SunTrust Debuts Financial Planning Tools for Mass Affluent

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At a time when bank customers continue to show limited interest in traditional personal financial management tools, financial institutions are beginning to tailor such services to a new audience: the mass affluent.

Software customization lets affluent users, who tend to have complex financial lives, pull all their financial account data into a single place, the way mainstream PFM tools like Mint's do.

Data visualization tools let users see whether they are on track to retire at 65 or travel the world at 70, for example. Behind the scenes, the bank collects a treasure trove of customer data.

SunTrust Banks Inc. (STI) is the latest bank to strengthen its wealth management advisory services by offering such digital financial planning tools, which it launched Tuesday. The new service, called SunTrust SummitView, gives clients a place where they can check the status of their assets at their convenience.

Clients can also meet with the Atlanta bank's advisors face-to-face to set up the service and to set goals and track progress on an ongoing basis.

"You can't replace expertise," says Allison Dukes, an executive vice president in SunTrust's wealth management unit. "We are scratching the digital itch there. The plan is anchored in the dialogue. ...It's not to create self-service."

SunTrust SummitView could, however, let clients view their financial status when watching the Olympics at 10 p.m. to help them feel more in control. The bank says the product is meant to underscore its goal of helping clients meet their financial goals. "That looks different for everybody," says Dukes.

The service incorporates financial planning software from eMoney and MoneyGuidePro that lets end users view information about their assets in one place, run what-if scenarios, set financial goals, view refreshed market data daily, and store documents such as wills or insurance policies in a vault.

One somewhat morbid, yet practical use: enabling individuals who recently lost their spouses to discover where their assets are, and encouraging them to stay with the bank. Indeed, seven out of ten women — who typically live longer than men — fire their financial advisor when their spouses die, according to a "Women Want More" survey conducted by Boston Consulting Group.

Where traditional PFM tools offered through bank platforms continue to be used by less than 10% of banks' clients, insiders are identifying wealthy customers as a fresh start for some banks' efforts.

"You might say the rich are rich with opportunity," says Mark P. Schwanhausser, director of omnichannel financial services at Javelin Strategy & Research and a PFM expert. "This is an important target market for banks — especially those that have a hard time redefining PFM for a mobile mass market. The affluent market is a logical, ready, and willing target for this more traditional approach to PFM as an investment tracking and management product. It's easier for [financial institutions] to envision that ROI, and the tools often already are plugged in at the bank."

The bank-delivered service comes at a time when startups like LearnVest and Personal Capital have created similar digital tools, and offer the ability to set up calls with financial planners for a fee. Yodlee, which powers both startups' financial aggregation capabilities, also sells wealth management tools directly to banks.

Such tools can require considerable client effort to use. If a bank account password changes, the user will need to cough up that password to the service in order to see his data refreshed.

SunTrust, meanwhile, says 1,200 employees are trained on SummitView to help serve the financial planning needs of mass-affluent and high-net-worth clients to supplement the in-person appointments. SummitView is designed to fill the gaps in appointment holes and let clients check in whenever they want, thus reducing the advisor's workload. The advisor, for example, can set up alerts to monitor progress related to a customer's plans or age — for instance, to be notified when a client's Social Security is about to kick in.

What stands out immediately with SummitView is what's missing: banker-speak. One tab reads, "What are you afraid of?" to get users modeling scenarios such as what happens if Social Security tanks. Another, directed at women likely to outlive their husbands, frets: "What happens if I live too long?"

Where an advisor is modeling portfolio performance, a client is thinking, "Can I travel in my 90s?"says Joe Sicchitano, head of financial planning and senior vice president at SunTrust. "This levels it."

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