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Getting the messaging

The first experience that most novice computer users have of electronically managing information concerning people they communicate with, either online, or for general appointments, tends to be some use of Microsoft Outlook or Outlook Express. This is an inevitable consequence of Microsoft&#39s dominance of the market for desktop suites, web browsers and operating systems.

Outlook has over its last few releases become a very powerful tool with an increasingly powerful ability to manage emails, maintain a diary and set reminders. Most users will find that Outlook can manage simple information emails and appointments but does not really enable management of contact information and activities to the extent that is desirable for a customer business giving high levels of personal service and demanding exact record-keeping.

You really need to invest in the Microsoft Exchange Server product to link up individual users&#39 mail and diary files via a server. A quick internet search gave a typical cost of a oneto five-user version of Exchange Server as £925 plus VAT. Alternatively, you could buy the full Small Business Server product for the same number of users for £1,025. In either case, you are still going to need one licence of Micro-soft Office per computer.

In the long term, this is worthwhile but in the worst bear market for 30 years, many IFA businesses may be reluctant to commit to such expenditure and may want to look at an alternative way of getting more productivity and record-keeping out of their computers. The best answer has to be to invest in a dedicated IFA system that has been built specifically to help advisers in their businesses.

I frequently come across advisers talking about building their own Access databases or saving information in Excel spreadsheets so they can have it in exactly the form they want it. From a professional perspective, I believe this has to rank as possibly the biggest waste of time that an adviser can get involved in.

With a professional advisers&#39 time costing between £80 and £150 a hour, I fail to see an economic argument for diverting time that could be spent in front of clients to building your own database for client records.

There is an even more compelling argument for buying a dedicated adviser system. As we move more into the world of electronic messaging, IFAs who are properly equipped will be able to access increasing amounts of information. A growing number of life offices and fund firms are offering the ability to get valuations and other information in this way.

IFA software providers are linking in to these messaging facilities so that, for example, users of 1st Software and Plum can get valuation messages without having to leave their specialist IFA software. The systems fire off messages to get the information via the internet and deliver the values back to the client record in the adviser system.

Achieving this requires data standards such as those from Origo in the UK, EMX and Acord internationally. Understanding the latest developments in technologies such as XML, on which these standards tend to be built, is a major activity in its own right. The chances of an individual IFA being able to build and maintain their own database economically to take advantage of such services must be virtually zero.

I must also point out that adopting a specialist IFA system is going to demand considerable investment, not just in putting the technology on everyone&#39s desk but in training and getting to know the system. Getting the best out of a dedicated IFA system can really only happen when you have all your client records loaded on the system.

In the long run, it will be a worthwhile investment but it is not a trivial activity and may take a year to achieve.

What if you want an interim solution – something that will enable you to keep details of client contacts, manage diaries and reminders for multiple members of staff and file emails and other correspondence in a way that can be easily accessed and get some quick payback?

In this case, the answer may well lie with a contact management system. This is really a minor relative of the major customer relationship management systems. They have evolved from systems designed to help salespeople keep track of prospects and opportunities but, in their current evolutions, they are also suitable for maintaining a professional relationship.

Probably the best known of these systems is ACT, now owned by Sage. I have used ACT in a minor way for may years but have always been frustrated by the fact that although it is excellent for keeping contact details, maintaining a diary and reminders, the email software was inferior to Microsoft Outlook. This flaw was supposed to have been resolved in ACT 2000 a couple of years ago but it did not really work. Late last year, Sage released ACT 6.0. After a couple of weeks testing, my reaction is it seems to have addressed this problem by creating a situation where you can use Outlook as your email client and still be able to manipulate information with the extended functionality of ACT.

We have now installed a multi-user version of ACT across all the computers in our office and over the next couple of months will be really putting ACT to the test. The test results will appear on this page in the not to distant future.

For those of you who do not want to wait to see my verdict, single-user ACT retails at around £120, with a five-user version available for £550.A 30-day downloadable free trial version can be obtained from www.act.com/products/act/freetrial/index.cfm.

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