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E swoops to conquer

It may not be obvious to everyone but insiders such as Financial Technology Centre director Ian McKenna say the signs are definitely there. Over the past six months, the financial services industry has finally been bitten by the technology bug.

The words of Ron Sandler&#39s report are etched on McKenna&#39s brain to the extent that he even knows the page number where it recommends making “end-to-end electronic processing of transactions the norm in the industry”.

The Financial Technology Centre thinks this aspect of the report alone could make the most significant obvious difference to the industry as a whole. McKenna says: “There has been an awful lot of work behind the scenes although a lot of it has not really come to light and a lot of IFAs are not yet feeling the effects.”

One important development in the last six months has been the formation of the Advisers Technology Forum, which includes seven of the biggest IFAs and providers. These firms alone account for a quarter of all RIs in the market and potentially 40 per cent of business written.

The group will clearly be more than just a talking shop for firms which are serious about integrating IT into their businesses and it is looking towards developing an industrywide range of standards.

Both Sandler and Ron Pickering have paved the way for a handful of technology providers to lead the market in pioneering faster office systems which will bring financial services lurching into the 21st Century.

1st Software managing director Rory Curran says: “E-business is definitely the way we see the future of financial services going. The thing most IFAs need is to be able to aggregate information for valuations on assets.

“Our Adviser Office range is a way of speeding up the process both for clients and advisers. The system provides instant electronic delivery of valuation forms.”

The launch by Synaptic Systems of Synaptic Manager in May has helped to set the ball rolling. The new package is a significant progression from research software. It includes a product manager facility designed to help smaller firms produce their own marketing material, improve time management and maintain client databases as well as a fund manager facility using the Lipper Leaders database.This new integrated approach to IT means cost-cutting and far less paperwork.

Chief executive Selwyn Herring says: “This product takes another step forward for the adviser, relieving the pressure to deliver all the latest independent product research and in-depth fund analysis and make the most effective use of time while developing customer relationships.”

Herring says Synaptic has found that IT literacy differs greatly among its clients and that face-to-face training rather than online tutorials still works best. “But we can see this changing in the future as clients become more confident with the systems. We now have 8,000 customers, IFA firms, networks and nationals. Many of them are ready and waiting for the launch of the final component of our software quote system in November,” he says.

In August, Legal & General announced that it now does more than half its life protection business online. Resistance to new technology was something it had to tackle head on. Spokesman Peter Timberlake says: “In the past, we found that sending demo CDs out to advisers just did not work. They invariably ended up being used as coffee mats.

“We have gone out into the offices to train people to use the systems. When the programs are actually put into practice, clients realise that they are a great way of doing business and save time and money. There has been a very quick take-up from clients in the last six months.”

The L&G program automatically remembers the information already entered when data is added. So, rather than filling out several application forms for separate schemes, the data is recalled immediately and can be sent straight back to L&G. It has worked closely with advisers to develop relevant technology that meets their needs and enhances the way they want to do business. L&G says the result is that online submissions are rapidly becoming the norm for all advisers across the UK.

Results like these indicate that the use of online applications and programs that can remember client information are the way forward. But the development of more signature-free processes could smooth the change towards greater amounts of e-business even faster.

Thomson&#39s Online Benefits believes it is the only financial adviser in the UK using a totally signatureless application process. The company went for a soft launch of the new system to iron out any glitches but is now fully up and running.

Thomson&#39s sales manager Tarun Chadha says: “Customers using online systems have a different attitude to what they are buying rather than: &#39Where do I sign?&#39 They read things through much more carefully before making their decision and become far more familiar with the product. The schedule comes straight through to us from the provider and this alone has radically sped up the administration process, which is fantastic.”

Although there are several layers to the application form, these can be saved and returned to later. Thomson&#39s says the process is now so easy that it can be completed from a PC at home in just over 10 minutes.

It seems clear that, in the next six months, more and more e-trading facilities will be appearing in back offices near you.

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