Two Canadian banks are changing the way their branch-level financial advisors work with their clients, through the launch and expansion of digital communication platforms.

Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) and Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC), both of Toronto, are using new digital platforms to enable their advisors to interact with clients online.

In March, RBC launched its RBC MyAdvisor platform in a pilot project. MyAdvisor is a digital tool that allows retail clients to discuss their account remotely with an advisor known as a "digital financial specialist" who is licensed with the Mutual Fund Dealers Association of Canada (MFDA) and works with clients online.

"MyAdvisor creates a vision for the future for us," says Michael Walker, vice president and head, mutual funds distribution and financial planning in Toronto. "We're looking at bringing digital and face-to-face [interactions] together because it's really about reimagining and reinventing our business."

Using the online platform, clients can video-chat with an advisor and "co-browse" a dashboard onscreen, with both client and advisor viewing the same information from different locations. Being able to interact with the dashboard allows clients to see, in real time, information such as how much they will have to save and invest in order to reach their retirement, education or major purchase goals, for example.

"[The advisor and client] actually co-create a financial picture to achieve the client's end-goal," Walker says.

The pilot project includes 500 RBC clients in Ontario and four digital financial specialists who are available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., eastern time, Monday to Friday. The bank's goal is to roll out the platform nationally in July 2017 and to have 40 digital financial specialists on staff.

Then, by the end of the year, RBC plans to roll out the platform to its 8,000 MFDA-licensed advisors. As a result, RBC branch-level advisors could find themselves meeting with clients in various ways throughout the day.

For example, an advisor might have an in-person meeting with a client in the morning, then have a video-chat meeting via MyAdvisor with another client in the afternoon. Similarly, a client may choose to meet with an advisor in a branch one day, but then decide to video-chat on another.

"[MyAdvisor] really is [about]giving access to advice and choice regarding when, how and where [clients] deal with us," Walker says.

RBC is not the only bank offering a new communication channel to clients. In 2015, CIBC launched its Imperial Service Direct division. Initially, this platform was a means for clients with $100,000 or more in investible assets to contact a dedicated financial advisor between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., eastern time, seven days a week via telephone or email.

Some Imperial Service Direct clients now can contact their advisors via video-chat. Six months ago, CIBC launched a pilot project using Skype for Business (a platform offered by Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft Corp.), which allows clients to video-chat and share documents online with their advisors.

This pilot program springs from an earlier testing phase that indicated to CIBC that clients place great importance on being able to see an advisor face-to-face - even if it's on a screen.

"The feedback [from the initial pilot] was that clients certainly felt more confident making decisions [using video-chat] and that felt more like they were at the banking centre," says Grant Rasmussen, senior vice president, mobile advice, retail distribution and channel strategy, with CIBC. "They could literally be at home, whether on their computer or a mobile device, while connecting with us."

In addition to expanding the platform, CIBC is increasing its advisor force for Imperial Service Direct. The bank has hired 50 advisors to work in this channel over the past eight months and has plans to hire 20 to 30 more within the next five months.

"[Imperial Service Direct] is one of our fastest-growing - arguably, the fastest-growing - businesses within the retail bank," Rasmussen says.

This new application of technology not only meets the expectations of clients, it also meets the expectations of advisors, according to Gregory Smith, partner and leader of Ernst & Young LLP's wealth- and asset-management practice in Toronto.

"What we're seeing [in the banking business] is some demand by advisors to be provided with the tools and technology to allow them to engage with their clients in ways that are a little bit more 21st century," Smith says.

By making use of technology in this manner - whether it's video-chatting or co-browsing onscreen with a client or using other digital tools - advisors can communicate more effectively with clients and focus more on clients' needs.

For example, advisors can build "a more emotionally connected relationship with the client," says Smith, by talking more about the context of the client's investments or finding out about the client's life and what it is his or her investments are meant to support.

Human interaction is at the heart of both RBC's and CIBC's platforms. While both banks use technology to enhance communication between clients and human advisors, notably, neither bank makes use of such financial technology as digital asset-allocation platforms (a.k.a. robo-advisors).

So far, the only large financial services institution to launch a robo-advisor channel is Toronto-based Bank of Montreal, which launched its SmartFolio service last year.

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