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As stock trading volumes continue to hit all-time highs, Canada’s largest online brokerages are rushing to hire call centre staff to reduce wait times that have left some investors on hold for hours at a time.

Three bank-owned brokerages - TD Direct Investing, BMO InvestorLine, and RBC Direct Investing - are recruiting new hires to beef up staffing at call centres that have been overwhelmed with unprecedented numbers of client phone calls.

Since the onset of the pandemic, do-it-yourself investing has been on the rise as more Canadians, working from home, find time to dabble in managing their own finances. As a result, online brokerages have seen a surge in account openings, and trading volumes have more than doubled, while mobile applications have made the buying and selling of stocks more accessible. But the newfound interest has created a gridlock of phone calls as new investors learn to navigate online trading platforms.

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“It’s been a tsunami of demand which has flooded all boats - and now we are navigating through that tsunami to get those boats back in line,” said Sil Stroescu, president of BMO InvestorLine.

Last March, BMO’s trading volumes hit a record of about one million trades for the month as the pandemic stirred up markets. That was significantly higher than the 600,000 trades the bank saw during the peak of its 2020 RRSP season in February, which is usually one of the busiest times of year for trading. (Typical preCOVID trade volumes for non-RRSP months were between 400,000 to 450,000.)

Then another record was hit when trading volumes exceeded one million in December - a month that is typically the slowest month of the year for trades.

Paul Clark, president of TD Direct Investing, said the majority of phone calls are not to complete trades but are around education for investors. He said the bank is currently managing three times the number of calls it was seeing in November, with a large percentage of callers new to investing.

“There are a lot of questions about trading and how the platform functions that could be easily answered digitally through our online videos, so we are trying to now divert a lot of those calls - which end up being quite lengthy - to our education portal,” Mr. Clark said in an interview.

Mr. Clark said wait times will be back to normal - less than 10 minutes - by the end of March. To help alleviate the backlog, TD Direct Investing added 100 call centre representatives as of January. Mr. Clark says a further 100 will be hired by the summer.

In addition, TD hired 60 representatives to make follow-up calls to new account holders. The calls also prompt investors to use the educational videos that can take them through the trading process.

Last month - when markets saw an influx of new investors trying to cash in during a trading frenzy around U.S. video retailer GameStop Corp. - TD’s YouTube videos on investing were viewed more than three million times - four times higher than any months prior.

Similarly, RBC has been informing clients about self-serve options available online, as well as notifying new clients that the bank is processing their application.

RBC spokesperson Heather Colquhoun said the bank has been continuously increasing the number of representatives available to answer client calls. As of early February, the bank had increased staffing by more than 40 per cent since the beginning of the pandemic, and has plans to hire more throughout 2021.

Since the summer, BMO Direct Investing has added 80 investment representatives at its two call centres in Mississauga and Montreal. With a majority of staff working from home, BMO was able to expand the talent pool across Ontario and Quebec to hire a group of call centre employees who will continue to work remotely after the pandemic subsides.

Despite Mr. Clark and Mr. Stroescu both starting to hire last year, the process is a lengthy one that includes five weeks of in-class training and requires employees to obtain their investment licence.

In addition to new investors, clients are also calling in for password resets, balance transfers and opening margin accounts, which allow investors to borrow money to trade and that may require a phone conversation. (BMO recently changed some of its account opening requirements to be done entirely online.)

“This is a privilege to be in a position where our demand is so high, but we have to make sure that demand does not impede the client experience and having wait times is unacceptable,” Mr. Stroescu said.

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