When Mary Mack reached for examples to emulate in the digital evolution of the financial services industry, Amazon, Apple and Uber were foremost on her mind.

As most people have changed the way they arrange travel and buy books, clients are now seeking a similar Amazon experience in wealth management, the president of Wells Fargo Advisors told attendees at the recent SIFMA Private Client Conference.

Much of Mack's vision can be traced to the efforts of the head of digital at Wells Fargo Advisors, Devon McConnell.

Speaking about her efforts for the first time since she was appointed by Mack last August in the newly created role, McConnell says to capture the new generation of investors, traditional firms will have engage them on a very personal level that goes beyond discussing numbers and instead considers elements like a client's feelings.

But doing so she says will require a complex task of taking a longstanding firm's most valuable intangible -- the reputation it has built through one-on-one client relationships over years -- and translating that for a digital age.

"It's an interesting challenge. How does that heartfeltness come through? It does not come through yet on our digital connections. So how do we bring that to life in the digital experience?"


McConnell describes the first few months in her new role as an intense learning process.

The former vice president of product and user experience design for AmercianExpress.com managed to pass the Series 7 and Series 24 exams less than four months of joining Wells. But when she wasn't studying securities, she was observing the firm, trying to imbibe and distill the company culture.

Wells is devoting resources to client research, and one of her immediate takeaways, McConnell says, is that while the firm enjoys very personal relationships with its clients, digital offerings among wealth management providers still is a focus on what she calls the rational, methodological approach to investing.

"What about that irrational side, what about the emotional side?" she asks, emphasizing the very human aspect that sways decisions and choices. "That heartfeltness ... You're talking about people's money. You can't get any more emotional than that."

As an example, McConnell discusses how capturing the right tone in an online presence can begin with simple settings, such as examining how visuals are done.

"What imagery draws in the client?" she asks. "It's action-oriented and less staid stock photography. It sets a tone. The moment you see something, does it draw you in or not? That becomes important for engagement."

The type of modern and sophisticated feel that resonates, she says, is one that is casual and trustworthy, almost like a trusted friend, rather than the traditional brochure ware type of tone and visuals, and anything overly professional or corporate.

That feature-focused, tonal approach is something the firm will carry and expand upon as it moves toward mobile offerings that focus on deepening the relationship online, McConnell adds.


The innovation process has already provided some interesting insight, she says.

For instance -- learning that instead of simplifying the online interaction with clients to "1-2-3 simple," with the idea that people want to save time with digital applications, McConnell says clients actually wanted a number of steps in order to feel more confident with the online interaction.

"People are looking for services in different ways. Folks expected to only have face-to-face, then over the phone. Now they've become more comfortable digitally, and that expands to having greater expectations digitally."

McConnell reaches for her mobile devices, which she says have some key examples of firms who can offer the wealth management industry lessons on how to engage clients online and deliver compelling service.

But she doesn't click on Wealthfront or Betterment. Instead, she cites as her inspiration the ubiquitous presence of Amazon and Fresh Direct in online shopping.

"We have to broaden our scope to what is happening outside the industry," McConnell says. "Those expectations people have -- they are not comparing Wells Fargo Advisors to our direct competitor. They are comparing it to their experience on Amazon, or Evernote, and expecting the same level or experience."

She admires the note-taking app and Amazon's Kindle for their seamless experience across different devices, she says, a standard that she wants Wells to set for its clients.

"Being that helpful to our clients is what we want to strive for," she says. "It's all about the client, not the software or the hardware."

There are a number of digital initiatives Wells has planned, McConnell notes. But rolling out the digital strategy won't be as straightforward as cramming for an industry exam.

"We're building out our short game and long game," she says. "No business is going to be able to function or succeed without technology strongly integrated into its model. We're building that digital muscle."

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