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A stronger Link

One way in which IFAs can use e-commerce to enhance their businesses is to add services to their own websites allowing clients to access information out of office hours.

Such services can take many forms, giving clients access to details of their investments 24 hours a day, as offered by Screenpages via its link with 1St Software, and quotation services for premium-driven life products, available from an increasing number of the IFA portal organisations.

In the mortgage market, offering a product search, comparison and selection tool can attract new customers and help support existing ones. Most people view prospective new properties either after work or at the weekend – hardly normal IFA business hours.

As well as being most people&#39s biggest single purchase, buying a home can be a highly emotional transaction. Inevitably, when a client finds the home they want, the first thing they want to know is if they can afford it and how much it is likely to cost them every month. Pressured by aggressive estate agents, all too often existing clients might look elsewhere if they need urgent information at a time when their IFA is not available.

But if the IFA has such a tool on their website, the risk of such interference can be minimised.

I am particularly impressed by the way this issue has been approached by Network Data. The company has long been known for its PC-based Mortgage Link system for advisers. Last year it launched its Mortgage Linked service as a component that can be included in IFAs&#39 client-facing sites. It can be configured to show a selected panel of lenders or the full market, hide or display lenders&#39 names, match colours to the adviser&#39s own web presence, add a broker fee to the loan and have an application sent to the IFA and or via the associated mortgage clearing centre fulfilment facility.

It is important to recognise that such a service complements rather than undermines the role of the adviser. Most prudent clients will actually approach their adviser before they begin house-hunting. This gives the opportunity to walk the client through the mortgage analysis process and even enter some provisional details via the online application service so that, if the consumer finds the home of their dreams, they can fill in the details and send them electronically to the adviser.

At the heart of Mortgage Linked is a powerful mortgage-sourcing service which interrogates the user and produces questions based on previous answers. In less than five minutes sitting at a web screen in an airport lounge last week, I was able to identify substantial savings I could achieve based on my present mortgage arrangements. It is noticeable that while consumers can apply online, they are always encouraged to speak to an adviser.

The service includes a single-screen quick search facility, a generic calculator to work out a monthly repayment figure, a maximum loan calculator based on the client&#39s income, mortgage tables, a list of top mortgage products by categories and a full list of lenders with their historic rates for the last 15 years.

I also particularly like the Rate Beater facility which allows clients to enter their existing loan rate and lists products that beat it.

One of the things I have always liked about the original Mortgage Link service has been its accuracy. Some other sourcing tools choose to give greater latitude in some of the greyer areas. Personally, I always preferred the fact that if there was some small print that was going to make the application fail, I could rely on Mortgage Link to kick it out.

Having in the past been a Mortgage Link subscriber for many years and run hundreds of thousands of quotes through it, I think we only ever caught it out on a handful of occasions. Such accuracy seems to have been transferred to the consumer-facing web product.

When the consumer wants to apply for a loan, they complete the generic application form included within the service, which will then either populate Network Data&#39s generic form, if the lender accepts it, or a version of the lender&#39s form for signature.

I have come across a number of people who seem to think that, since Halifax, Alliance & Leicester and Nationwide bought into Mortgage Brain, the only electronic channel these lenders will support in future will be the one they have invested in. As I suggested in my column on June 7, the actual effect is likely to be that these lenders will have to link to more rather than fewer platforms if they are to avoid being accused of anti-competitive practice.

To be fair, at the time the deal was announced, encouraging noises were made about the lenders being prepared to work with other electronic trading platforms. However, it all gone a little quiet since then. In the interests of market clarity, Halifax and the others should make a very clear statement of their policy in this area. Their failure to do so does seem to be causing some in the market to question their real intentions.

The Mortgage Linked web component costs£80 plus VAT each month but this is discounted by£20 for every mortgage completed via its mortgage clearing centre. This discount applies regardless of whether the loan was originated via the web service or a paper-based application submitted by the IFA

More information can be found at www.mortgagelinked.com. This includes a full demo of the service.

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