The largest clearing company in the industry is about to get a technology overhaul. Pershing, the BNY Mellon unit that is also one of the leading technology providers to financial advisors, expects to release the second generation of its NetX360 technology platform and NetXInvestor client portal later this year.
As described by Pershing's chief information officer, Ram Nagappan, the new technology platform represents an ambitious effort to address several goals: to be a leader in mobility tools, to foster better investor-advisor collaboration, to improve advisor effectiveness and productivity, and to improve on Pershing's already robust business intelligence tools.
Pershing is determined to be a major player across multiple mobile operating systems. Nagappan argues that there is no mobility standard in the financial services industry. At the moment, iOS devices are the most popular among financial advisors, particularly those who use tablets, but many advisors also use Android phones, as well as phones with other operating systems.
Because Pershing believes advisors' brand loyalty to mobile platforms may change, its strategy is to build hybrid mobile apps that use HTML 5, but also incorporate native features of an operating system. For example, the company is creating products for the Microsoft Windows 8 Pro tablet that take advantage of specific features of the device, such as the unique gestures, live tiles and the ability to integrate the camera and location features with other apps.
Pershing is focusing on three mobile operating systems: Apple iOS, Google Android and Microsoft Windows 8. Among major RIA custodians, only Pershing and TradePMR, a custodian in Gainesville, Fla., seem to be devoting significant resources to the Windows mobility platform. Nagappan says that the Windows 8 Pro tablet system is superior to the iPad in several areas.
One is multitasking. Surface Pro tablets can perform more than one task at a time; iPads cannot. Say you manage multiple offices. You can open multiple tabs in the Windows 8 Pro tablet environment: perhaps one tab with information about Office A, a second tab about Office B and a third tab with a consolidated view of the whole firm. You can then jump from one tab to the other at will.
For firms that adopt the Microsoft Windows 8 Pro system, the Pershing mobile application will feel intuitive. The application has a look and feel that is almost identical to that of the tablet's system, and it uses the same conventions and gestures.
As shown in the image on the next page, the Microsoft Windows 8 Pro tablet version of NetX360 includes live tiles with information that updates in real time. It also groups tiles in clusters (My Clients, My Practice, etc.), and lets users resize and move them.
Layout and navigation have been simplified across all mobile operating systems. In most cases, you start off with high-level summaries, then swipe or drill down for more information. A summary page for each individual household offers asset allocation information, a net worth summary and money flow widgets - which can be customized at the user level. If you swipe this page to the left, other pages are revealed with additional details.
Pershing is addressing investor-advisor collaboration in several ways. One is a new three-level approach to document management. The firm plans to divide documents into three categories, providing a different container for each but presenting them in a unified interface.
To comply with SEC Rule 17a-4, the books, records and other documents that Pershing is responsible for will be stored on its own servers.
At the next level, advisors will be free to choose their own secure storage providers for their documents, including ones on which they collaborate with clients. These might include paid services like Box or ShareFile. At this middle level, Pershing will provide an audit trail to meet regulatory and compliance needs.
A third level will be reserved for each user's personal documents. If a client has an existing Box account and requests that an advisor send quarterly performance reports there, this system could do so. The idea is to make delivery to an online storage vault as easy as it is for an advisor to send an email to a client.
The improved NetXInvestor will also let an advisor segment his or her client base, offering a different user experience to each segment. For example, an advisor could create different Web templates for different age brackets. A Gen Y client might have a widget on the dashboard showing investments year to date and the next date of a recurring investment, while a boomer client might have a widget with monthly projected cash flows and yearly distributions received to date.
In its quest to enhance advisor effectiveness and productivity, Pershing says it was determined to make its products easier to use. One goal of the original version of NetX360 was to take the functionality of multiple Pershing platforms and meld them into a single unified interface. Unfortunately, this user interface became complex. The new version of NetX360 promises to be much simpler. Only the most commonly accessed functions will be displayed on high-level screens, and navigation will be clearer.
In another nod to ease of use, NetX360 plans to incorporate voice biometrics and natural language processing, although these features may not make it into the initial release of the new NetX360. Voice biometrics would allow advisors to authenticate and sign on to NetX360 using their voice as an identifier, without needing to remember usernames and passwords. Natural language processing means that you will be able to navigate NetX360 by voice as opposed to mouse and keyboard. For example, you could say "Open NetX360" to launch the app, and then say, "Show me the last five transactions for John Smith's Roth IRA account." Nothing on the market, including iOS devices, is capable of doing this today.
Although a goal is to minimize the need for training, you can never eliminate it, so NetX360 will have a robust self-help training center that allows users to access audio and video training.
Role-based templates will provide customization, so client service personnel will have a different user experience than portfolio management staff. Each user will be able to personalize the environment, creating dashboards, for instance, through a widget library. Widgets from other applications, including CRM and financial planning, also will be incorporated into these dashboards.
The net effect will be to allow each user to expose, at the top level, only the functions and information he needs to perform his job.
Integration is another key piece of the puzzle. Nagappan says that NetX360 already supports more than 240 integrations, but there are more to come. Pershing will open the NetXInvestor REST API, which is essentially a standardized method of allowing multiple applications to communicate with one another. This means that if a B-D or advisory firm creates its own data or subscribes to a third party that provides such data, it will be able to feed the data stream to the client's NetXInvestor. What's more, Pershing's tech ecosystem promises to host apps created by B-Ds and advisors.
The planned improvements to business intelligence follow along the same lines as those of NetX360. Currently NetX360 includes a great deal of analytical information, but much of it is not easily accessed or consumed by NetX360 users. Pershing is reworking the user interface to make it simple to use and template driven, so that many more users can benefit from the data available to them to improve their business.
These new products illustrate Pershing's determination to be a technology leader. Particularly impressive are the company's commitments to redesign the user interface, to incorporate new technologies like natural language processing and voice biometrics, and to create mobile apps specifically for Windows 8.
There will undoubtedly be bumps along the road, but Pershing seems capable of delivering an improved user experience, and better functionality, for both advisors and their clients.
Joel Bruckenstein, CFP, a Financial Planning columnist, is co-creator of the Technology Tools for Today conference series and technology guides for advisors, including the Technology Tools for Today's High-Margin Practice. For more information, visit JoelBruckenstein.com.