This program offers a robust CRM solution for fast-growing firms.
CATS, the Client Activity Tracking System developed
by Saxon Birdsong of Baltimore-Washington Financial Advisors Inc. (BWFA
of Columbia, Md.) and Dan Smith of Acton, Mass., CATS is a
full-featured CRM/practice management system. BWFA has been using CATS
for a number of years, and now it is being offered to other firms.
According to Smith, CATS was designed to address the three key elements of a successful financial service practice: relationships, productivity and metrics. Relationships should be fairly self explanatory. Productivity means accelerating routine recurring tasks, so that they can be accomplished quickly and consistently. Speed allows the firm to serve more clients at lower cost. Consistency improves speed and compliance. Metrics provide the managers with the information they need to analyze the business and chart its future course.
The CATS application runs on the IBM Lotus Domino platform. For those of you unfamiliar with Lotus Notes/Domino, it is highly scaleable and flexible. Domino is the server messaging platform. It competes with Microsoft's Exchange Server, and offers similar capabilities, including e-mail, calendars (including group calendars), scheduling (including group scheduling) and to-do's. The Notes application competes with MS Outlook and offers similar capabilities. In addition to acting as an application server for Notes, Domino can also host other applications such as CATS. Both Lotus and third-party vendors offer additional applications capable of further expanding upon the Notes/CATS combination. An added benefit of Domino is that it can act as a Web server too, which opens up additional possibilities.
Another advantage of Domino/Notes is that there are multiple means of accessing applications. Within an office, the obvious choice is a traditional client/server environment, where a person has an application on the local PC, logs on to the server, performs tasks and data is saved at the server level.
The platform offers a number of connectivity options for those outside the office. There are at least four remote options to choose from. Those who do not have a local copy of the application on their PC can gain access using Remote Desktop Connection (which is built into current versions of Microsoft's O/S). Remote access can also be granted through a secure Web connection (an https Web site). A third option is to run a local copy of the software without accessing the central database. The fourth, and possibly the most appealing choice: online/offline. With this option the user stores a local copy of the program and the CATS database on their remote PC; typically a laptop. When the user is offline, they continue to work within CATS; when they reconnect, the local application synchronizes with the server version.
The Notes/CATS Interface
When a user logs on to the CATS version of Notes, the default welcome screen is divided into four quadrants, each with a unique view. The upper left contains the users e-mail inbox. The upper right contains the To Do list. The lower left contains the calendar. The lower right contains the CATS application.
Double clicking on one of the quadrants displays that application in full screen. Lotus Notes employs a tabbed interface, so if, for example, you launch the inbox full screen, the welcome screen sits behind it.
The welcome screen is highly customizable. Lotus Notes offers two levels of customization. The first level is what I would call the "presets." A link to welcome page options is at the top center of the welcome page. Click on that, and at the top left you get a menu of pre-programmed views from which to choose. If none of those are suitable, you can click on "Create a New Welcome Page," which launches a wizard to help you create your own design.
The default CATS view contains its own "customize this page" link which allows users to change the name of the welcome page, alter the frame layout, add and remove content, and alter the placement of content. Anyone who has set up their own views of a Web page using My Yahoo (http://my.yahoo.com/), My MSN (http://my.msn.com/) or a similar site should not have any trouble mastering this. Between the Lotus and CATS customization features, a virtually unlimited number of welcome screens can be created.
So far, most of our discussion has centered on the functionality of the Lotus Notes platform. Now let's turn to some of the specifics of CATS.
The standard CATS screen is divided into eight sections: Administration, Forms, General, Planning, Investment, Sales-Marketing, Taxes and Working Views. You can think of each section as a folder. These folders contain "views." Most folders contain subfolders, each containing additional views. For example, in the General section, there is a folder labeled "Clients." Within the client folder are a number of views.
If one selects "client by name," a list of all clients appear in alphabetical order. All essential information is displayed in this list, including contact information, relationship with the firm, referral source and advisor. Tabs along the top of the page allow advisors to perform tasks related to the highlighted client, such as e-mail, send a letter (including a form letter from the firm's template library), create an envelope, create an action item or create a quick note.
Clicking on a client brings up the full client screen. This screen contains multiple tabs and additional levels of functionality. At the relationship tab, contacts can be assigned multiple relationships by simply checking some boxes. The system allows relationships to be recorded in ways that other CRM systems do not. For example, you can categorize someone as a financial planning client and an investment management prospect. These multiple categorizations can be a great aid when marketing to prospects or cross-selling to existing clients.
The real strength of CATS is the way it documents every interaction with a person from the very first contact. Since the system is easy to use, there is no impediment to getting employees to use it. This is extremely important. It also is intelligently designed, with great work flow capabilities. The easiest way of understanding the program is to walk through an example.
A new prospect, Mr. Jones, calls the firm. The receptionist clicks on Internal Form and selects the "first contact form." The first question on the form is "Where did you hear about us?" Check boxes are provided for common answers.
Next comes contact information, affiliations and "wants to discuss." This section is followed by "actions." Actions are divided into administrative and advisor. Each one of these is associated with a specific person in the firm. The administrative side might entail sending a standard "information package" to the prospect. If the administrative person checks the "compose first contact e-mail" button, the standard document template appears, personalized and ready to send. The user reviews it, then hits the "send and save" button. CATS records everything.
After receiving introductory information, Mr. Jones decides to come in for an initial consultation with his wife. An employee taking the call goes back to the action section of the first contact screen; clicks "schedule an appointment" and selects an advisor. Next, the user clicks "access advisor calendar," and schedules a time. Immediately, the appointment is reflected in the database. It appears on the group calendar and the individual advisor's calendar.
At the meeting, Mr. and Mrs. Jones provide information about themselves using forms they have downloaded from the advisor's Web site. The advisor goes to the "first contact screen," hits the initial meeting button, and is presented with a detailed data-gathering form. The form includes sections for family information, assets and liabilities, goals and objectives, insurance, risk tolerance, etc. There is also a marketing component to this part. The advisor rates the prospect as a 1, 2 or 3 for each service that the firm provides. This way, the firm can continue to market to good prospects, and not waste time on inappropriate prospects. If a prospect is ready to proceed with a financial planning engagement, a box is checked and the price quote for the service is recorded.
When the meeting is over, and the form is completed, the advisor clicks "move the prospect to CATS." From this point on, Mr. and Mrs. Jones are a financial planning "client" within CATS, but they may still be a "prospect" for other services. The advisor who handled the initial meeting can, with a few clicks, set up some contact preferences to maximize the firm's relationship with the client. This might include e-mailing the client the firm's newsletter, scheduling regular e-mails on tax topics to secure the clients tax business, etc.
While the above example only describes a fraction of what CATS can do, it does offer an indication of its strengths. CATS is comprehensive. It tracks all interactions with prospects, clients and business relationships. It has an excellent marketing system built right in, which not only helps in the initial client acquisition but also in marketing additional services to existing clients.
Many systems can store the information that CATS can, but few organize it as well or make data entry as simple. Intelligent use of check boxes and drop-down menus mean that employees can record a great deal of data quickly an accurately.
CATS also includes comprehensive workflow capabilities. It contains separate workflows for advisors and administrative staff relating to the same client. It can also track workflows related to individual projects, such as tax preparation or the creation of a comprehensive financial plan.
The program's marketing abilities, which we touched on earlier, are first rate, as is its ability to flag investment accounts with restrictions, special instructions, etc. I also like the program's ability to track one to many relationships. For example, if you have an attorney in the system who is the trust attorney for ten of your clients, and who is the son of a client, you can enter information once and create as many relationships as you like.
CATS is not perfect. Those unfamiliar with Notes and CATS will confront a learning curve. For a program this comprehensive, mastering the basics is reasonably easy, but becoming a power user will take some time. The documentation and written tutorials I saw were good, but they are still a work in progress.
CATS was originally designed to meet the unique needs of one firm, and as it "goes commercial" it will have to adapt to the needs of a larger user base. For example, while some of the screens (primarily the individual forms screens) are extremely well designed, others could be better. Overall navigation and usability are good, but there is room for improvement.
The application should include a full library of service templates. They will undoubtedly need to be edited, but starting from templates is much easier than starting from scratch.
While not a weakness, per se, this program is not for everybody. It is designed for a firm with at least five employees, and, due to its cost, it is not suitable for firms with less than $50 million to $75 million under management.
Currently, the software is being offered at an introductory price of $15,000 for five users. This includes installation of all software and training. Annual maintenance costs have not yet been set. At some point in the future, we would expect to see CATS offered through an application service provider (ASP), but there are no immediate plans to do so.
Despite the early stage of commercialization, CATS bears watching. Its robust capabilities, combined with some of the unique attributes of the Notes/Domino platform, are sure to tantalize prospective purchasers.
Joel P. Bruckenstein, publisher of
Virtual Office News (www.virtualofficenews.com) and an expert in
applied technology for financial services professionals, can be
contacted at email@example.com.