I was not quite sure if I should laugh or cry a few minutes into my recent meeting with Jim Smith, Scottish Life's head of e-commerce. Jim had just calmly told me “a lot of the ideas we have built into the new service are from something you came up with, Ian, at the Origo new business workshop earlier in the year”.
While I was delighted to see an Origo sponsor adopting ideas I had put forward at a new business meeting, the idea is supposed to be that they consult me separately for advice on IFA extranets. C'est la vie!
The idea was that training and practice areas should be built into the various IFA portal services so that advisers could practice with the electronic new business services before they tried to send real business across cyberspace.
While none of the IFA portal providers has yet added such facilities, I suppose I should be flattered that Scottish Life has used the idea so extensively in the latest version of its IF@plus service.
The training and practice areas have been created to assist users in getting up to speed in using a range of additional facilities to support the company's group pension range, including its forthcoming stakeholder product.
These provide cradle-to-grave online automation for group schemes. This begins with the ability to pre-populate quotation services from an extract of data from the employer's payroll system.
While not the first company to do this, Scottish Life has gone further than others I have seen in providing a guide to extracting the data from leading payroll packages such as Sage and Pegasus. I particularly like the Macromedia Flash demo that actually allows staff to practise matching data fields from the payroll extract to the quotation system. Some off-the-shelf software packages could do with this sort of interactive training.
Once the data is entered, the scheme can then be manipulated in a vast number of ways, allowing for different funds, contributions, commission shapes, etc. This can be done both at a scheme level and in respect of individual members, if there is a desire to give different terms to different people within the same scheme. A few more mouse clicks and you can print off illustrations, key features documents and pre-populated applications.
This service can be used at the establishment stage and as new members are added to an existing scheme. A new business-tracking process can provide updates on the progress of applications once they have been submitted.
Once the scheme has been established, information at both group and member levels can be accessed in respect of contribution levels, trans-actions including processed and unprocessed scheme payments, and investments.
The investment facility includes the ability to generate graphs of the performance of each of the unit-linked funds. Some advisers will no doubt also be encouraged to find extensive commission-tracking facilities.
Projections are available for changes to standard retirement age, increments and reductions, projected paid-up values and existing benefits projections. These should be particularly useful in generating incremental business.
The service is now live in respect of all existing Scottish Life group pension arrangements. IFAs should contact their local broker consultants to arrange a password if they do not already have one.
It is important to stress that all this information is available instantly in real time. This is not a request and forward system where the information will follow by post.
Some other life offices have not been able to offer such immediate functionality. Without them, these services simply reduce provider costs without adding the instant access which delivers real value to advisers and their clients.
The launch of the IFA services coincides with the introduction of internet access for both scheme administrators and individual members, which can be accessed via the Online Solutions area of the main www.scottishlife.co.uk site.
Although these services are already valuable in supporting traditional group arrangements, they will really come into their own with the introduction of stakeholder pensions in April.
In order for anyone to have a chance of operating profitably within the Cat-priced environment it does become essential to make maximum use of technology. A full suite of e-commerce offerings, including adviser, employer and member access needs to provided as an absolute minimum for any provider to be considered seriously in this important new area.
With the launch of these services, Scottish Life has shown it has joined the ranks of those who are ready. Other companies are not as far advanced and it will be interesting to see who gets there in time and who does not.
On the individual business side, Scottish Life has had one of the more feature-rich IFA extranet services for a couple of years now.
Facilities include illustrations for all its main contracts including individual pension, endowments and income drawdown, new business tracking and policy valuations.
It is fair to say that, in terms of the actual information or services offered, little on this site is unique.
However, adding these additional tools to the previous IF@plus content certainly makes it one of the most rounded services in the market. By adding the online training and practice areas, the company is showing a desire to continue to use the service to make life easier for IFAs.
With the launch of the training tools, this is certainly a site worth spending a couple of hours playing with. I suspect that this will probably be best spread over a couple of visits as, if I have one criticism, it is that the training is, on the whole, a little bland. I do think more could be done to make it more interesting.
Scottish Life is touring the UK this month with its Retirement Solutions roadshows which will cover, among other things, worksite marketing, assisted decision trees and e-commerce – see www.scottishlife.co.uk/seminars.htm