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Sites for sore IFAs

Technology is a wonderful thing. It is now available to help IFAs – and their customers – at every stage of the sales chain from promotion, research and needs analysis, through transaction to client servicing. If all this is integrated, IFAs can benefit from significant efficiencies, enabling them to devote more time to their clients and their business. Sounds great, doesn&#39t it?

But, understandably, IFAs are looking beyond the glossy web sites and software. They put a high priority on what is known in dotcom parlance as functionality. In short, does it do what it says on the tin?

Mike Baughan of Buckinghamshire-based Chessman & Partners finds many financial web sites incredibly frustrating. He says: “It is all very well being bombarded with encouragement to use websites, especially life company sites, if the technology is right.

“Some sites look good, some give you lots of information, many allow you to print secure documentation – and all that would be a real boon if only it worked as smoothly as that.

“You try getting into a site at 3pm, for example. Not only can it be impossibly slow but often you are simply denied access because there is too much traffic. Frankly, pen and paper are still king and, until the systems are speeded up, they will remain so.”

This is echoed by others, including West Sussex-based Marshall Williams managing director Ian Williams. He says: “With so many sites under development still, it is too time-consuming. We have reverted to phone calls. Some of the insurance company sites are next to useless. When you eventually find the advertised service, it is either under development or out of date.”

Allan Rosengren of the Bristol-based Falcon Group uses the internet purely as a business tool and rates functionality first among his requirements. The Exchange (www. exchange.co.uk) rates high on his list as being user-friendly and reliable.

How are IFAs using technology to help them run their businesses? Recent research has revealed that nearly 68 per cent of IFAs rank the delivery of improved levels of service to clients as the key objective of new technology. This highlights an interesting slant towards customer service.

Screentrade (www.screen trade.com), the first online insurance broker, has proved popular, with more than a million hits each month. Sales are rising at more than 100 per cent year on year.

Assureweb (www.assureweb.co.uk), Micropal (www. micropal.com) and Find (www. find.co.uk) also score well, with many advisers dropping into the sites several times a day.

Kevin Hains of Francis Townsend in Croydon also points to a variety of Inland Revenue and DSS sites which he says are excellent.

Interestingly, trade body and regulatory web sites registered no hits in my straw poll.

Let us not forget that technology works both ways. Around 58 per cent of independent intermediaries have their own web site and more than three-quarters expect to submit new business forms electronically.

“The internet threatens at least six of the seven elements to the service offered by IFAs. The first four, product information, choice, discounts and simplified process, have already become commodities online. Advice and long-term planning could be next,” says Benjamin Ensor, an analyst for e-research experts Forrester. “Only the reassurance brought by an individual adviser&#39s intimacy with a customer&#39s financial affairs cannot readily be automated.”

There is tremendous scope for IFAs to move online, according to Philip Holingdale, director of technology company Screenpages.

He says the arrival of stakeholder pensions will be a good opportunity to trade online. Statistics show that nearly 50 per cent of businesses are unaware of their obligations while 60 per cent of consumers prefer to seek advice through an IFA or accountant. With only four months to get ready and low commission margins, some providers are offering internet-only products.

To this end, the ever popular IFA Promotion web site (www.unbiased.co.uk) is now helping businesses get in touch with local IFAs to fulfil their needs on the stakeholder pension front.

And with more than 400,000 firms looking for help and advice, there&#39s gold in them there hits.

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