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Take the plunge

The market for adviser client management systems has seen some interesting changes during the past year and there can be little doubt that in the next 12 months, there will be even more. This is particularly the case as far as systems to meet the needs of small to medium-sized adviser firms.

Until about two years ago, there was little doubt that the clear market leader in this area was Adviser Office from 1st Software. Today, the picture is less clear. In the intervening period, two alternative products have emerged that increasing numbers of advisers are finding highly attractive.

Client Care Desktop from Quay Software was launched towards the end of 2003 as a replacement for Quay’s previous software. The new product has been praised by many IFAs for its ease of use and the speed with which new users are able to start achieving real benefits from using the software.

In January, Intelliflo completed a management buyout from Millfield and has also had considerable success in marketing its Intelligent Office system, claiming to have picked up about 2,000 new users in the last seven months.

Its system operates on a so-called applications service provider model. In English, this means that all the software resides on a web service and is accessed on the internet rather than being installed on a local PC. There are various arguments for and against such an approach and I explored these in this column in April so I will not repeat them here.

If 1st is no longer leading the pack when it comes to usability, it has not been sitting on its hands. It has just announced the release of the latest 4.0 version of Adviser Office which includes elements of the system that have been redeveloped using Microsoft’s latest .net technology.

This is in advance of its new system, currently known as Evolution, which is due for release next year. From the few screen shots I have seen, this looks a very attractive package and I am looking forward to giving it a proper road test once it becomes available next year.

Assuming that Evolution delivers what is being promised and I have no reason to doubt this, it will be a welcome step forward for 1st users. At the moment, Adviser Office is a very powerful but equally complex product.

There are other players significant in the IFA software market. The Exchange, with its OfficeWeb product, and the Swift system from Sirius are both predominantly targeted at bigger firms.

JCS Software’s IFA Professional has long been a popular package with many smaller adviser firms. Although it is not well known outside its userbase, the product does have a very loyal band of customers. If the product has a weakness, it could be that it has failed to address connectivity with insurers in the same way as other leading systems. JCS was taken over by X-Ware on April 29 and it would be reasonable to expect the new management to address this in the near future.

I am struggling to make up my mind if Plum Software is a serious player as whenever we have asked it for an meaningful user numbers recently, it always declined.

At an entry level, Exchange also has Exweb Gold. This is primarily the Exweb portal product with a very simple client database and the ability to carry out real- time valuations. Bankhall and Sesame members should also look closely at the respective offerings from their organisations, Bankhall Online and Sesame Office.

Each of these entry products are more sales support tools than full CRM systems but they can offer a valuable first step for advisers who are not sure that they want to leap from nothing to a full client management system in a single step.

I am often told by advisers that there is no one place they can go to find information on all the different software options available to them. To try and address this need, we have recently launched a dedicated area for advisers on the www.ftrc.co.uk website.

Under “Information for financial advisers”, you can find listings on a wide range of software providers from client management systems to mortgage sourcing to pension admin. At the moment, this is provided as lists of the various different software providers by product type, with contact details and links to their website. In the coming months, this will be developed to list far more detailed information but, even in its current form, this should be a useful source of information for advisers looking for software for any specific purpose.

There are some very good systems out there but I can still see some obvious innovations which could be delivered to make these even better. A good example is the ability to fully populate electronic applications from both quotations and client management systems.

Since Origo has delivered a new business message that can be worked with easily, not enough has been done to take advantage of this. It is now technically possible for a system to prepopulate the vast majority, if not all, the information needed on an electronic application, removing the need for advises or administrators to enter such information manually.

No one has demonstrated to me a system that takes the best possible advantage of this capability. When such facilities are finally delivered, there will be massive benefits to advisers, providers and consumers.

When choosing a system, advisers should be clear in identifying what they want in advance. Ease of use, depth of functionality overall and in specific areas are all important. No one system is going to be best for all advisers and it is important to clearly understand your priorities before you start your research.

During the first part of next year, I will be looking at a number of the systems mentioned in this column, looking to identify their strengths and weaknesses.

I believe it is all still there to play for in the adviser client management system market. Any adviser who does not have such a system is almost certainly losing thousands of pounds a year in lost sales opportunities and business inefficiencies.

If you need a system now, go out and find what is right for you based on what is available today.

With technology, there will always be the promise of something better in the future. If you wait another year, there will be something better on the horizon then too. Take the plunge. The sooner you do, the sooner you will start feeling the benefits. Ian McKenna

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