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Technology Edge: Stephen Wynne Jones

The future survival of financial adviser firms may well depend on the degree to which they embrace technology. Regulatory change, downward pressure on margins and poor stockmarket performance pose risks to adviser businesses.

Not only can technology increase productivity and profits for advisers but it can also aid advisers in meeting ever-increasing regulatory demands.

But where should an adv-iser turn to when considering how technology might support their business and which portal is right for them? Well, that largely depends on who you ask but there are some key considerations that cannot be ignored – cost, support and product coverage.

We know that the IFA sector could save £71m a year by doing business electronically but advisers will only make the most of the systems on offer if the sector provides a more user-friendly and transparent process.

Despite the standard techy pre-ambles about scaleability, functionality and end-to-end usability, the reality is that for IFAs to switch to technology as part of their day-to-day business technology providers need to offer a product which makes life easier, allows an adviser to run a better business and makes commercial sense.

At Assureweb, this is what we have tried to do. The central appeal is that we are the only system which is free to use. We do not charge mon-thly fees per product area, we do not charge to train our users and we do not charge for IDs.

In fact, we do not see the need to use valuable resources to administer bureaucratic licence arrangement when we can offer the service free but prefer to focus on product development and supporting our users.

If advisers are moving over to us on the cost issue alone, we welcome them because we know that when people switch, they like what they see.

We offer comprehensive quotes from over 25 market-leading providers and, as the only portal to offer fully tail-ored illustrations rather than the bog-standard comparisons generated by other quote engines, it means advisers do not have to contact providers to quote for complex or multi-benefit products. As a result, we believe we have the widest product coverage for submitting new business applications electronically.

Perhaps key to the Assure-web proposition is the flexibility of our offer for different firms. By providing a choice of links to the major back-office systems, we are not a business that subscribes to the one-sizefits-all solution, nor do we force users to adopt services they do not need.

Our core services can be easily tailored to the IFAs business needs and we often provide bespoke, integrated solutions for bigger customers. With a proven track record of supporting some of our customers with panels or multi-tie links to both regulated and non-regulated products, we are uniquely placed to help the sector benefit from GI regulation and depolarisation.

The sector is challenged in breaking the mystique of conducting business electronically. For too long, technology providers have left IFAs to their own devices or offered expensive training courses on single products and yet wonder why the sec-tor has such varying degrees of IT literacy. We are planning to change this.

We have a UK-wide team dedicated to training and consultancy support for our customers. Training can be delivered face to face, over the phone or remotely. The point is that we do all that we possibly can to help our users, regardless of their IT com.

Providers are also keen for advisers to embrace technol-ogy. It is more productive for them if product applications and correspondence are sent electronically. Enhanced commission is more likely to be paid to advisers who apply for products online in the future and commission may even be reduced for advisers who continue to send in paper applications. Thus, advisers who do not use technology will find their profit margins will be hit even harder.

So maybe it really is heading toward decision time on the technology front? We know the benefits and you know the options. Surely this is all you need to know to make an inf-ormed decision?

Stephen Wynne Jones is head of transactional delivery at Assureweb Technology EDGE: david child

Much has been said about the cost of portals, with some free services claim-ing this makes them a better option, but cost is only one consideration for intermediaries, just as price is not the only factor when advising on a product Our primary objective at The Exchange is to ensure that our services meet the needs of intermediaries. We are an independent company which is not owned by an IFA network which means our priorities and developments are based on feedback from intermediaries using our service rather than the views of a parent company which may have motives to drive the service in a different direction.

This continual drive to align our portal with the requirements of our users has this year led to a significant shift in emphasis in the portal model, a shift that only The Exchange has managed to make.

Intermediaries want a portal service that reflects their increasing focus on client ownership and the ability to deal with all their financial needs rather than on stand-alone product sales. Exweb contains client management functionality that can support this business model.

Historically, portals have been used by intermediaries to carry out single company or comparative product quotes. Indeed, some of the newer portals are still developing these services for some products and building up the number of providers that support them.

The Exchange, however, has had these services in place for over 10 years and has the most comprehensive offering, delivering quotes on nearly 270 products from 37 providers covering protection, retirement planning, investments, mortgages and general insurance. This has allowed us in recent times to focus on integrating additional functions which complement the core quote services and add value to the overall product.

Intermediaries have access to 26 of these services such as a comprehensive annuity sour-cing service, a website-building service, a compliance centre, a special risks centre and the industry&#39s only equity-rel-ease trading platform.

However, the most significant development over the past few years has been the new business service on Exweb. This enables intermediaries to buy products online either via our own service or by linking directly to provider extranet services.

We have been working with our users to launch some major new initiatives that have transformed Exweb into the one-stop-shop client management and electronic trading platform which can support the level of service intermediaries are looking to provide to their clients.

For no additional cost, the new services expand significantly the benefits that Exweb can deliver to intermediary firms. Intermediaries now have access to a client database within a portal service that enables them to store all relevant details for each client so they have a clear view of advice given and future requirements.

This database enables intermediaries to enter data once that can then be automatically transferred into all quotation and new business submissions undertaken for the relevant client. Future developments will also enable intermediaries to store details of each client&#39s policies in the database and access up to date valuations of these policies.

Much has been said rec-ently about the cost of portals, with some free services unsurprisingly claiming that this makes them a better option. However, our view is that cost is only one of a number of important considerations for intermediaries, just as price is not the only factor when advising on a financial product for one of their clients.

First and foremost, they need to consider which service offers the most benefits to their business. They then need to decide whether the cost represents good value for money. The cheapest form of anything is rarely the best and the two most heavily used portals in the industry (Exweb and Webline) are subscription services.

The subscription provides us with a sustainable business model that enables substantial investment to be made in developing our service and ensuring our security processes are second to none.

A final endorsement of this business model was our success at this years Pensions Management technology awards, where Exweb won the main portal categories for best overall portal, best portal accessibility, best portal quotation and best portal online tech-nical support.

David Child is managing director at The Exchange

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