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Battle lines are drawn

It is strange to think that it is less than a year since the IFA community really only had one option when it came to majority of their online services.

Indeed, although the new players such as Assuresoft, Misys and Synaptic are beginning to roll out more and more facilities to help the IFA in terms of the numbers of product providers who populate their service and the range of products included, The Exchange is still well ahead of the rest of the pack.

The challenge to the newcomers is to come up with services that are so attractive to IFAs that they can dislodge The Exchange from its position as the most widely used source of online facilities in the industry.

I find this battle fascinating. Week in, week out, the various new service providers are showing me an increasing range of products they havein line for release in the near future.

One thing is certain – the people who have most to gain out of all this activity are those IFAs who are prepared to put e-commerce at the heart of their business and embrace all that technology and new ways of working have to offer to them and their clients. Last week, Assuresoft gave me a sneak preview of the online versions of its ProdPak database.

ProdPak has been around as a PC-based research tool for a number of years as a competitor to the Aequos and IFA Counsellor databases from The Research Department and Compliance Manager from Synaptic Systems.

Historically, it has always been at the budget end of this marketplace. However, the move online will cut its cost further. It is going to be free. Powered by Information from the Money Marketing Database, it allows advisers to compare different products in a market sector and rank them.

To be honest, in the past, I have always found ProdPak the most difficult product of this type to use.

However, the online version seems to have benefited from a radical review of the look and feel and it was easy to work with in seconds without any training.

Having selected the product area you want to examine, the user then identifies the priorities within the search based on a company&#39s financial strength, product features and product performance and a weighting to apply to each.

The more detailed search will be carried out in the order of the priorities that have been selected.

At the beginning of any search, the system will define the number of companies that are included, as different options are selected, for example, to exclude companies with Standard and Poor&#39s ratings below AA or restricting Micropal three-star performance or better, the list number of surviving products can be identified by clicking on an update button.

As with most services of this type, the product features area is the most detailed. A long list of product terms, allocations rates and other relevant issues are listed.

By clicking on each condition type, this expands and a further list of options are shown. These can be selected, with rules being applied, for example, to include only contracts with an allocation rate of more than 100 per cent or shown as essential.

Having selected the features you want to examine, you can then tell the system to list products that have a certain number of the specified conditions, including all the ones that were considered essential.

At this point, the system will then generate a list of products and a percentage indicating how closely these match the criteria defined in the search. This can also be viewed as a graph showing the individual features as they have been taken into account within contracts. By clicking the column representing a product, a full list of the contract features and pricing is then generated.

As an online service, this may not be as powerful as some of the PC-based solutions currently in use, particularly in the area of graphing and identifying where individual products drop out of the a listing. However, as a free service, this will deliver highly valuable facilities to the IFA.

Some people may be concerned about the cost of telephone connections. However, with fixed-price broad-band ADSL services providing a permanently open, high-speed link to the internet for negligible cost becoming a reality, the days when such things are a consideration must be rapidly diminishing.

Personally, I have just signed up for a 150 kbps ADSL connection for £20 a month. As I currently spend about £200 a month in internet call charges on a conventional modem line, this represents a significant saving as well as a (hopefully) improved service, making worries about time online a thing of the past.

For the IFA, with such a wide range of online services becoming increasingly available, the decision must be to choose the one that most closely matches the way they want to operate their business.

While cost is clearly a factor, it will be equally important to focus on the quality of the offerings. I still feel the issue that is probably most critical in all these decisions is which service provider can provide the IFA with the best tools for their own customer facing online presence.

I am seeing increasing signs that IFAs are recognising the importance of this area. Since the launch of its IFA Window service a few months ago, Assuresoft has had more than 1,200 firms go through the terms and conditions to build and are understood to be building IFA Window websites, with more than 350 having already had their sites go live.

A recent independent survey carried out for the company identified that as many as 37 per cent of IFAs now have their own website, an increase of 9 per cent in just two months, with 77 per cent of firms saying they either have a site or will have one in the next 12 months.

Against this background, it is not surprising that all the main service providers are known to be putting considerable resource behind web development tools for IFAs.

Assuresoft has yet to confirm an exact launch date for the online version of ProdPak but is suggesting this will go live to its Assureweb users in mid-September.

Personally, I would like to see tools like this developed in a way that would allow IFAs to include them on their own websites and allow consumers to get to grips with the complicated issues surrounding selecting a financial product.

Far from encouraging people to do their own research and cut out the IFA, I think if customers were allowed access to such complex tools they would realise even more why the need the guiding hand of an IFA to help them with their purchases.

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