On the same day that the Queen was crowned, the news was released that Edmund Hillary had climbed Mount Everest.
It sometimes feels that encouraging the use of e-commerce in our industry is an equally daunting task but the important thing to remember is that Hillary achieved that climb one step at a time.
Although it is great to have grand visions of where technology can take us, all too often I come across situations where people are spending so much time working towards the perfect solution that they forget to provide some real business benefits in the short term. Most advisers I speak to would rather have simple improvements to the way they work now rather than the promise of great things in the future.
We need to recognise that to get IFAs to adopt e-commerce, we have to make it contribute to the way they work in the short term.
Last September, I looked at the then embryonic Mortgage Express website. This service has now been live for a year and is a significant part of the company's overall proposition.
Mortgage Express has recognised that the best website in the world will not get advisers to recommend it if the underlying products and overall level of service are not adequate. As someone who remembers when you used to count the time it took to get an offer from Mortgage Express in months rather than days – admittedly under previous management – it is great to see that it is delivering offers in 11.3 days, ahead of its stated target of 13 days.
The services offered by the website have not inc-reased greatly since I last looked at it in September. In all honesty, mx-online. co.uk is not the most elegant of services. There are some fairly obvious design flaws and it could be made far easier to use. The company has built a training area but, for reasons I cannot understand, it is not promoting this within the open area of the service but leaving it as an area that its regional managers can take IFAs through. In my view, this is a lost opportunity.
Despite these shortcomings, the service is making significant inroads, with over 10 per cent of Mortgage Express's new business originating via the site. This may not seem like a big proportion of its business but I can think of many other lenders which would be ecstatic if they were getting that much of their new business electronically.
Certainly, a number of the IFAs who actively use the site enthuse about it. Paul Adams of Bristol-based Kelly Mears told me recently that most lenders building websites are doing so to make their own lives easier. He says the great thing about mx-online is it helps IFAs' business process. According to Mears, you can complete the whole online application process in less time than it takes to get a decision in principle from some other lenders' websites.
Adams stresses that it is not just the online capability but the combination of technology backed up by easy access to staff he can talk to that makes Mortgage Express head and shoulders above other lenders in this area, in his opinion.
One of the features he uses often is the decision-in-principle tool to get an immediate response on cases, be it yes or no. This clearly has significant advantages at the point of sale.
While, ideally, Mortgage Express would like to use the full range of decision in principle, submission and case-tracking facilities, those who are not yet prepared to go that far can download an extensive range of paper-based documents including applications, consumer bro-chures, direct-debit mandates and so on.
The contact section enables the user to put in their postcode and receive details of who they should be dealing with at Mortgage Express and the regional office covering their area.
I gather from Mortgage Express managing director Tim Dawson that the company plans to integrate with mortgage portals such as IFonline and Mortgage Brain in the future, a step that I would see as an important development.
Last week, Dawson told me that the company is looking to see dramatic further growth in the use of the site this year, stating: “I will be disappointed if it does not reach 20 per cent of our business by the end of the year.”
One way to increase growth might be to introduce differential pricing on either application or procuration fees where the case is submitted electronically. I understand that, at present, Mortgage Express is resisting this approach, preferring to concentrate on making the service proposition the key driver to encourage adviser use. I can see its point and, if it were to redirect funds to incentivise users, the cost would have to come from somewhere and it could be argued that this might reduce the cash available for further development of the service.
On the other hand, looking at experiences elsewhere, particularly in the life and pension sector where several offices have found that sharing some of the savings with the adviser and customer can make a staggering difference to the extent of online e-business, I think if it were to try such an approach, it would probably be more than compensated by the additional savings from wider use of electronic submission.
From my own experiences and what I have heard from several IFA users, any adviser who does not currently use this service might find a couple of hours exploring it a worthwhile investment.
Ian McKenna is a consultant and director of the Financial Technology Research Centre, which works for a wide range of industry organisations, life offices and technology companies, including Microsoft and The Exchange. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com
Tel: 020 7935 2599