This relative unknown is worth a look.
If Financial Planning Systems LLC is looking to add a tag line to their
business cards, perhaps they should try "the stealth financial planning
software company." Few if any financial planners I talk with seem to
know FPS. Until earlier this year, when they exhibited at both FPA and
NAPFA National conferences, I don't recall seeing them at any of the
industry trade shows. They don't do a lot of advertising.
So why my sudden interest in the firm? There are four reasons. First, I noticed them at a trade show earlier this year and I was curious. Second, at least two prominent planners, Cicily Carson Maton of Aequus Wealth Management and John Henry McDonald of Austin Asset Management, have been using the program within their firms since the mid-1980s. Third, FPS recently introduced a new version of the software that sports a more modern interface and some new features. Finally, and most important, FPS Office Delivery System (FPS ODS) may be a nice fit for some financial advisory firms.
FPS ODS is a desktop software application that can probably best be described as a platform that combines a client relationship management (CRM) system with a financial planning system. It addresses five key functions of the typical financial advisory practice: prospecting, data gathering, analysis, recommendations and periodic review/service.
With regard to prospecting, the platform provides a contact record for prospects that allows the advisor to initially add as little or as much detail as desired. When the prospect becomes a client, the status of the contact can be changed from prospect to client with a mouse click or two. Assuming sufficient data is available, individual letters, mass mailings, individual e-mails or mass e-mails can be sent to prospects (or clients) from right within the system. The program includes a toolbar that makes it very easy to construct one's own form letters for mass mailings.
One can also generate a list of prospects to telephone and then record notes of the conversations. A prospecting script (with some additional tips) is provided to help with the prospecting process. Hence, FPS ODS is particularly well suited for the less mature firm that is heavily involved in prospecting, or the more mature firm that is looking to rekindle growth. It is also appropriate for any firm intent on systematizing and improving communications with their clients, prospects and vendors.
Fact finders are provided for all aspects of the program. The fact finders are modular, so they can be mixed and matched to generate a "custom" fact finder that is properly aligned with the scope of each engagement.
The financial planning portion of the program covers the following
areas: financial statement, financial information, portfolio accounts,
death needs, estate planning, disability, retirement, income taxes,
cash flow, planned purchases and goals/objectives.
The recommendations section is concerned with presenting alternatives to the client and the actual client reporting. Review/service covers everything from action notes, to scheduling, to tracking client progress.
In addition to the five areas mentioned above, the program offers excellent calendaring and task management. In the scheduling section, appointments can be created by dragging and dropping a contact into the calendar. Four types of appointments, each with its own color-coding and icon, can be created. They are meeting, telephone call, office work and out of office/personal time. It is possible to display a single advisor's calendar or all calendars for scheduling.
Tasks are contact-centric. You enter tasks to be performed for a client at the client record. Personal tasks are entered into your own record. Once entered, contacts are automatically filtered in various ways for easy viewing. You can view personal tasks, tasks for a single client, tasks for all clients sorted by client, tasks for all clients sorted by priority or tasks for all clients sorted by due date.
The interface is very user friendly. Before you begin to use the system, a firm can customize various aspects of the program to meet its individual needs. For example, you can create your own asset categories, budget subcategories, note topics, profiles and meeting codes. This maintains uniformity throughout the firm and it saves time. For instance, if an advisor wants to create a note, he or she would simply select from a drop-down list once the topics are set up. Uniformity is maintained because the advisor can only select one of the topics provided, and time is saved because the advisor no longer has to type out the topic.
The main screen is divided into four vertical columns. The first offers
access to contacts. The program automatically groups contacts by type
(client, prospect, other or all). Users can click on a tab at the
bottom of the screen to select the type of contact they want to view.
You can also sort by advisor, so I can choose to either view just my
contacts or all the firm's contacts.
The next column offers links to the data entry area. The top half of the column provides links to all of the personal information records. Of particular note here is the ability to assign a priority code to each client; the ability to create a limitless list of "important dates" for each client (birthdays and anniversaries for family, friends, etc); the ability to link notes to the client record; a profile form that can include information like clubs, hobbies and interests; scheduled meetings and meeting type; and tasks linked to the client and links. This link section is particularly impressive. It allows the user to link Web pages, e-mail addresses, folders and individual files in the contact record. According to Michelle Maton, CFP, Cicily Maton's partner at Aequus Wealth Management Resources, "Data entry is very easy."
The bottom half provides links to all of the financial planning areas. The financial statement portion of the program is excellent. You can enter user-defined asset types, descriptions, projected growth rates, ownership, asset category and risk ranking. Linked liabilities can be entered adjoining the asset, with all details, such as payment schedule and interest rate. One can also link current and future investments in an asset as well as disposition of investment assets at retirement and death, and also notes. "I like the fact that you can easily understand where the results of calculations are coming from," Maton says.
One thing you don't see very often in financial planning programs is
the ability to generate "alternative" financial statements, but FPS
offers it. By copying the statement and using it as a template for an
alternative scenario, you can easily illustrate the impact of paying
off loans, refinancing, etc. These capabilities exist in other
programs, but not in this context.
Cash flow analysis is another strength. The program can display monthly and yearly spending for major categories (like household spending) or detailed categories (like fuel and oil for cars). As with financial statements, advisors can generate multiple alternative scenarios and display them side by side.
John Henry McDonald, CFP of Austin Asset Management, is fond of the estate planning section. "I can easily illustrate multiple strategies side by side for clients while they are sitting in my office and display the results on a large screen, so that we can discuss the implications of the various strategies. Clients really like that.
Both McDonald and Maton raved about the client reporting capabilities
of FPS. "Clients love the report," says Maton. "They are very well laid
out and easy to read." In addition to liking the overall presentation,
McDonald highlighted a few reports that he found particularly useful:
"The financial statements are excellent. Our client's bankers like
them. The estate planning flow charts are very easy for clients to
understand." In addition, I found the financial statement history page,
which tracks changes to the financial statement over time, and the
similar income-tax history report, to be extremely useful.
The program is not without its problems, though. The most glaring one is in the area of retirement planning. The program uses an antiquated straight-line method of computing retirement savings and spend-down. There is no probability analysis, and alternatives must be entered individually, using the same straight-line methodology. The program does not lend itself to employee stock option planning or restricted stock. There is no easy way to set up a 72(t) withdrawal schedule or to account for corporate stock in a 401(k) plan. I think it is fair to say that anyone using this system would be better served doing their retirement projection and investment work elsewhere, as both McDonald's firm and Maton's firm do. While these weaknesses would be fatal in many other programs, that's not necessarily the case here because the program's linking feature makes it easy to perform the retirement and or investment analysis elsewhere and link the results to the client record. In fact, for those who enjoy doing some of their panning work on proprietary spreadsheet templates, FPS could be a perfect fit. The other area that immediately struck me as a "problem" is the e-mail integration, or lack thereof. FPS does an excellent job of identifying your primary e-mail program, launching it and populating the send-to field. (I tried to fool it by using Thunderbird as my e-mail client, but FPS identified it and launched it perfectly). The problem is that FPS does not automatically link those e-mails to the client record. You can link them manually, buy copying and pasting, but this is a hassle. The ability to automatically link and save e-mail to the contact record is something that FPS should add as soon as possible.
For the most part, the program is easy to navigate; however, on the few occasions I did have a question, I would have liked a bit more detail than "help" provided. I also felt that the documentation could be better.
My admittedly short experience with FPS let me wondering if the glass was half full or half empty. At first, I was cool to the program because I could not get over its serious deficiencies in the area of retirement planning. However, if one assumes that retirement planning and investment planning will be done elsewhere, FPS begins to look very good indeed. Its CRM, task management and scheduling features are strong, as are its marketing capabilities. The ability to link files, folders, etc., to a client record somewhat alleviates its obvious deficiencies in other areas. Financial statements, cash flow projections, income tax analysis and the ability to display alternative scenarios side by side are first rate. Overall, the client deliverables are outstanding.
While this program is clearly not for everyone, I can't help thinking that many readers would consider using FPS, if only they knew it existed. Now you do. At $249 plus $80 per month for installation on up to two computers, FPS is fairly priced. You can download a free trial at: http://www.fpsplans.com <http://www.fpsplans.com.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.