Advisors have been asking for better software integration for a long time. But even though a number of medley packages have been marketed, the vast majority of advisors are as frustrated today as they were several years ago. In one 2008 industry survey, only 10% of respondents said they were very happy with the level of integration among their software products. When advisors were asked to name their top technology challenges for the 2008 FPA Practitioner Technology Report, a recurring top problem was getting their software applications to talk to each other (merging client account information, creating harmony among software packages, and then getting the software to dovetail with their processes).

It's easy to understand why advisors are so focused on this topic. When the technology report asked what was most important to them about technology, they most often said it should save them time (and therefore money). Not only does an integrated system do this, but it also substantially reduces the number of data entry errors.

A good integrated software system should allow an advisor a single point of data entry. Its customers should be able to enter the same data into a separate financial planning package, a separate portfolio management package or a separate CRM package, and only do it once, so all three programs could share it.

For those who missed last month's column, a study by Moss Adams sponsored by Fidelity helps quantify the true benefits of fused systems. According to the study, RIAs who used integrated core technology platforms had 36% higher revenues per professional than those who didn't. In addition, the same study found that such platforms offered 30% higher profits per owner. Fidelity's WealthCentral, profiled here in March, offers one solution. AdvisorConnect, the subject of this month's column, offers another.

AdvisorConnect's ambition, like Wealth­Central's, is to link three "best of breed" products into a unified Web platform for end users, in this case merging MoneyGuidePro for financial planning, Orion Advisor Services for portfolio management/reporting and E*Assist for client relationship management (CRM).

The offerings are by no means identical, however. WealthCentral's components are different from AdvisorConnect's, and Fidelity's platform will launch with a trade order management/rebalancing module, which AdvisorConnect has yet to offer. Furthermore, the WealthCentral platform offers near seamless integration with the Fidelity back office system, something AdvisorConnect cannot match.

Despite these differences, the AdvisorConnect has much to recommend it, including three strong core components.

MoneyGuidePro, which I covered in depth last year (see "Still The One," in the September 2008 issue), is arguably one of the best, if not the best goal-based financial planning program on the market today.

Orion, meanwhile, offers back office help for portfolio management and reporting, keeping your client's portfolio data on its secure servers. The firm also performs daily downloads and data reconciliation, and provides backup and disaster recovery. Orion can also integrate its data with the advisor's own Web site, where portfolio reports can be tapped by advisory employees, clients and other approved parties.

Orion touts itself as a high-touch service bureau, and claims to answer 85% of its clients' support requests within two hours. They tailor their offering to advisor needs, so if you want the firm to calculate fees and do your billing, including the mailing of invoices, the firm can handle it and also send out custom reports.

The third component of the initial offering is E*Assist, an online CRM application specific to the financial services industry. Since E*Assist is less familiar to readers than either MoneyGuidePro or Orion, I'll devote a bit more time to this critical application. I say "critical" because in most financial service firms, CRM plays a crucial role in prospecting, client service, client retention, time management, task management and work-flow management, among other things.

E*Assist is built on top of, a leader in CRM and "cloud computing"  (the outsourcing of computing resources over the Internet). Thus users get access to all of the inherent Salesforce advantages such as on-demand CRM and its ability to operate without any additional hardware or software.

Through the Salesforce platform, E*Assist can work with a wide variety of other applications such as Dow Jones Wealth Manager (for personal client communications) and the LaserApp Enterprise Connector (for integration with LaserApp).

The basic navigation of E*Assist is intuitive. It has a navigation bar along the left side of the page that gives you access to its most important areas. You can also customize the navigation tabs along the top of the page, and while some of the tabs offer identical information, they organize the data differently. In the test account I used, the program included tabs for homes, households, individuals, financial accounts, holdings and reports, among other things, and even though an individual is also part of a household, having two ways into the information is useful. Also, the program allows you to make notes and view reports or history as it relates to a full household or to an individual, for example, or you can see the relationship between the financial accounts view and the holdings view.

Most pages have drop-down menus with built-in filters, so you can further sort categories such as households in various ways effortlessly. In many cases, clicking on a data point such as the name of a household allows you to drill down for more details.

The default view of the home page includes two work-flow lists (one for client service and one for compliance), as well as a calendar and open tasks. If I had wanted to, I could have added other elements such as a performance dashboard (showing the best- and worst-performing accounts graphically). I'd like to see more options, but the ones it has are a good starting point. There is also a search tool, a financial calculator (which will probably be of limited use to AdvisorConnect users), a "wealth map" (which indicates the geographic dispersion of your clients by net worth), and a "heat map" which can graphically represent analytics at a glance.

When you drill down to the client level, there are a host of buttons and tools to speed work along. For example, there are buttons that link to MoneyGuidePro and to Orion's reports. There are links to create a work flow, either with one of the predefined templates or with one you create on your own. A client's financial accounts, notes, tasks and history, among other things, are immediately accessible, as is the ability to perform a document merge.

Overall, the initial version is impressive. The only annoyance I've uncovered so far is that the synchronization with MoneyGuidePro does not yet go both ways, so that I can change a client address in MGP and have it sync back to E*Assist. I'm told that this deficiency will be addressed shortly, however.

All three vendors offer discounts through AdvisorConnect. MoneyGuide­Pro will cost $995 annually here. E*Assist will cost another $995 annually per user with a two-user minimum. Orion's base package of outsourced portfolio data hosting, maintenance and reporting is calculated on a tiered annual per-account fee. The fee starts at $75 per account for the first 99 accounts at TD Ameritrade ($105 for non-TDA) and scales down to $40 (TDA) and $75 (non-TDA) for each account over 1,000. An advisor with 150 accounts at TD Ameritrade would pay $10,740 per year for Orion (99 times $75 plus 51 times $65). Assuming that the firm required three CRM seats and two financial planning seats, the total cost per year would be $15,715. That may sound like a lot, but when you understand that this accounts for all core program costs, including data storage, updates, maintenance and data recovery, the cost looks much more reasonable. If you added an online document management system such as NetDocuments to the mix, you'd have a really impressive integrated suite of products.

The benefits of integration are unmistakable and AdvisorConnect looks to be a reasonable alternative to Fidelity's WealthCentral, as well as IAS, eMoney and others who are attempting to deliver a unified software platform to advisors. Although E*Assist is new and unproven at this point, it looks promising.

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