Technology has revolutionized the financial services profession. It has given us the ability to analyze investment trends, make trades, produce reports and track client portfolios, to name a few things. However, in the rush to take advantage of technology, many practitioners have ignored the potential benefits of efficient use of technological systems.
To offer a definition, technical systems efficiency is the means by which your computers, printers, telecommunications, software, etc. all work in smooth harmony with each other, sharing information seamlessly and transparently with the client. Yet many financial practitioners work with a hodgepodge of equipment and software, purchased at different times, without consideration of how well that technology will integrate with existing equipment and software. Often this leads to substantial challenges in trying to make systems talk to each other. Perhaps the first step in dealing with this issue would be to make an inventory of equipment and software. Then, determine to what extent these various inventory items can be made to work together.
One fundamental question with technical systems is to understand fully how you wish to use them and compare that with how they are actually capable of being used. You cannot ask machines to perform tasks for which they were not designed (in most cases). But in many cases, financial advisors are underutilizing their technology, rather than overutilizing it.
Thus, it may be possible to increase the use and/or leverage of technology in a practice by better understanding it. This knowledge should encompass more than just individual pieces of equipment. A holistic approach is generally recommended, one in which hardware, software, technological systems and the procedures for using them are taken as a whole, the goal being to integrate the various pieces of the puzzle. As an example, let us take a look at typical software solutions found in a financial advisor's practice.
The chart on the next page illustrates a hierarchy of information read, interpreted, analyzed or otherwise utilized by the financial advisor or his staff. The painful truth of this chart lies in the knowledge that all information should be, but seldom is, shared across these divergent software platforms. When the same data must be typed in over and over again, there can be a substantial cost in staff time and frustration.
An example of inefficiency with respect to software might involve the financial advisor who uses Microsoft Outlook for client contact management, but uses some other client relationship management software for historical and personal information storage. Microsoft Outlook is not a true relational database -one that ties historical records with contact records and lets the user search with a variety of flexible criteria. Reports in a relational database can also often be customized to fit the needs of the practice. Outlook doesn't do this either. It is an excellent e-mail program with some contact record capabilities. Nevertheless, if what the practice needs is a full relational database, Outlook is not going to satisfy the need (even if Outlook 2007 has been significantly improved in this area). Frequently chosen alternatives are Goldmine, Junxure-I, ProTracker and ACT! for Advisors, all of which are relational databases. Junxure-I and ProTracker coordinate with Outlook (allowing its use as a main e-mail portal). Goldmine is popular with financial practices that work with insurance products. Junxure is popular with financial planning and asset management firms, and ACT! is popular with everyone else. The advantage of using programs such as Junxure or ProTracker is that they are preconfigured for use in a financial practice. Goldmine and ACT! may require substantial customization to work the way your practice might need.
There is also a point to be made about coordination with other programs. The point of using a relational database is to have easy and quick access to information and to be able to move that information to other programs without wasting time retyping it. It's most efficient to type information only once. On this score, Outlook helps, because it offers export capabilities to Microsoft Excel spreadsheets. Most relational database programs, however, offer the same feature. The advantage is that other programs that interface with the CRM software-such as applications for financial planning, portfolio management, illustration, risk management, asset allocation and Monte Carlo simulation-may accept comma delimited format imports of client data. The ability to export out of your CRM program into an Excel spreadsheet in a comma delimited format-and then to import that same data into another software program-saves an enormous amount of time that would otherwise be spent retyping all that information over and over again.
Some software developers have made a conscious effort to permit the direct import of data. On one hand, DbCams has made a real effort to open up its software to allow imports from a variety of different sources. DbCams also permits exporting. Financial planning software, on the other hand, has been slow to allow data imports. The reason for this, software manufacturers have explained, is that they are reluctant to release the information needed to coordinate imports/exports because they might divulge proprietary code to a competitor. Despite this risk, deals have been forged with some software providers, such as EISI's NaviPlan Central (www.naviplancentral.com), to allow a limited coordination of data with outside vendors. For example, NaviPlan Central can accept client information and investment data from Albridge Solutions (formerly Statement One) and/or Streetscape.
Interactive Advisory Software
Another interesting trend in recent years has been the move to integrate software solutions into a single package, often offered as a Web-based (ASP) platform. In this case, the software vendor attempts to combine financial planning, portfolio management, illustration and client contact software into a single product that can share information across a common database. A relatively new example of this type of software solution is Interactive Advisory Software's platform (www.iassoftware.com). This is a Web-based software platform that integrates client and portfolio data with other built-in functions that support an advisor's practice. (The software has been around for years, but it may be worth a second look given recent improvements.) This integrated application includes an easy-to-navigate interface; customizable reporting and document capabilities; research tools and reports; scalable financial and estate planning tools; and a very good contact management system.
Its financial planning resources include Monte Carlo simulations and an efficient-frontier-based approach with models, lists and searches for portfolio optimization. Clearly, IAS has a robust interface and has added new features to not only keep up with the competition, but also to set the pace for all others.
Other notable choices include eMoney Advisor (www.emoneyadvisor.com), Advisor's Assistant (www.climark.com) and Thomson One Advisor (www.thomsonadvisor.com).
The advantage of these integrated solutions is, again, the seamless integration of data without the need to retype information. With the exception of IAS, which offers a modular approach to purchasing and using different aspects of its platform, the drawback might be that a particular platform would be limited to the preselected choices. If, for instance, your practice needed a more robust financial planning tool, you would presumably not have the choice of selecting it inside of the integrated platform. However, by carefully choosing the platform and software based on which set of choices best fits your practice's needs, you stand an excellent chance of increasing the efficiency of your practice.
David Lawrence, AIF (Accredited Investment Fiduciary), is a practice efficiency consultant and is president of David Lawrence and Associates, a practice-consulting firm based in Lutz, Fla. (http://www.efficientpractice.com). David Lawrence is a much-sought-after public speaker on a variety of leadership, financial and technical topics. For details, visit www.davidlawrencespeaks.com.