Brooke’s Note: When Schwab first announced in November that it was going into the RIA technology review business, we were intrigued to say the least. Establishing yourself as a successful reviewer is nothing if not an exercise in acting as a dispassionate third party. This is, I can attest as an RIA-technology reviewer, very difficult. There are so many aspects to technology, including functionality, solidity, slickness, ease of integration, service, cost and long-term viability of the company. And presuming that any of these aspects is reviewable based on a demo — or several of them — is questionable. For Schwab to do it as a player in not only the software market but also as an RIA custodian … well, it’s a bold juggling act. It’s also commendable. It seems Schwab has gotten off to a good start by making itself the subject of the first review and not sugarcoating it. (It largely jibes with the review that RIABiz did of PortfolioCenter: Schwab PortfolioCenter may be poised to shed its utilitarian image. Still, the review is feather light details. And the part at its end where Schwab reviews itself is about as corporate and not in the spirit of a review as you could imagine. (It’s all published below so you can decide whether I’m being fair in my own review of the review.) I’m rooting for Schwab to succeed in this endeavor, because there is a void in the marketplace and indeed RIABiz does few reviews itself anymore — for a host of reasons relating to the difficulty of doing it well.

In order for OpenView MarketSquare to succeed, Schwab faces the delicate task of convincing vendors to agree to be reviewed by RIAs and to have those condensed reviews posted for all subscribers to see. See: Schwab bids to become the 'Zagat’ of RIA technology and to nix ink signatures from RIA life.

It’s a given that nobody likes reading bad things about themselves, so Schwab leaders decided to convince vendors to be part of this new venture by reviewing Schwab PortfolioCenter based on the real reviews they’ve received from RIAs.

And so, at the T3 Conference (Technology Tools for Today) in Miami this week, Schwab leaders distributed their own product review based on reviews from RIAs to persuade other vendors that being reviewed isn’t so terrible.

“We want to make sure we have really good in-depth reviews,” says Brian Shenson, Schwab’s vice president of advisor technology solutions. “We’ve come up with a compelling, succinct and credible way to do this. We’re eating our own cooking and are letting everyone read our own review of ourselves to understand how the process works.”

Schwab Advisor Services received 400 reviews from advisors spelling out exactly what they love and hate about 70 technology systems they use.

A look in the mirror

MarketSquare, Shenson explained Monday at a Schwab Tech Talk session, takes all of the reviews it receives on one product and summarizes them into one overall review, a la Zagat, that is then posted on the site. This means a review from an advisor who just despises a product wouldn’t get posted in full, but may be excerpted. The summary review is supposed to include insights from all of the reviews.

A vendor will get reviewed if the technology firm agrees to participate, so Shenson’s task is to convince technology vendors to agree to be part of this open forum.

Brian Shenson with Schwab tech chief Neesha Hathi and Naureen Hassan, senior vice president of client experience, at a "Tech Talk" late last year. discussing plans for MarketSquare.
Brian Shenson with Schwab tech chief
Neesha Hathi and Naureen Hassan, senior
vice president of client experience, at
a "Tech Talk" late last year.
discussing plans for MarketSquare.

Schwab received 71 reviews of its product. The company’s overall rating merited four out of a possible five stars. PortfolioCenter earned four stars for features and functionalities, integration with other tools, initial translation and setup and vendor cost. The product garnered 4.5 stars for customer service and support. Schwab’s review (see below) seemed candid. In fact, the review is not that different from RIABiz’ review in 2010. See: Schwab PortfolioCenter may be poised to shed its utilitarian image.

That 'vintage’ feel

Here is Schwab’s review of PortfolioCenter:

Sobeitesque …. functional and not very exciting … Overall, reviewers had generally positive feedback regarding PortfolioCenter. Several firms had used PortfolioCenter for many years — however, with that longevity came some concerns that areas of the program can feel dated. Nonetheless, it’s a “reliable product,” according to many reviewers, with solid features and functionality.

Some considered it “integral to the functioning of our business.”

Areas where reviewers felt the solution needed improvement included “still weak” reporting capabilities— as one reviewer noted, “Presentation Studio has a long way to go…” Users also commented that the interface has a “vintage” feel that could benefit from an update.

Reviewers’ opinions were varied regarding PortfolioCenter’s ease of use, though a majority of users considered the program simple to learn and implement. A smaller group of reviewers also hoped that more enhancements for the system are on the way. Support is considered strength, with consistently positive feedback, highlighting a team that’s friendly, “responsive” and “extremely helpful.”

As with all of its vendors who agree to be listed, Schwab will let the company give its own feedback as well. Here is what Schwab wrote about its own product that will follow that review:

Vendor Comments. “Our large, loyal client base is extremely important to our business, and that’s why we continuously invest in improvements to our products, putting feedback from advisors like you into action. We deliver multiple product updates each year based on some of the most requested features. Recently, we enhanced the Client Presentations reporting capabilities to provide greater customization and introduced new easy-to-use billing statements. Advisors can also look forward to a hosted version of PortfolioCenter in the coming months that will provide anytime, anywhere access to data and reports without the burden of technology infrastructure management.”

The program was launched at IMPACT in November by Schwab technology chief Neesha Hathi. She was scheduled to speak Monday but stayed home due to an illness. See: Schwab bids to become the 'Zagat’ of RIA technology and to nix ink signatures from RIA life.