It comes as no surprise that Consignia has had its recent difficulties when one considers the increasing role that email plays in our working lives. However, ease of access and flexibility make email something that is all too easy to treat like a phone call rather than hard copy communication.
It should also be recognised that anything sent by email carries the same compliance burden as a more traditional item of mail. For anyone operating in a regulated environment, there is no doubt that it is as important to have compliance and audit trail procedures in place for email as for anything else you might send a client. In most cases, IFAs hold email correspondence in an email client package and, for an equally large majority, I would expect this to be Microsoft Outlook.
I recently had the chance to look at how 1st Software enables its 6,000-plus IFA users to address this issue while doing some work with it on the forthcoming new version of its adviser software. The features I am writing about this week, however, have been present in the system for some time.
These email integration facilities with the 2,000 and XP versions of Microsoft Outlook are included in Microsoft Office. This should not be confused with the limited Outlook Express application that is part of the Internet Explorer browser.
Outlook is a great tool for planning your time allocation, creating reminders for meetings and keeping contact details. Where it falls down is that, once the activity has taken place, it does not easily allow for recording what took place or setting up the whole string of actions that inevitably follow on from any event.
1st Software has chosen to address this issue by allowing its software to import appointments, emails, tasks or contacts from Outlook to its own software. This has multiple benefits but probably the most important is that it creates a single location within a client record where all such contacts can be recorded for compliance purposes.
If an email is received by a 1st user in Outlook, when opened it will have an additional button, Add to 1st Diary, on the email toolbar. Clicking this brings up a diary entry screen to create a record of the mail. This allows the user to open a list of clients from within the software and allocate it accordingly.
The record created can be linked to the client either generally or in a defined way dependent on the action to be taken. This can also be recorded against an individual contract, a transaction such as a sale or purchase or a consultant.
At this point, the item can be allocated to another person, making it easy to delegate dealing with the matter to an administrator. Priority dates and reminders can be set by the person allocating the tasks at the same time and the reminder will appear within the administrator's reminders from the 1st system.
Any further emails recorded by the person processing the delegated action are recorded against the diary event created from the original email. This creates a single task with the related email actions rather than a list of email tasks.
When an appointment is created in Outlook, this is automatically replicated in 1st. Until the appointment takes place, this is simply a diary entry although, if the appointment is moved in Outlook, it automatically changes in 1st. Once the event has taken place, 1st creates it as a reminder so that a similar set of processes can be set up within the user's task list to enable any actions from the meeting to be dealt with.
By linking these features together with any Word documents or reports, the document management option can also create an holistic view of communications with the client. Moving emails into a client view in this way can also help keep your inbox free of clutter as, once the item has been transferred to the 1st system, it can safely be deleted from Outlook.
Using a system like this is leaning towards the sort of automated workflow functionality that life offices have been used to for several years.
The more that IFAs and their staff can be backed up by automated systems that can track activity and give reminders as necessary, the higher the quality of service that can be delivered in a cost-effective manner. If software like this can make advisers confident that they can delegate more complex tasks to junior staff, safe in the knowledge of the technology back-up, this must be worthwhile.
Four weeks ago, I looked at the benefits that can be achieved by a properly integrated adviser back-office system that enables full reuse of data. The 1st system is a classic example of putting this into practice. It also demonstrates that the more you actually use a back-office system, the greater the benefits and increased efficiency can be.
Creating an holistic record of client interaction within an adviser's back-office system is, of course, nothing new. However, it is encouraging to see a software provider taking advantage of the far greater degree of functionality in email software such as Outlook rather than forcing IFAs to use their own proprietary but far less powerful email tools within the adviser system.
This way, the IFA seems to get the best of both worlds – the power and functionality achievable via Outlook linked to the specific needs of a dedicated IFA system.
Ian McKenna is a consultant and director of the Financial Technology Research Centre, which works for a wide range of industry organisations, life offices and technology companies, including Microsoft and The Exchange. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com
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