Having reliable, strong support from the back office always has been crucial to the success of any financial advisor. Nevertheless, this department continues to be an area that most dealer firms can't get quite right.

Specifically, slow turnaround times, inaccurate work and inconsistent information make relying on back-office staff particularly difficult for advisors, according to the advisors surveyed for this year's Dealers' Report Card.

This difficulty is evident in the ratings advisors gave their firms in the "back office and administrative support" category. Overall, advisors gave their firms an average performance rating of 7.8 and an average importance rating of 9.2. The difference between these two ratings is 1.4 points - a "satisfaction gap" that's tied for the largest in this year's survey.

Although firms' underperformance in this category is widespread, two firms - Montreal-based Peak Financial Group and Toronto-based Assante Wealth Management (Canada) Ltd. - appear to have found the magic formula for ensuring their back offices are performing strongly and making advisors happy.

Peak advisors gave their firm the highest rating in the back-office category in the past several years - and that trend continued this year. Specifically, Peak advisors gave their back office a performance rating of 8.8 and an importance rating of 9.2, resulting in the smallest satisfaction gap in the category.

Peak advisors appreciate their easy access to their experienced back office and enjoy quick response times from its staff.

"Those guys are smart cookies and they're tough, too," says a Peak advisor in Quebec. "They respond promptly and proactively."

"They're just the best: the people and the service," adds a colleague in Ontario. "They answer the phones almost every time you call."

Robert Frances, the firm's chairman and CEO, points to consistency and longevity in the back office as key reasons for advisors' satisfaction: "Some employees have been there for 20 years. That probably helps to provide a stable back office and advisors with what they're looking for."

Assante advisors also bestowed high performance and importance ratings of 8.6 and 9.5, respectively, on their firm, resulting in the category's second-smallest satisfaction gap.

Assante advisors also lauded their firm's back office for doing an admirable job over the years with few problems and mistakes. When issues do arise, the staff work as a team to resolve them quickly.

"Over the past five years, we might have had one or two issues a year when something went askew," says an Assante advisor in Ontario. "When that happens, minds get together to solve the issue."

Adds Bob Dorrell, senior vice president, distribution sales and service, with Assante: "Our back-office staff will interact regularly with our advisors [instead of] hiding behind an email address. When we do make a mistake - which happens - we are quick to recover."

In addition, Assante advisors pointed to reliable and knowledgeable staff for their satisfaction with their back office.

"There's a good level of support," says an Assante advisor in Ontario. "If you need a resolution for something in a timely manner, you can choose whom to speak with. I have a list of people whom I can contact, so I'm not in a queue on the phone."

In contrast, advisors who rated their firm's back office significantly lower were not hesitant to point out why it's falling short of their expectations.

For example, advisors with Winnipeg-based Investors Group Inc. and Oakville, Ont.-based Manulife Securities both gave their firm's back office a performance rating of 7.4, which tied for second-lowest in the Report Card. And with importance ratings of 9.4 and 9.5, respectively, the firms garnered the two largest satisfaction gaps.

Many Manulife Securities advisors said they receive inconsistent support due to the varied amount of experience among the back-office staff.

"It's such a huge company that you have a mixed bag of experience and no real consistent support," says a Manulife Securities advisor in Alberta.

Adds a colleague in Atlantic Canada: "It's confusing at best."

Meanwhile, some advisors with Investors Group complained that their back office often is backlogged and that the department delivers inaccurate work and inconsistent information. Others at the firm pointed to the introduction of a new back-office system as the reason for their dissatisfaction.

"We recently began a program called TransAct and the error rate has been high," says an Investors Group advisor in Ontario.

Todd Asman, senior vice president of products and financial planning with Investors Group, acknowledges the hiccups in TransAct since the firm introduced the program last November.

"When you [implement a new] system, there's oftentimes a period of stabilization required, and that has had an impact on service levels," Asman says. "The other platform that [handles] the majority of our business will be transferring to TransAct over the next couple of years."

In addition, Investors Group's back office has been dealing with a higher volume than usual after the firm eliminated the deferred sales charge on all its mutual funds this past autumn, Asman says.

"We're seeing a light at the end of the tunnel in terms of the short term," he adds, "but we do need to continue to focus on automating as many processes as possible."

Toronto-based HollisWealth Inc. is struggling to deliver in its back office for quite different reasons. HollisWealth advisors gave their back office the worst performance rating in the survey, 7.3, and an importance rating of 9.0, resulting in a "satisfaction gap" of 1.7 points.

Several HollisWealth advisors pointed to many long-standing problems in the back office stemming from Toronto-based Bank of Nova Scotia's acquisition of their firm, then known as DundeeWealth Inc., in 2011.

"We have to go through Scotiabank," says a HollisWealth advisor in British Columbia. "When you need something done, it goes into the void."

HollisWealth advisors will go through another major transition: Quebec City-based Industrial Alliance Insurance and Financial Services Inc. acquired HollisWealth late last year. That deal is expected to close in the third quarter of this year.

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