One of the key conclusions of the strategic review into the future use of technology in the IFA market, carried out by Cap Gemini Ernst & Young last August, was that in the 80s and 90s small advisers had needed compliance clubs (networks). However, in the 21st century they would increasingly need technology clubs to capitalise on economies of scale in order to have access to the quality of new media services necessary to maintain their competitive position relative to larger players.
These organisations may or may not also provide compliance services and/or authorisation in the way they have in the past. Moves in this direction are clearly taking place as existing networks gain a greater technology focus and with the emergence of new technology players.
The most obvious examples are the so-called portals such as AssureWeb, exchange, Misys Synaptic and Bankhall's IFA Engine. These are not, however, the only players in the market.
A number of smaller organisations are also emerging, some of which have some highly innovative solutions. A good example is the new service from Positive Solutions, the independent financial planning arm of Think Positive (www.thinkpositive.com).
The company, a rapidly growing network established in 1997, currently has 235 members, with a projected turnover of £18m in the current year.
Until recently, however, it was keeping rather a low profile, but all this seems to be changing as it is keen to show off its various technology services. After spending some time looking at them, I am not surprised.
It certainly has a refreshing approach to the use of technology, with all members provided with laptop PCs loaded with software such as the Exchange and Microsoft Office, and templates for reasons why letters within the normal membership costs.
This also includes an electronic fact find which can have copies of the key research behind the recommendation, key features document and illustration, reasons why letter and application. All this information can be sent electronically to the network head office, where it is automatically imported into their systems.
All induction procedures for new members begin with IT training from outset so that the adviser really is using technology at the heart of their business. In addition, the company has a highly developed extranet service which allows members to examine pipeline business and look up details on all the contracts they have ever written. It holds extensive commission information, as well as compliance, research and a wide range of other valuable information.
This service also allows members to contact their head office using a simple notes messaging system with details of all previous messages appearing on individual pages. Positive Solutions says this greatly reduces the need for its members to employ administrators.
This information is populated via a central database with the information coming direct from 15 life offices in a mixture of XML messages, bulk data downloads and EDI.
I met with Positive Solutions chief executive, David Harrison, recently and I have to say I was very impressed by his attitude towards using technology throughout the business. He claims this is allowing the company to operate on far lower levels of charges to members than more conventional networks.
Harrison believes that using technology is as important to any IFA as having a car, and points out that those who fail to get the best out of new technology are usually those who do not invest enough time in the first place learning how to use it.
The company is not only using this information for itself and its members, but has recognised that delivering online services to existing clients is one of the best ways for the IFA to use the internet to complement their existing face-to-face advice services.
Although this is not the first service allowing IFAs to make details of clients' existing portfolios available to them online – Screen pages launched such a service for users of the 1st Technology back office system over two years ago – this service differs in that the valuation information is supplied by product providers rather than the IFAs needing to populate their own databases.
Positive Solutions has created a database of over 20,000 client portfolios that are held centrally and are presented with joint branding to recognise both the network and the member. Again, this service is provided at no additional cost over and above the normal network charges. The client is able to see the name and contract type as well as the policy number, level of contribution, frequency valuation and date of valuation.
The company admit that it may not be the prettiest of extranet sites, but I can think of few other organisations which have such powerful technology running all the way through their business.
A lot of organisations say they are making a major commitment to e-commerce, but, in my experience, most fall far short when it comes to delivery. This is clearly not the case here. The company has clearly gone to a great deal of trouble to pull together information from disparate sources.
One thing all this makes clear is the desperate need for more cooperation between providers over the delivery of existing policy information. That it is necessary to accommodate so many different ways of gathering information is a damning indictment of the way most life offices are servicing their IFA business partners – or rather not servicing them.
I am increasingly hearing dissatisfaction expressed around the market at the way in which life offices are cutting their own costs by decanting expenses into IFAs' businesses. While Positive Solutions should be congratulated for getting its head down and producing a system to meet these important needs for both its members and its members' clients, I cannot help thinking we could make it a whole lot easier for them.
This is certainly one of the most effective uses of e-commerce I have seen from any network. The all-inclusive basis of charging with no additional payments, even for providing online information to clients, is rather throwing down the gauntlet to some of the larger players.
With the closure of sales forces at Prudential and Sun Life Financial of Canada, there must be thousands of former tied advisers now considering a move to independent advice. For those happy to work with technology, Positive Solutions looks worth considering.