Last week, I looked at the risks being run by product providers which fail to make the maximum amount of client information available to IFAs electronically.
Just to prove the point, within days of writing that column, I came across a firm of IFAs which makes the ability of product providers to transmit information electronically a key factor when judging the quality of service it believes product providers can offer.
As a result, Scottish Amicable is gaining considerable benefits from its involvement with the Group Enquiry Service.
With nine registered individuals and six administrators, Fenton Financial Ser vices is a medium-sized IFA practice in Kings Lynn, for which group pensions are an important part of business.
Last year, it carried out a beauty parade with leading pension providers to select the office which it felt would be most appropriate to make its primary recommendation for group personal pension business. The firm has a large number of clients with contracted-out money-purchase schemes who would benefit from moving to group personal pensions.
While obviously paying close attention to the usual issues of performance and charges, the ability to have access to the insurer's records electronically was a major influencing factor.
According to director Martin Honan: "Obtaining information electronically is far more effective for us than having to use a manual file. It enables us to provide a far better quality of service to the customer. Indeed, the ability to provide information to us via GES is a benefit we actively sell to the client. Our experience is that it goes down very well."
GES can be seen to have had a pivotal role in changing the way that the industry has developed online initiatives. It has demonstrated how smaller groups of product providers, focused on a common need, can achieve worthwhile results in a limited period.
This process necessitated having limited, achievable short-term targets and delivering on them rather than trying to please everyone at once and getting bogged down in management by committee.
It was a consequence of this rapid development approach that limited the content of the first release of GES late in 1996. Certainly, I disagreed with the areas that were given preference in the first release.
This omitted any information on projected benefits and facilities for storing the information received on the adviser's PC. Anyone who looked at the original system and dismissed it as not meeting their needs would be well advised to spend time examining what is now available.
Version two, released last summer, included the ability to obtain projected maturity values, an addition that Fenton Financial Services finds particularly useful.
Using GES, it is able to download client-specific information which it then enters into the PenCalc targeted benefit software from AssureSoft. This enables it to provide a clear, concise indication to the client of the extent of any shortfall in current pension provision. It can then quote for any additional contributions that may be necessary.
Version two also allows bulk download of information although this is currently only in an ASCII format and still requires some integration at the IFA level to pre-populate IFA systems. I hope that this function will be improved in version three of the system.
Originally, GES was a separate application distributed with but sitting outside the Common Trading Platform. However, with the recent release of CTP, it can now be accessed from within the CTP menu. It continues to be free of charge to CTP users.
Even before this latest integration, use of the service leapt dramatically during 1997. Figures from The Exchange show an increase of over 100 per cent in the use of GES between January and October 1997.
Another major supporter of GES is Willis National, which claims to be the country's second-biggest IFA. IT director Collett English believes firmly that it is policy-servicing areas such as these which can offer the greatest opportunities for savings and increased efficiency.
This is another company which considers an insurer's involvement with the service as a major benefit to both the customer and adviser. In a clear statement of support for the system, English points out: "Our intention is to increasingly look at insurers' ability to keep up with all technology developments. Providers' participation in such initiatives will increasingly become part of the criteria by which they are judged."
It is perhaps surprising that more insurers have not joined, given the considerable support for the service among major IFAs. So far, only Scottish Amicable and Scottish Widows have joined the original three companies, Scottish Equitable, Scottish Life and Sun Life. I understand, however, that several providers will start offering information over the service in the next few months.
One of these will be Eagle Star, which will begin piloting the service during the first quarter of 1998 with the aim of offering GES services to all IFAs as soon as possible.
David Carey, IT director for Eagle Star's parent BAT Financial Services, states a determination to provide as much information as possible to the IFA. He says: "Services like GES put the adviser in the position of being able to offer a better quality of service with less hassle for them."
This view is echoed by Honan. He says: "On servicing of existing cases, it is simply more effective to cut out the branches and deal direct with head office. GES is the ideal platform for this."
Although it still has some limitations, many of which it hopes to address in the forthcoming version three of the software, GES is delivering real benefits to IFAs and those insurers supporting it now. It is an excellent example that, from limited beginnings, it is possible to develop a service for the benefit of everyone, not least the scheme member.
Any IFA active in the group market which is not using GES is probably making life more difficult than it needs to. Those insurers supporting the service should be applauded and all others in the group market asked why they are not using it.
I also believe that, while recognising what has been achieved already, it is important to look at the even greater advantages that GES could deliver.
The greatest value almost certainly will come from increasing the functionality that can be used in client meetings. Fenton Financial Services has found an excellent way of using an existing software product, PenCalc, with the service.
Over the last few months, I have been discussing with many IFAs and a number of insurers the concept of adopting a standard interface for pension renewal. This could benefit both the group and individual pension markets.
There seems to be almost universal support for this from IFAs and, while a few life companies are enthusiastic, others seem a little apathetic. GES has made a great start but it is essential that we build on it.
Any IFAs or life offices wanting to discuss how this can be done should feel free to contact me.