Ep. 113: Building a Seamless Tech Stack with Jeff Haines, Thrivent Advisor Network

“In the independent RIA space, there’s a great opportunity to provide a community for advisors. I know a lot of advisors that go independent miss the community that goes along with being part of a larger organization. And I know there’s been a lot of platforms over the years that have built and strengthened their communities, so that fourth category [of our internal platform], Connect, is really important.”

— Jeff Haines, Head of Technology, Thrivent Advisor Network

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The WealthTech Today podcast features interviews, news, and analysis on the trends and best practices in wealth and technology for wealth management, asset management, and related areas. This episode is part of our September focus on client experience. We’re talking to influential industry leaders who can provide technology solutions that help advisors build stronger relationships, improve outcomes, and enrich their clients’ lives. A quick shoutout to our sponsor, the Invest in Others Foundation, please go to InvestInOthers.org, and be sure to subscribe to our show wherever you listen to podcasts so you don’t miss future episodes.

Companies Mentioned

Topics Mentioned

  • The Advisor Gateway
  • The Core Tech Stack
  • A Seamless Advisor Experience
  • The Benefits of Standardized Workflows
  • Best Practices for Growth
  • What’s Your Client Portal?

Episode Transcript

Craig: I am happy to introduce our guest for this episode is Jeff Haines, Head of Technology for Thrivent Advisor Network, Jeff, welcome to the program.

Jeff: Extremely happy to be here to talk to you today.

Craig: I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you made it. Heard you were vacationing, you guys were out hiking?

Jeff: I was with my 24 year old daughter on her birthday last week in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Craig: Man I’m jealous.

Jeff: Yeah, it was fun. It was great fun to spend time with your daughter and to see the work.

Craig: Awesome, I thought, now’s the time to do it, just gotta get out, get away, you know, shut off and go. You can work from anywhere right?

Jeff: Yeah, we’re remote still and so I can work in a cabin in the mountains or I can look at my office at home or anywhere, that’s one of the benefits but one of the few benefits.

Craig: Exactly. Can you give us a 30-second elevator pitch for Thrivent Advisor Network?

Jeff: Thrivent Advisor Network is a best of both worlds hybrid RIA business. It’s built to help Thrivent, who is a fortune 500 company with over 100 years of experience helping people achieve their financial clarity and live lives of meaning and gratitude. And it gives advisors away to, in an independent manner, associate with Thrivent and the mission and purpose driven advice that Thrivent is known for.

Jeff: So, this is a network of independent RIAs, independent practices that we do run as an actual RIA so there’s one add, but they could do business as themselves and brand things in market things as an independent RIA without having to deal with the structures of compliance and registration and managing technology and all those sorts of things that we can provide for them at the platform level.

The Advisor Gateway

Craig: Yeah, there’s lots of competition in this space, a lot of firms are looking to help advisors with the back office and all the other systems. Let’s talk about some of the things that we think make Thrivent Advisor Network unique, one of the products is a new technology platform you just started rolling out two months ago. It’s called the Advisory Gateway, can you talk about what that is?

Jeff: Sure, the Advisor Gateway is a tool to provide basically three important improvements for advisors on our platform. The first one is that it was built to foster and enhance collaboration, it’s secondly, designed to upgrade our cybersecurity approach, and thirdly it’s designed to integrate across various technologies. So it’s a gateway that sits on top of other portals and provides a tool for both TAN and the advisors to communicate, to integrate our technology platform, and provide a more seamless experience for advisors as they’re running their day,

Craig: Seamless experience, so why do you need this gateway? Isn’t just using the tools that are provided by the advisor vendors become seamless? That’s a rhetorical question right, so they all say that guide integration, isn’t that seamless, why do you need this?

Jeff: Well, in many cases, it is fairly seamless, but it is a unique experience. For instance if you’re going from Redtail to MoneyGuidePro, which is a great integration. It does ship between vendors, and it shifts their experience and there’s not a unifying force across those integrations. And so the Gateway provides a single spot for advisors to go that will allow them to understand which tools they have, how they’re using them, how get to them quicker, and provide a TAN-branded experience for them in how they’re interacting with those various tools. So, yes, you certainly could just use the tools and that’s what we’ve been doing to this point. We’ve heard feedback from advisors that it would be nice to have it all in one place. Part of the reason why we’ve developed the Gateway is rather than have 75 tabs open on your browser, you’ve got one Gateway open and you’re able to navigate through that.

The Core Tech Stack

Craig: And 75 tabs is not an exaggeration. Can you go through, what is your base tech stack?

Jeff: So we have a base tech stack that we call a curated choice for advisors. Advisors on the platform, have opportunities to choose between a variety of technologies in each category. And so our platform is not anything you want but it’s a choice that we’ve gone through. We use the Michael Kitces map which I know you help put that together and that’s very helpful for us by the way, so thank you.

Craig: You’re welcome.

Jeff: Appreciate that. And we use that to look through all of the various categories and make sure that we’re covering as many of them as we think is practical and then providing choice in each one of those categories. For example we have custodial choices, two choices for custodians, couple choices for CRM, we’ve got different portfolio management management options, marketing tools, things like that. We’re trying to create a vetted list of technologies that we can support, and that can get plugged into the Gateway. So curated choice is really our tech platform, and we’re using all top rated vendors, we also take advantage of the T3 Technology survey that comes out each year and make sure that we’re choosing vendors who at least in the top three in each of those categories that they put out as well. We try to use the industry driven analysis to look at what tools we should put out there, and which tools would be best used by advisors.

Craig: One of the things you mentioned was the advisor Gateway provides ability to collaborate and content. Most of these platforms I see, and we see a lot of these gateways and these internal platforms that a broker dealers build or RIA aggregators build, and they’re really designed around the back office like here is your trouble ticket or here is here’s compliance or here’s marketing, but you guys didn’t do that. Can you explain how you segmented your content and why you did it?

Jeff: We took a look at this from the perspective of the advisor in their practice. They don’t really care which department is providing which services. So, we broke it down into four categories that advisors really care about. The first one is growth, they are really interested in growing their business. Second category is run, and many advisors spend a lot of time trying to be more efficient or effective, trying to run their practice. The third part of that is, protect, and so advisors need to protect their business, whether that’s for cybersecurity, or insurance, whatever it might be. And then the fourth one is connect, advisors love to connect with other advisors, they love to hear what they’re doing. Usually the first or second question I get from advisors when talking to them about technology is, well, “What is so and so doing? Who’s doing this, What were they doing, how are they doing this?” And so that connect part of that is really a critical part of that.

Jeff: I also think on the independent space, there’s a great opportunity to provide that community for advisors. I know a lot of advisors that go independent miss the community that goes along with being part of the larger organization. And I know there’s been a lot of great platforms over the years that have really built in and strengthened by the community that’s created so that fourth category Connect is really important. And in each four of those categories we’re providing best practices, we’re providing stories from other advisors, we’re providing of course the basic materials that we were talking about earlier, forms and compliance and operations and technology and product information. But all of those internal department, contribute in each of those four content categories. So it’s the responsibility of the TAN team to make sure that whatever we’re talking to advisors about, it fits in one of those four categories, and not something that we’re trying to do, because if it’s something that we’re trying to do, then it’s something we’re trying to do and advisors aren’t going to be as connected to that as they would be thinking about it from their perspective. So it really drives us to think about the business from the advisors in the practices’ perspective and organize it that way. That’s been pretty successful so far, we’re continuing to build that out, and we’re using video where we’re using podcast connections. This might end up being featured on our Gateway.

Craig: Alright.

Jeff: Let’s put a link out there for that.

Craig: That’d be awesome.

Jeff: So it’s really trying to be a more modern approach to organizing content and doing it around the advisor’s perspective.

A Seamless Advisor Experience

Craig: You also mentioned the Advisor Gateway offers a seamless experience to access tools, how do you do that? Are you front ending Redtail and MoneyGuidePro or is it just some sort of a single sign on, or is it more than that, how does it work?

Jeff: So right now we are using a tool called Otka, it’s an institutional level identification and authentication tool that many large financial institutions use to make sure that they’re protecting the information that comes up comes up after the password. That’s the tool we’re using it also acts as a password manager, and so we can, you’re setting up an institution to institution Single Sign On so that advisors when they click on a Redtail button or go right to Redtail, they won’t need to log in again. We’re also providing links to other sites that don’t provide that sort of institutional level, single sign on, but we can use the password manager part of Otka to make that more seamless for advisors. For instance where we’re putting links to the US Postal Service or UPS because a lot of advisors ship reports or send reports using those tools and they want to be able to log into that.

Jeff: So if an advisor has a business related patient that they’re using online, we’ll put a link in there and let them use the password manager part of Otka or if we were able to try to do an institutional single sign on, so you just automatically go right in without having to worry about it. So that’s pretty helpful for advisors to not have to worry about all that passwords as we all know, there’s lots of bad guys out there right now and so making sure that you’re using the best possible technology to protect in terms of cyber security is really really important for advisors, because there’s lots of people out there trying to get access to information. And you know the browser is fine, in terms of storing your passwords, but personally I use a tool like LastPass for myself, because it’s not quite as secure as what I would like it to be. So that’d be a recommendation for everybody out there is to start really looking at those password managers, personally, and make sure that you’re using top shelf cybersecurity tools to protect the information you’ve got for your business.

Craig: LastPass is a good one, I know we use Dashlane, another good tool. One of my big accomplishments was getting my mother in law to use Dashlane, and have her stop using her name and birthdate as her password. Big change. So with all these different practices you must have some examples of your clients coming into your network, and be able to do things that they couldn’t do before. So can you give me an example of that?

Jeff: Sure. One of the things that we’ve seen quite a bit of usage of is the workflow and custom fields within the CRM tools. So we offer Redtail, and Salentica elements which is a Salesforce based tool. And we’ve been able to provide a lot of custom workflow for advisors on those platforms. We feel the standardized workflows are great, but every practice has got a little bit of a different footprint, a lot of different names for people, different entry processes. So we’ve invested quite a bit in Salentica elements to build out workflows, specifically for practices. They’ve been able to come in and manage their financial planning process for example, much more effectively than they were able to do that before. They’re more efficient about it they’re not missing pieces, they’re more prepared for their financial planning meetings, regular update meetings, things like that they’re able to use workflows to do that. And so that’s a service that we’ve provided for elements.

Jeff: Redtail, we haven’t done as much of that, because retail is built for advisors to build their own workforce, on their own. So we’ve got a lot of practices that have independently gone into their own database within Redtail and build out a workflow, and using the tools that Redtail has for independent advisors, they’ve been able to build things on their own. We’re starting to work a little bit with some of the larger practices that are using that and also some of the smaller practices. The smaller practices don’t always have the resources needed to build out those workflows so we’re also doing a lot of work with that.

Jeff: And so that’s been a big plus for practices that have been in a more controlled environment in terms of their CRM, to have a little more control over that. That’s one of the things that I’ve learned over the years is that advisors use technology that they feel an ownership in, and they don’t use technology that they feel is owned by a large financial institution. It’s harder to get adoption because they feel like they’re doing it for the company and not for themselves. So we’ve really tried to build out opportunities for independent advisors to build things for themselves. Not that there’s anything wrong with those institutional Salesforce options, it’s just the ownership is a little different from the practice level and some practices really really value that. And that’s sort of an independent platform like TAN’s forum, if you don’t value that then it’s great to stay at a large financial institution, there’s lots of ways to provide service in this industry.

Craig: Right. Everybody’s different. As you mentioned earlier there’s no one size fits all, there’s different categories of clients and different categories of advisory firms, we’ve seen a lot of those. But yeah, there’s no one right or wrong answer. When you mentioned workflows, how many practices are in TAN?

Jeff: We have 26 right now, all over the country. Sea to shining sea. So where I was I was in the purple mountain majesties so I had to think about the sea to shining sea.

The Benefits of Standardized Workflows

Craig: So do you see practices that are taking advantage of your workflows growing faster being more efficient, more effective, more scalable, What’s the what are the benefits, the tangible benefits of using these workflows?

Jeff: Yeah, so for sure there’s some efficiency gain when they use the workflows, the staff is generally much happier because they’re more prepared when they’re not getting surprised by upcoming meetings and things like that so there’s definitely an efficiency burnout. There’s also a growth part of that but because they’re able to free up some time and not have so much time preparing for client meetings for example, advisors are able to spend more time with their clients and more time looking for opportunities with the clients, and also new prospects for new clients.

And the third category that we’ve really seen which I was on the technology side, maybe a little strange to talk about is the emotional part of that. I was talking about heat and humidity, the first two categories are heat, and the last category is humidity it’s peace of mind. You know some a piece of work may only take you five seconds but it might feel like five hours, because it’s really hard and I always forget to do it, and then I worry about it at night and the humidity just goes up and up and up in the practice. And so using the workflows really helps create a better workplace environment, and more control and more peace of mind for everybody in practice. So don’t forget about the emotional part of making technology change and making workflow decisions, is to not forget about that because that’s a real part of a practice, what was the humidity level there? And I see a lot of practices, be able to really reduce their humidity by putting in workflows. And that’s really a big payoff too, it’s great for practices 20 people, if they get a little bit, a little bit more efficient. You’re not going to win the game because of that, it’s just hard to make that much of a change with a 20 person firm, but you can make life a lot better by doing that, and that’s a real benefit.

Craig: So with your curated tech choices, you’re not forcing a particular platform onto the firms, but what’s the adoption rate of technology across your 26 practices? Sometimes we see higher levels of adoption lower levels of adoption, do you see the same level across all the firms?

Jeff: Adoption is interesting. There’s several levels of adoption, logging in as one level adoption. TAN has been in existence for just about two years now and practices have been joining over the timeframe. And, as in any transition, it takes a while to get your feedback on anything, right so the first 6-12 months are really sort of getting things set up, and now we’re seeing practices and really starting to to take advantage of those different technologies, dive deeper into them.

Jeff: So the adoption ramps here and every one of our practices is using one CRMs. Of course, every one of the practices is using sodium, everyone is using a portfolio management tool. There’s maybe one or two practices that don’t have a financial planning tool that they’re using but mining is a big part of almost every practice, and maybe half are using a marketing tool. So we’ve had pretty good adoption of the core technologies, these core decisions around CRM and portfolio management, investment management. Pretty good adoption on that. There’s our growing now as we go forward, of course we a lot of recent usage of all of our compliance tools too.

Craig: I would hope so. You don’t have to use compliance, send us a letter.

Jeff: If that’s what you want, talk to Craig.

Best Practices for Growth

Craig: Don’t talk to me. We don’t do compliance, but with only been in business for two years and having 26 practices that’s pretty fast growth. What are some tips that you found out the best practices around growing this kind of business so quickly?

Jeff: One of them is that curated choice, giving advisors control and ownership over its was technology decisions, back to the point about your have invested in something more if you’ve chosen out, and you’re putting your own sweat equity into it, as opposed to just using something from a big firm. So I think that presenting choice well it does create more complexity for us at the platform level. That’s a great trade off that we’re willing to make right now because it really drives usage of the tools and usage of that technology then drives growth.

Jeff: If you’re using your financial planning tool more effectively getting better plans, you’re going to get more satisfied clients you can get more referrals if you’re managing your portfolios more effectively because you’re taking advantage of what Orion or Black Diamond as for you, then you’re going to drive growth from that because your clients are gonna be more satisfied.

Jeff: Having ownership and as over my career I’ve learned that if an advisor feels ownership in something it’s much more likely to get used, and much more likely to get adopted. And therefore drive growth, and it’s a proven fact that the more of these technologies you use the more growth you’re going to get, because you’re going to have more time, you’re going to be more under control, you’re going to have your own best practices, you’re gonna be able to leverage other best practices, and it really then goes back to those four categories again grow your business and your business particular business and connected to business and if you can provide value in each of those four categories for advisors then you’re going to grow, and we have seen that from our platform for sure.

Craig: So, Jeff, another area that’s really important for advisors is reporting. I know you’ve done some interesting things around that with some of your tools, can you explain what you’ve done with reporting that advisors really like?

Jeff: Sure. So both Orion and BlackDiamond are great reporting tools and havegreat abilities to customize that. So we’ve actually provided services for our practices to go into those tools and we set up the custom reporting process for them. So if there’s certain things that they want to emphasize in terms of their portfolio reporting performance. We’ve got a very easy to use process that includes compliance, to be able to create a custom quarterly report if you like to do that and that’s one of the strengths of the tools like Orion, like BlackDiamond as opposed to the larger institutional level tools is that they’re built for advisors to be able to control that, and so we’re taking advantage of some of that flexibility. Some of the advisors needs to provide some custom report. They’re all branded using the advisors practices brands, and then we will sit down, work with them on the various fields and information that they want to our compliance team which is very focused on meeting advisor needs and turnarounds on those things and we’re able to get the quarterly performance report updates out fairly quickly.

Jeff: We do have some standard reports for those advisors that aren’t wanting to spend a lot of time on that. But for those practices that do want to spend time on that and have something a little more tailored for them. That is an offering that we have in terms of the services around Orion and BlackDiamond and the run book data tools, client portals are available to our practices to use, and we’ll be coming out with the client Gateway version of what we’ve been talking about that will be extended out to clients, and that will allow them to do single sign on to a bunch of various tools. And that’s a place also whether they will get into those portals, so client Gateway, is a follow up to the advisor Gateway which is in the process of being our first practices rolling out, as we speak. We’ll try to leverage the same technology that we’re using for advisors and providing those same benefits that advisors get to clients. All the things that we just talked about also apply at the client level. And so that’s what’s coming next in terms of the Gateway project at the Thrivent Advisor Network.

What’s Your Client Portal?

Craig: You guys have a client portal?

Jeff: That’s what this will be. Right now we’re leveraging the Orion portal and the Black Diamond portal for portfolio. We’re also leveraging the MoneyGuidePro portal. So, this will be similar to what we talked about with the advisor, a place for us to consolidate the sign ons, for us to make sure that we’re enforcing security at the levels that we want and then provide single sign on in the most tools for clients.

Jeff: And so the Gateway, will be part of that we’ll be pulling some information back from these from the tools, so they get a little bit of a summary level information at the Gateway. The client gateways will be branded for the practices so that it will be a seamless process for them. Once they go from the advisors website, click on the link, login, and it’ll look very much the same in terms of color and branding and so there’ll be a step in between going directly into the Orion or whichever one you’re using which are great by the way they’re fantastic tools. It’s just that we can provide another layer of communication for advisors, we’re adding some scheduling tools in there.

Jeff: One of the things I haven’t talked about in either of these gateways, back to the advisor gateways, as you mentioned, we’re providing a ticketing system for advisors to put in requests for changes or fixes that they need. We’re of course also always available personally by email and phone, but having more of a structure around that and way to track cases for advisors is something that we’re also building out. We’re also building those cases right into the CRM tools. So for the advisor gateway the face or the requests will go right into our Salesforce instance that we use to manage our relationships for advisors and create a case. And so then the case will get assigned to whoever is responsible for how we’re able to track that and make sure that we’re providing rights or results to advisors, improve the efficiency around that around that as well.

Craig: So I want to clarify, you’re coming out with a version of the advisor gateway but for the client is but it’s not going to replace the Orion or BlackDiamond portal, it’s going to enhance them.

Jeff: Enhance it, sit on top of that. That’s why we intentionally decided to use the word “gateway” as opposed to “portal”, because it is a gateway into the portals, it’s a gateway to other tools that don’t necessarily fit into the various portals or for advisors and for clients.

Craig: So, how will that look for the client? Will they click on it and see a different screen, will be integrated into the Orion portal or is it an overlay, how’s it technically work?

Jeff: So technically, it will be a single sign on, there’ll be a button that says, Here are your tools, and each of the tools that the client has access to there we’ll click on that and go right into the Orion world, as an example. We’re also working using some of the API’s that Orion, Black Diamond make available to pull back some summary level data back into the Gateway level so that they’re able to see their total balances in their account, and potentially with tools like MoneyGuidePro’s confidence index that little meter MoneyGuidePro uses to show where you are on your retirement plans. so bring that back up to the Gateway level so the sort of two way integration there one single sign on end of those tools, and also pulling some data back up into the at the Gateway level, it’s not really a portal but it’s more of a gateway.

Craig: Exactly, that’s some of the beauty of all these API’s and the proliferation of data transfer and the ability of firms to move data seamlessly between systems, more seamlessly programmatically, without having to go through the old ways of, sending an FTP or file transfers and emails and things.

Jeff: That’s the beauty of the way we were able to build team is to take advantage of those integrations that are already in existence. Rather than us trying to be in the middle of that, we’re leveraging the great work that all these vendors have done already, to create these integrations and what we’re trying to do is enhance it, as you said, using the gateway to put sort of our view on top of that. Because we don’t want to try to compete with Orion and BlackDiamond and putting together investment portfolio management portals because they’re doing a great job as it is, there’s nothing there to fix. So a lot of these tools have gotten to the point where the portals are great, and so it’s more about more initiative, managing that experience for advisors and clients and making sure that they’re having a more integrated experience there.

Craig: Jeff, you’ve said so much. We’ve run out of time. You’ve really covered everything, thanks so much. Can you give tell anyone who’s listening if they want to learn more about TAN, Thrivent Advisor Network, where they can go?

Jeff: We have a website thriventadvisornetwork.com, that’s probably the best place to go. There’s contact information there there’s videos, we’ve got a pretty good library built up now of interviews with various people on the industry. There’s a contact form there if you’d like to have our business development team talk to you, that would be great. That it’s probably the corporate answer to that, that’s probably the best place to go for right now.

Craig: Fantastic. Jeff, thanks so much for being here. Really appreciate it.

Jeff: Thanks Craig, have a great day.

Click here and schedule a Discovery Session to find out how Ezra Group can help your fintech firm grow revenue in the wealth management space.



The Wealth Tech Today blog is published by Craig Iskowitz, founder and CEO of Ezra Group, a boutique consulting firm that caters to banks, broker-dealers, RIA’s, asset managers and the leading vendors in the surrounding #fintech space. He can be reached at craig@ezragroupllc.com