Oct 17, 2022

When I first moved to Germany, I knew approximately five words in German.

Schadenfreude was one of them.

No English word really captures the feeling of satisfaction one gets from seeing others’ mistakes that schadenfreude conveys. It’s the reason everyone loves a good blooper reel or why you hang out and watch through the end credits in the movie theater, hoping for outtakes.

To be clear, I don’t take any satisfaction when I see firms making mistakes in their client portals … quite the opposite. In this article, I’ll focus on the four biggest portal mistakes I often see firms make and how you can avoid them.

The biggest portal mistakes don’t have much to do with portals

In my experience, the biggest mistakes firms make regarding their client portals have little to do with the client portal itself. Far more often, critical errors stem from the firm’s portal strategy or mindset surrounding the way a firm thinks about its portal.

1. Seeing portals as only serving end-client demands

The first big client portal mistake that firms make is that they fail to fully understand their actual audience. While it may seem obvious — client is in the name, after all — the client portal doesn’t only serve client needs. It serves the firm, too, and we can identify clear use cases for client portals within the firm that have little to do with the end client’s day-to-day use. For instance, client portals can achieve the following:

  • Help wealth advisors or other support staff decrease time-costly and error-prone manual tasks.
  • Provide interactive, self-service capabilities to institutional client consultants.
  • Collect rich client data to help build better client profiles.
  • Improve security risk by eliminating the need to rely on email to contact clients with confidential reporting documents.
  • Free up client services teams from low-value tasks related to routine client requests.

When firms view portals only as an end-client tool, they often end up overlooking the important ways portals can help improve operational efficiency, automate and streamline workflows, and stay compliant with regulatory requirements.

But firms miss out on more than important use cases if they view portals solely as a tool to assuage client demands. By taking this view of portals, firms end up with the second biggest mistake.

2. Only looking for faster horses

1954 Bond" by Hugo-90 is licensed under CC BY 2.0 .

When asked about his mass production of the automobile, Henry Ford famously said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

I often see firms take the “faster horses” approach to their portal strategy by adapting existing features in response to client demands without really adding anything new. This type of reactive strategy may make clients happy with the portal in the short term, but may lead to long-term problems ─ namely, failing to anticipate changing client demands in response to new technology and trends.

The winning combination should ultimately include a reactive approach to current client demands while allowing some space for proactive dreaming. That way, when the next disruptive innovation arrives, it won’t come as a surprise.

3. Don’t assume low client engagement means low client interest

While we’re on the topic of clients, there’s another notable mistake that firms make ─ confusing correlation for causation. I often hear, “We have a portal, but our clients don’t use it. They simply don’t like portals.” Or “Our clients are all over 70 years old, and they don’t want digital tools.”

But what if clients simply don’t like bad portals? Just as likely is that the portal doesn’t offer the functionality that clients want, discouraging them from adopting it or using it to engage with the firm.

It’s true that some clients really don’t like portals.

However, this percentage is often much smaller than imagined. Moreover, determining those clients who like portals and those who don’t can’t be easily broken down into categories like “generational differences” or “only mass affluent clients like portals.”

Research shows that firms should practice caution when stereotyping digital adopters. A 2020 Merrill Lynch study showed that 85% of its clients with over USD 10 million in assets were early digital adopters — that is, the quickest to use new digital tools. Other research showed that digital adoption of banking tools among the 65-plus cohort surged during the pandemic period. And additional studies have shown that older generations are breaking away from the “doesn’t use digital” stereotype.

This means that if clients aren’t using your portal, you might look at the type of portal experience you offer before writing off low engagement due to low user interest.

Further, even if clients don’t like portals, it doesn’t mean they don’t still need to use them. As we discussed in an earlier blog post, we often hear from our asset management clients that their institutional clients simply want to receive their client reports via email and don’t want the hassle of accessing them via a client portal. But, for security purposes, it may be that clients need to use the portal — even if it means adding a secure email link through the client portal. The solution isn’t to go without a portal — it’s to find ways to engage even the most digitally resistant clients.

4. Focusing too much on what your peers are doing

Lastly, the final mistake I see firms making involves how they determine the capabilities and design of their portals. When we talk with firms about their portals, they inevitably ask us “But what are our peers doing?” While this is a valid question, it only gets you so far. Two reasons for this come to mind:

  1. If you’re an asset manager with institutional clients or a wealth manager targeting UHNW clients or a small to mid-sized bank and/or trust company, chances are high that your peers’ portals are not great.
  2. If your peers do happen to surpass you in terms of portal maturity, then you may be able to learn from what they are doing. But chances are that you lack the right internal resources or technological foundation to keep up with them … yet.

Instead of focusing on your peers, it’s more fruitful to understand what’s cutting-edge in terms of portal technology — whether that information comes from your peers, other financial services actors, or even out-of-industry portals within health care or entertainment. hen you can work to balance these cutting-edge features with the needs of your unique client base, business needs, and in-house technology platform.

Learning From Others’ Mistakes

Now that I’ve lived in Germany for a while, I’ve learned a beautiful German phrase that translates roughly as “Life is too short to learn only from your own mistakes.” While the above four points outline the only mistakes that I see firms make when they develop, design, and update their portals, I do think that if you heed this advice and avoid such mistakes, it will help get your portal project started on solid ground.