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Key to the door

Just as the major industry quotation portals are positioning themselves to be anything but just portals, a small company is making significant progress in attracting IFA users by sticking to its core proposition.

More than 18,000 registered users give The Exchange a dominant position as a provider of portal services to advisers. Its CTP and ExWeb systems generate something in the order of 100 million quotations a year. It has been clear for some time, however, that The Exchange, now owned by Marlborough Stirling, sees its future in delivering a far wider range of end-to-end technology services.

The recent announcement of the ExWeb Gold service, to be launched later in the year, is a further indication of this.

At the same time, Misys IFA Services is beginning to roll out its Mi-Solution package, which links to the AssureWeb services for electronic quotes and new business. I understand that 1,300 registered individuals have been trained and are using the system, as are a further 300 administrators, and 700 advisers in the Misys networks are awaiting training.

A summary of the main protagonists in this market would not be complete without mentioning Synaptic Systems, which has in my view benefited from less product provider support than deserved by the quality of the solutions it delivers.

Building on a highly successful product research package with no fewer than 9,500 users, Synaptic added the next logical step – quotation and new business services.

Having done so, it is now focusing on building the rest of its end-to-end proposition for advisers, while allowing product providers time to develop the necessary integration.

Against this background, Webline appears to be emerging as a further alternative for electronic services although for a limited product range. It is not that long since Webline appeared to be just a bit-part player offering a very attractively priced business-to-consumer service for advisers to use to populate their consumer websites.

Personally, I was mildly amused recently to see the various claims and counter-claims that were being thrown around the industry about portal quotation volumes. I have no desire to fuel that particular argument – after all, it is the value of the services delivered to advisers that matters but the debacle has prompted me to have another look at what the relative minnow of the IFA quote market has to offer.

Webline managing director Paul Holland tells me it delivered its last million quotes in just three weeks. Apparently, quotation levels so far this year are up by 500 per cent on 2002, when they increased by 300 per cent over 2001. Some 4,000 firms are now regularly using the service, involving some 19 networks, although 15 of these are non-regulated.

Although the business-to-consumer service still exists, Webline is now positioning itself as a significant provider of business-to-business quotation services. The area in which it has made most progress is one that is providing a significant amount of advisers&#39 income at this time – protection cover. It includes a comparative quotation engine for term, convertible term and family income benefit plus a separate whole-of-life comparison service.

Having obtained a quote, the service then allows the creation of a client-specific key features&#39 document. This is delivered using the Adobe Acrobat PDF format for ease of use and storage. Proposal forms can also be downloaded.

The service also provides limited facilities for tracking both the source and progress of applications. However, I think this is something carried out far better in a full-blown front-office system with integration with the fact-find and other client information.

The current service can be accessed by anyone with an internet connection and the Acrobat Reader software installed on their PC. It includes links to Legal & General and Liverpool Victoria for electronic new business.

Holland admits that the latter services are limited but says Webline will soon launch an extended service allowing advisers the option of online and offline data entry. If it can do this, it would appear to replicate Legal & General&#39s highly successful Choices protection software but in a portal environment offering multi-provider access.

I am told the service is about to go into pilot testing with two networks and a couple of providers. Webline says it will have seven or eight providers live with this service in the near future.

In addition to the protection services, there is a with-profits bond comparison service together with a quotation facility for unit-linked bonds and pensions. But the bulk of this portal is really about protection.

It already offers integration to back-office systems from 1st Software and Plum, with Sirius and Quay apparently on the way. In this respect, it is good to see a further alternative option for IFAs who may want to choose a stand-alone quotation and new business provider separate from single-source solutions. Having said this, the extent of such integration will need to be significant to replicate the functionality of software designed to operate as a single application.

The Webline service is available for a mere £10 per practice rather than per registered individual or per copy of the software. Clearly, such a level of charges is a loss-leader and the company is aiming to make its profit on revenue from electronic transactions. I admire its commitment to the use of e-commerce but would be concerned that it could suffer if, as has happened so many times before, providers do not move quickly enough to take up such new services.

So, is there space for other players alongside the industry Goliaths that are The Exchange and Misys? It is essential that there must be. If the market becomes dominated by only two key players, however attractive their propositions, it is inevitable that innovation will suffer. Equally, there must not be so many players that the costs of supporting them all become counter-productive.

This said, at the moment, I hear a lot of people promising a lot of things. It will be interesting to see who over the next few months is brave enough to let me get my hands on some software. The results will, of course, appear in this column.

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