NationBuilder from iNation is a diamond in the rough.
NationBuilder, which was still in late beta testing as we went to
press, is a new product with a great deal of potential. It has a clean,
easy-to-navigate interface and it is highly scalable. NationBuilder can
be used by a sole practitioner, a small ensemble firm or a large
financial services organization.
While the product is new, the principals of iNation, which developed the package, have years of experience in either the health care or financial services industry. However, most of their financial services expertise to this point appears heavily concentrated in the broker-dealer and insurance markets.
NationBuilder is highly configurable. In multiuser installations, an administrator can enforce uniformity; alternatively, a great deal of individual freedom can be granted. For example, users can be allowed to set custom views and create macros. The administrator can also granularly control who can perform certain actions and who can't. For small- and medium-sized RIA firms struggling with e-mail retention rules, however, the "killer app" may be NationBuilder's integrated e-mail capabilities. Shared calendars, task management and campaigns round out the program, with more capabilities scheduled to be added soon.
One of the really nice things about NationBuilder is ease of use. Right now, there are seven main navigation buttons are along the top of the screen and are designed to take you where you need to go. They are labeled: My Day, Campaigns, Email, Calendar, Address Book, Task/Events List, and Campaign Wizard. Two additional buttons are labeled Support and Logout.
My Day is used as a "Home Page," something akin to a personalized Web page such as "My Yahoo." The default settings include a calendar, the task/event list and an e-mail summary screen. These settings can be modified to some extent, but they are not totally customizable. For example, if you want to change the default calendar view from daily to weekly on the My Day page, you can easily do so; however, you will have to use that view as the default in the calendar section as well (the home page can only display the view you choose for the calendar button or an upcoming events list.)
Campaigns are used to track client "touches," create tasks and monitor projects. They can be used to create drip mailing and schedule workflows (a group of sequential tasks.) The "Campaign Wizard" empowers advisors to quickly initiate campaigns. Currently, there are almost 50 campaign templates (primarily preprogrammed marketing campaigns on a wide range of subjects that one can easily modify to suit one's needs). Users can create additional template by modifying existing ones or creating new ones from scratch.
The programming of these campaigns is easy enough for most employees to master without difficulty. For example, if you want to create a six-step campaign, you can enter a start and end date and the program will space out and time the individual steps for you. Of course, you can manually select the dates as well. You also can create a campaign that involves some automated and some manual steps.
Let's say that you want to initiate a marketing campaign that entails an initial letter, followed by an e-mail, followed by a phone call to the prospect or client. The first two steps can be put on autopilot, so no further action by the advisor is required. The call, on the other hand, must be initiated by the advisor, so a reminder would be entered on the task list at the appropriate time. Some of the information that can be included in the campaign section include: start date, end date, assigned by, assigned to, objective, cost to date and completion date. You can assign one or a group of contacts to a campaign from the main campaign screen. As you assign campaigns to various contacts, the individual items are automatically added to the task list.
NationBuilder will soon be adding additional capabilities to the campaign wizard. These new capabilities will allow users to build even more sophisticated campaigns employing an object-based drag and drop interface. It sounds complicated, but it is really very easy.
Imagine a set of vertical grids, numbered one to five. Each grid represents a step in the campaign process. Now picture a number of icons representing actions and functions/conditions. You would simply drag an icon representing an action, like send a marketing mailing, into grid one. Grid two might be a condition, like a compliance check. The next grid would have an icon representing compliance approval or not. Under the approval icon, another action icon would be dragged. The idea is to empower users to do some simple programming without knowing anything beyond the ability to drag and drop icons. Very innovative!
One thing that sets NationBuilder apart from other online (and offline) CRM systems I've looked at is its e-mail integration. E-mail is built right into the NationBuilder program. You can use the default iNation e-mail account naming scheme (in my case email@example.com), or you can purchase your own URL and apply it to your account (something like firstname.lastname@example.org perhaps). Larger corporations, if they prefer, may be able to link their own e-mail server to the iNation interface, but I think small- to medium-sized firms will be content to let iNation manage their e-mail needs.
The advantage of the iNation system is you get tight integration with your CRM package, which can be accessed from any Web browser. In addition, you get e-mail archiving, included. That's right; I said e-mail archiving is included!
Many ensemble firms will like the calendar. I often speak to firms that are reluctant to install MS Exchange because they are otherwise happy with MS Outlook, but they are disappointed that they cannot easily share calendars, schedules or contacts without it. With NationBuilder you can. It allows firms to share all of these tools, and it gives the administrator a great deal of control over what each user can and cannot do.
The calendar offers a day, week month and yearly view. It also includes a "group scheduler," ideal for coordinating projects, group meetings and the like. Calendar entries can contain long descriptions, and they can be assigned categories and priorities as well as a start and ending time. A user can designated an appointment as "private" if he or she does not wish to share it with the group.
The address book is good, but it needs to be better. Currently, it can store numerous addresses, phone numbers and e-mail addresses, as well as some free-form notes about the client. You can designate an "owner" of the record, and the owner can control whether or not a record is shared with the group. Tasks and events linked to the contact are displayed below the personal information. What's missing right now is the level of detail advisors usually want (Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, relationships, some financial information, etc.) I'm told that these additions are in the works, but they aren't there yet.
The task and event capabilities of NationBuilder are impressive. You
can create tasks, and if necessary, link subtasks to the parent task.
Tasks can be assigned various characteristics such as category, subject
and contact. When a subtask is created, the program is smart enough to
automatically assign some of the characteristics (category, subject,
contact) that have been assigned to the parent task.
Documents can be attached to tasks, and you can link tasks to calendar items, contacts, projects and other tasks. Tasks can be assigned a start date, end date and a tickler to remind you that a task is coming due. Tasks also have a "status." This tracks percentage completed (or ongoing) as well as whether or not the task has been billed (if applicable). When you view the task list, icons clearly identify the type of task and its current status, as well as other applicable data. A full history of the task can be accessed by clicking on the history icon.
Setting up NationBuilder can be easy, since most of the initial work can be done by the vendor or the administrator, but to get the most out of the product, users will have to familiarize themselves with the numerous preference settings since they, to a large extent, dictate the individual user experience.
General preferences control things like the look of the navigation bar, the time zone, the date format and the time format. NationBuilder even offers a choice of default languages and currencies.
The campaign preferences control which users within the company can read, add, edit and delete campaigns. E-mail settings are what one would typically expect, including the ability to add folders and subfolders, control the sorting order, etc. One unexpected function allows you to play some interesting sounds whenever a new e-mail arrives. Choices include "You've Got Mail" by Tom Hanks, George Carlin or Austin Powers; Good Morning Vietnam (Robin Williams) and the Pink Panther theme.
Calendar preferences are too numerous to mention, but they include the ability to control who can read, add and edit calendar items. One can receive notification of events added, edited or cancelled. Of course, there are all sorts of controls for the multitude of display options.
The address book offers three types of controls: settings, access and
categories. The settings page contains all of the possible fields that
can be displayed (names, addresses, phone numbers, URLs, etc.) You
simply place a check on the boxes next to the field you want displayed
(video phone, perhaps), and those are the only fields that will appear
on the main contact screen. Users can also assign a default filter, a
default category (ultra-high-net-worth client, perhaps) and elect to
have a birthday reminder here. As you've probably gathered, access
offers the same granular controls found elsewhere in the program, and
categories allow for users to create their own category lists.
The task list has similar, but fewer, controls. There are a few settings, a place to set access for employees and a place to create categories for tasks/events.
There are some other features of note. You can create a contact from a virtual business card and you can create (and e-mail) a virtual business card from a contact. You can synchronize your contacts, calendars and tasks with many PDAs and cell phones. Information can be imported from ACT!, Goldmine and Outlook, with other import/export interfaces in the works. Additional functionality, including full document management capabilities, is already under development. They may be available by the time you read this.
While NationBuilder is very impressive for a new product, there is
considerable room for improvement. The My Day page, while good, could
be much better. Filtering, sorting and searching in various parts of
the program are barely adequate. In order for this application to reach
its full potential, sorting, searching and filtering must improve; I
expect that they will over time. While I like the overall look and feel
of the interface, there are isolated areas that need additional work.
The manual needs work. Vendors rarely print paper manuals today; you almost always get a PDF file instead. In theory, this arrangement should be beneficial to both the user and the vendor, particularly in the case of application service providers. Vendors save on printing and shipping costs, and they don't have to amend the manual whenever a change is made. Since the good online programs undergo more frequent updates than the shrink wrapped programs do, the savings can be substantial.
The primary benefit for users should be that the manual is always
current. Whenever the program is improved, the corresponding changes
can be inserted in the manual. In the case of my demo site, there were
some inconsistencies between the manual and the program, but I
attribute these to the fact that I was using a demo site as opposed to
a production site. I have no reason to doubt that iNation will update
their manual regularly.
Another way that users can benefit from an online manual is through navigation aids, such as hyperlinks, and through the ability to search the manual. Currently, iNation does not provide any of these convenience features. I hope to see them added soon.
Right now the ability to create groups is limited, but I'm told that will be rectified in the next release. It would be very nice to be able to create and complete forms online (account applications, transfers, etc.) and I'm told that the firm is in discussions with potential partners to provide such functionality.
Despite my minor criticisms, and the natural inclination to be wary of any new provider, my initial impression of NationBuilder is highly favorable. At $95 per month for a single user, with discounts available for multi-user installations, NationBuilder is competitively priced. If they can deliver on their planned improvements, and if they can attract enough critical mass to generate a profit, NationBuilder has the right stuff to become a serious competitor for advisors' CRM dollars. It is still early in the game, but NationBuilder has the potential to be a winner.
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.