Finance

Insiders explain why Merrill trainee advisors are growing frustrated over client referrals and WFH stances after the firm’s cold-calling ban (BAC)

  • Bank of America’s wealth manager has aimed to improve a program crucial to training new talent.
  • But some trainees are frustrated and confused by some aspects of the program’s roll-out.
  • On a call held in early August, some advisors felt demoralized by a senior leader’s messaging.

Morale is flagging and frustrations are mounting for some of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management’s apprentice advisors as the wealth manager revamps its training program.

Some trainees are looking for new roles because of what they say is muddled messaging about the new program’s terms and supervisors’ micromanagement around how trainees are spending their time, four people with knowledge of the situation said in interviews with Insider.

It is a sentiment that could hamper the success of training up the next generation of advisors from the inside of one of the largest US wealth managers, which oversaw $3.1 trillion in client balances as of June.

The business relies on the program for new talent because it has effectively stopped hiring experienced advisors away from competitors in recent years, helping to keep a lid on recruitment costs.

“Morale is bad,” one trainee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about their experience, said. “I am actively looking to leave the program.”

A new emphasis on referrals

Merrill introduced the new program in May, and the stakes are high.

The business is aiming to graduate and hold onto far more advisors from its program than it has in the past at a highly competitive moment for poaching and retaining advisor talent. Merrill and its rivals are also seeking to train new advisors in a rapidly aging industry seeing more employees retiring than entering.

Merrill said it would cut the program’s length by more than half, to 18 months; permanently prohibit trainee advisors from cold-calling, a practice it previously paused due to violations; and placed a heavier reliance on referrals from parent Bank of America and LinkedIn reach-outs to source new clients.

Unclear messaging from managers about receiving and pursuing referrals, a cornerstone of the new program, has rattled program participants, three people familiar with the matter said. Two said they had been on regional calls where supervisors said trainees would not be able to receive referrals until after completing the program.

“The referrals are sporadic,” a trainee who has received referrals said. “The messaging is not consistent.”

Meanwhile, some say increased oversight over trainees’ daily activities — like fielding more questions from managers over calls they are making — feels onerous.

A spokesperson said leads and referrals from retiring advisors, Bank of America’s financial centers, and other sources are crucial and are available to participants at all stages of the program. The new program also places more emphasis on employee oversight as a way to help reduce risk for trainees and for the firm and help early-career advisors succeed, the spokesperson said.

Andy Sieg Merrill Lynch

Merrill Lynch Wealth Management President Andy Sieg, who joined the firm three decades ago, has run the business since 2017.
Brian Ach/AP Images for Bank of America Merrill Lynch

Merrill executives say most advisors are opting into the new program. Merrill President Andy Sieg said last month that 92% of roughly 1,000 trainees early in their training opted in. Of the wider program, which typically has 3,000 trainees, some 2,000 could complete the 3 ½-year-long program the firm plans to phase out.

“That is well ahead of what our expectations were,” Sieg told reporters at the time.

In July, the firm reported overall advisor headcount dropped by some 400 to 19,385 from the quarter prior.

‘It was game time a year ago’

Compounding frustrations are some managers urging trainees to go back to the office.

In an early-August video conference with employees, Steven Alch, Merrill’s southeast division head, told employees to turn on their cameras and to go into the office. Two people with knowledge of the meeting said participants felt they were being berated for working remotely and appearing off-camera.

That messaging from Alch, who oversees markets across states including Florida, Louisiana, and Georgia, upset some attendees who feel they have already pushed the limits of reaching new clients from home during a pandemic.

At one point, he referred to the moment as “game time,” striking some as tone-deaf because they felt they never stopped working diligently.

“My opinion is, it was game time a year ago. I was not doing anything outside the lines,” one of the people said, referring to halted cold-calling last year that he felt placed trainees at a disadvantage.

A spokesperson said the call’s purpose was for Merrill leaders to discuss opportunities to meet with potential clients and to share that all Merrill offices are open. Employees who have reported vaccination status are returning to offices, and that the company allows for remote-work flexibility through Labor Day, he said.

“Leaders encouraged attendees to take advantage of opportunities to safely meet with clients and prospects,” the spokesperson said, adding trainees were “encouraged to be seen and to take advantage of the many resources the firm has to offer,” to be successful.

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