Management software has solid foundation but needs more functionality.

    Recently, I've been testing the beta version of Advisors Office's latest release. Advisors Office is "office management software." The software seeks to provide a single unified database containing all of the essential information required to operate your business including customer relationship management (CRM), portfolio reporting, human resources, compliance, a document vault (paperless office system), client tax reporting, time tracking and invoicing.
    Since the software provided me is still classified as a "beta," I've concentrated primarily on the feature set as opposed to performance or potential bugs. My primary goal is first to determine how the individual modules (CRM, portfolio management, etc.) stack up against competing products. Second, I hope to draw some preliminary conclusions about the advisability of using Advisors Office as one's sole "office management software" solution.
    Technologically speaking, Advisors Office is a state-of-the-art platform. It is built on the Microsoft .NET 2.0 platform and the latest SQL database technologies. For the most part, I found the program easy to navigate. The main client screen has a familiar feel for those who have used MS Outlook. The screen is divided into three sections. The majority of the screen real estate displays the names of all clients in the database. Clicking on a name reveals the client record.
    Along the left at the top there are three search boxes. Below the search boxes are links to other important sections of the program: tasks, employees and calendar (more on them later).
    In order to get the true benefit of the search tools, it is necessary to create categories and apply those categories to clients. Categories are user-defined, and multiple categories can be applied to each client record.
    The first search box allows you to search for all clients that have been categorized in one or more ways. So for example, you could categorize a client as an "A" client. You could also categorize a client as one who custodies assets at Fidelity. Using this first search box, you could look for all "A" clients, you could look for all clients that custody at Fidelity, or you could search for only those "A" clients who custody at Fidelity. The second search box is the exception box. Here, you can exclude categories from the search, so, for example, you could search for all clients in the database except those who custody at Fidelity. The third is the advanced search box. Clicking here opens a window that allows you to easily search all text and date fields. By using the provided drop down menus and check boxes, even novice users can quickly create and execute custom searches.
    The client record uses a multiple page-tabbed interface. On the first page, there are fields for all client and spousal contact information including name, addresses, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, etc. It appears that you can add an almost unlimited number of addresses and phone numbers, but there are only three fields for e-mail addresses, enough for most individuals. The main tab also stores dependent information, Social Security number, date of birth and driver's license number. There is a drop down list for risk profile and an "invested amount" (the total account values based on the latest custodial download). In addition, there are spaces to include a digital picture of the client and spouse.
    The reports tab contains two subsections. One produces client reports such as cash flow statements and net worth statements. The other produces portfolio reports based on the custodial downloads. A category tab allows the user to assign categories to this client record.
At the client meeting tab, meetings can be tracked. Here, all client meeting records are listed. Clicking on a record displays the meeting record details. Each record includes fields for subject, visit date, visit with (participant from the firm), and meeting type. All of the above fields, with the exception of the subject field, are populated from a drop down list. The summary field allows users to input more lengthy free-form notes.
    A net worth tab enables users to add assets in the upper half of the screen and cash flows on the lower portion. These numbers feed the client reports. Asset records include an asset description, owner(s), asset type, market value, liabilities linked to the asset, valuation date and a rate of return. Cash flow records include information on cash flow type (employment income, living expense, etc.), frequency, date and amount.
    The document vault tab works like this: The user creates a document file template. Let's say that for each client, you want a directory tree that includes a financial planning file and a tax file. Under that, you want a subfolder for each year. You create the folder structure from the edit menu on the main page, and then each client record will have an identical folder structure associated with the client record. So, continuing the above example, I would have a financial planning folder with a subfolder for 2006. If I wanted to add a document to that folder, I'd simply click the folder, hit the add file button, navigate to the desired file on my hard drive in the dialog box, and select the file. A link to the file would now reside in the designated folder.   
    My version of the software came with two portfolio related tabs. One was for the custodial downloads; in this case it was labeled "Fidelity." The other tab was for other accounts. This latter tab allows for manual data entry of additional accounts. I was told by an Advisor Office spokesperson that if I had a second custodial relationship, say TD Ameritrade, the second custodian would get its own tab.
    There is a money movement tab that looks interesting. It tracks management fees, liquidations and income, and transfers in and out of the accounts under the custodial relationship tabs. This is done via the custodial downloads.
    The employee section serves a number of functions. It stores employee contact information. It can also store some human resources-type information such as vacation days, sick days, personal hours, etc., as well as an employee's password to the system. In addition, employee permissions are controlled here. By checking and unchecking boxes, permission to view, edit and print from various sections of the program is controlled.
    The tasks tab allows one to easily view all of the tasks related to an individual employee. The list can be filtered to display open tasks, completed tasks or all tasks.
    The calendar is adequate. There are daily weekly and monthly views. You can view a single employee's calendar, or you can view the calendar of two employees side by side. It you are trying to schedule a time for multiple employees, you can merge calendars so that you can see free time slots that they share in common. There's more to the system, but I've at least touched upon most of the major features.
    Drop down lists from the main screen provide access to the HR section. Here, you will find confidentiality agreement templates, new employee checklists, staff member timesheets, W-4 forms, performance appraisal forms, disciplinary action forms, exit checklists and much more. The adequacy of these forms will vary by user, but if you don't currently have any of this material, you may find it useful. The compliance menu provides templates for form ADV, modification of CRD, a sample whistle blowing policy, the SEC's most recent audit request list and many other useful documents.
Now, let's tackle the first question I posed: How do the modules stack up against the competition? The results are mixed, but overall I'm disappointed.
    The CRM section is the strongest. It does not provide the depth of information that Junxure-I does, but it is sufficient for the needs of many. Task creation and tracking work well, but you cannot create processes (a collection of tasks that can be preprogrammed and assigned with a single mouse click). The calendar is fine, but I could not figure out how to get an integrated view of appointments and tasks. In summary, I'd say the CRM portion is OK, but not extraordinary.
    Portfolio management is weak. Advisors Office cannot currently report cost basis, although the firm is planning to add this capability soon. It also appears to lack the ability to provide full consolidated reporting. I asked a company spokesperson what would happen if I used two custodians, and if a client held an identical security in one account at each custodian. Could I get one consolidated report of that holding at both custodians? The reply was "not yet."
    While I like the idea of the "money movements" tab, its current structure is somewhat problematic. Right now, the only way to get information in there is through custodial downloads. If there is an error with a download, or if some management fees are paid to you by check as opposed to debiting the account, you have to rely upon Advisors Office staff to perform the data entry. Allowing the advisor unlimited access to this feature can lead to data corruption possibilities, but ultimately it is the advisor's data and the advisor's responsibility to control access within the firm through proper permissioning.
    Document management capabilities are fairly basic. You can create a folder structure to store documents, but there is no scanning interface; you need to supply your own. Your ability to search through documents is limited. Files are listed under the document vault tab in the client record by name, size, date modified and type. You can sort by any of these column settings; however, I couldn't locate a document search function in the document vault section, and I could not figure out how to search across clients.
    Calling the human resource and compliance material section "modules" is a bit of a stretch. Some useful material is included, but I think there needs to be more in order for them to qualify as modules. The business office module, which includes the time tracking function, is primarily geared to accounting firms, so advisors cannot get the time tracking feature without paying for extras they'll never use. If invoicing capabilities exist, I didn't see them.
    Pricing is by module. The core package includes CRM (client database, calendar, task, notes). Single users pay $795, and the three-user version is priced at $1,195, with additional users at $95 per user. Everything else is extra.
    For single users, the portfolio piece with a single custodial download is $1,195. Additional custodial interfaces are $495 each. Human resource and compliance modules are $395 each, as is the document vault. The net worth section costs $295 and the "business office module," designed primarily for accountants, is $595. So, a typical setup like the one I tested (all modules excluding business) for a single user would cost $3,470. That is way too much, particularly given the weakness of the portfolio piece. Back that out, and you are still paying $2,275; too much for this level of functionality. For three or more users, a system minus the portfolio section is more reasonably priced.
    Based on what I've seen so far, none of the modules compare very favorably with their stand-alone competitors. As a result, I'd be hard pressed to recommend using Advisors Office as the technological backbone of one's practice. I do, however, think that this product bears watching.
    The developers have laid a solid foundation upon which additional functionality can be layered. If and when this occurs, Advisors Office will be an interesting proposition for an office of perhaps three to ten employees, provided the pricing is well aligned with the functionality being offered. 

Joel P. Bruckenstein is  an expert in applied technology for financial services professionals. He  can be reached at [email protected].