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Brokerage Accounts

Investor Alert: Customer Advisory Centers—What Investors Need to Know

A desk phone and computer monitor

Some securities firms use call centers to provide support for a variety of administrative and customer service issues. Some firms, especially discount brokers, utilize call centers to accommodate self-directed investors. Generally, such call centers respond to incoming calls initiated by the investor. In most cases, the individuals who staff these call centers don't call you, don't recommend specific investments, and in many cases don't receive commissions or other transaction-based compensation for selling investment products.

This Investor Alert focuses on a different type of call center—the customer advisory center. It’s a center that’s staffed by securities professionals who may provide financial planning services, sell securities products, and receive commissions or other financial incentives for doing so. These centers have become common and, in some instances, can be sales-orientated.

Customer advisory centers tend to be characterized by:

  • A client base that may be determined by account transaction activity, portfolio size or household assets (for example, household assets of less than $100,000 or $250,000 or a different threshold).
  • Accounts that are transferred to the center without prior customer consent. Customers might learn of their transfer through a letter from a customer's broker or brokerage firm stating that the customer's account has been transferred to or "enrolled in" or "assigned to" the firm's investment or call center.
  • Customers who no longer have a single broker assigned to their account.
  • A compensation structure that creates incentives for center brokers to sell certain investment products or to bring in new money to existing accounts.

Potential Concerns

FINRA has identified a number of concerns associated with some customer advisory centers:

  • Aggressive sales tactics that can be different from the type of relationship the customer had experienced before being moved to the new call center environment.
  • Failure to gather customer suitability information.
  • IRA rollovers that might be positioned as “free” or claim to have “no fees.”
  • Mutual fund switches (the transfer of money from one mutual fund owned by the investor to a new fund) that might not be suitable for a variety of reasons.
  • Misrepresentations and omissions of key information. These could include failing to disclose the name of the fund being recommended and relevant information such as a fund’s investment objectives, portfolio makeup, historical income and yield information, expense ratios and sales charges. Be wary of recommended switches that you’re told would be at “no cost” or words to that effect. Switches can sometimes come with higher annual fees and be subject to contingent deferred sales charges (CDSCs) —sold within a certain period.
  • Failure to disclose the availability of different classes of mutual fund shares and the different costs and expenses associated with each option. For example, Class B mutual fund shares often impose a CDSC.
  • Inadequate supervision of call center representatives.

Mutual Fund Switches: Sometimes Only Your Broker Benefits

Selling the holdings of one mutual fund to buy shares of one or more different mutual funds may be appropriate under certain conditions. But some transfers between funds may constitute unsuitable switching, particularly if your broker recommends switching funds only to earn a commission from the sale or purchase. This kind of switch, in fact, is a violation of securities laws.

In addition to paying a commission to your broker for a switch, you can pay a price in other ways:

  • You might pay higher annual expenses or incur tax consequences from a switch.
  • Depending on the mutual fund share class that you’re switched out of, you might have to pay a CDSC if you sell your shares within a certain number of years. For example, if you redeem shares valued at $1,000, and the mutual fund imposes a CDSC of 1 percent, you’d receive $990. The CDSC normally declines the longer the shares are held and eventually is eliminated after a number of years, often in the seventh year that you own the shares.
  • Depending on the mutual fund that you are switched into, you might be saddled with a new CDSC holding period.
  • Before agreeing to a mutual fund switch, use FINRA’s Fund Analyzer to compare expenses and fees. The tool allows you to quickly compare total fees and sales charges for a given holding period and also provides a schedule of sales charges, CDSCs and redemption fees.

Seven Tips for a Successful Call Center Experience

If your existing account has been transferred to a sales-oriented call center, or if you open a new account that’s serviced in this type of environment, the following tips will help promote a successful experience:

  1. If you receive a “welcome” letter or other notice that your account has been, or will be, transferred to a call center or investment center, contact your representative or brokerage firm to ask questions about this change to your account. For example, you might want to ask:
    • Will I have an individual representative assigned to me that I can contact? Will they know me, my account and investment experience and objectives?
    • Will my new representative be permitted to provide recommendations on all types of investments?
    • What services will I receive from the investment or call center? How will these differ from the services I previously received?
    • Will I pay the same commissions and fees for the services I receive?
  2. Be wary of calls from call center representatives that lead to recommendations to move money out of existing investments and into new ones, particularly into a firm’s own mutual funds or other investment products.
  3. If a particular investment product is being recommended, don’t be afraid to ask how the representative is compensated if you purchase the product.
  4. Ask whether you’re able to establish a relationship with a single call center representative. You may be allowed to do so. Take down the full name of any representative that provides investment recommendations or tries to sell you a product. Use FINRA BrokerCheck to make sure the brokerage firm and call center representative are properly registered and to research the disciplinary history of a firm or registered individual.
  5. Help ensure suitable investment recommendations by making sure each representative you speak with understands your risk tolerance, financial circumstances, investment objectives, and any other information pertinent to recommendations that they might make. Accurately portray your financial situation and level of financial expertise, and be sure to update this information as circumstances change.
  6. Understand mutual fund share classes and the different costs and expenses associated with each. This will help you determine whether a switch from one mutual fund share class to another is in your best interest.
  7. If a mutual fund switch is recommended, make sure you know the fund's name, investment objectives, and fees and expenses. Be suspicious if the recommended fund is outside of your existing fund family: Ask if there is a similar fund within your existing fund family and the cost—if any—associated with such an exchange. Ask for a side-by-side comparison of fees and expenses between your existing fund and the recommended fund. Use FINRA's Fund Analyzer to compare investment objectives, fees and expenses, including a CDSC schedule, and other fund information.

Where to Turn for Help

If you have a problem with a call center representative that the firm can’t resolve to your satisfaction, you may file a complaint online at FINRA's Investor Complaint Center.

Remember, you can also transfer your account if you feel that you’re not receiving the quality of service that you feel is best for you.