spends around four hours a week, and sometimes more than seven, helping out one of the company's clients, a recently widowed elderly woman.
The customer watches CNBC and gets worried that the dollar's value could plummet to zero in value.
"I have to make her feel better," which means spending a lot of time with her on the phone, Ms. Crain said.
She said that sort of personal attention, not technology, is what "distinguishes one wealth management firm from another."
At Bank of New York Mellon, the typical relationship manager has only 40 to 50 client families to manage, versus an average of around 110 according to VIP Forum's "Wealth Management Advisor Survey" of 2,500 relationship managers this year.
Some companies are making organizational changes to free up more time for one-to-one service.
In 2006, Wachovia Wealth Management created a group that serves only law firms and attorneys, helping them dealing with a range of issues, from litigation services to disability insurance.
Wealth management firms are also hiring a variety of experts: Bank of New York Mellon just hired Ted Berenblum, who had been a managing director and head of ultra-high-net-worth investments for Citigroup Inc.'s global wealth management division, to advise clients alternative investments (he starts Sept. 2), and Northern Trust Corp. of Chicago employs a geologist, an engineer, and an expert on antique cars.
Some wealth managers are using technology upgrades to sharpen customer service.
For instance, BB&T Corp. in Winston-Salem, N.C., has added a unified managed account program.
"If you're not on top of your game, and you don't have a high level of customer satisfaction, and you don't roll out the technology and put good people in front of it, you can lose clients," said David Fisher, the manager of BB&T's wealth division.
Wealth management clients have more access to information these days, and wealth management companies face heavier competition, Mr. Fisher said. "Clients are more demanding now and more sophisticated."