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The message is starting to get through

The recent news that Norwich Union had gone live with contract enquiry valuations via the Exchange’s Exweb Gold service represents for many reasons a significant step forward for industry technology.

From the perspective of over 20,000 Exchange users, they now have the opportunity to take advantage of the latest service from the UK’s biggest insurer, designed to allow them information to the very latest valuations on their clients’ policies simply by upgrading from the standard Exweb product, for as little as an extra £21 plus VAT per month.

This will particularly help those advisers who still do not operate their own client management software.

But Norwich Union is not the first insurer to offer contract enquiry valuations via Exweb Gold, Friends Provident, Legal & General, Prudential and Standard Life are already on the service with several more insurers due to follow in the coming months.

It is equally significant to all IFAs that Norwich Union have delivered a contract enquiry service, meaning all the biggest UK insurers have contract enquiry capability live with one or more software provider. It must only be a matter of time until these are extended to all the leading soft- ware providers.

The first such service is always the hardest to put in place, extending it to others should be far simpler, for example, Norwich Union also expects to go live with contract enquiry services via Bankhall Online by the end of September.

All those insurers which have put into place a contract enquiry service deserve considerable credit, as do the life and pension standards body Origo.

It is fair to say that I am no big fan of Origo. You only have to look at the new business tracking standard, now in its second full version but still with not a single product provider using the standard to deliver tracking messages to any portal or IFA client management system, despite the fact that the original version 1.0 message was published as long ago as June 2001 to see that it can take far too long to develop things and all too often it is far from ideal even when it does arrive.

But contract enquiry is a notable exception to this and Origo should be applauded for delivering a set of standards that can offer real benefit to the whole adviser community as well as its life company sponsors.

It was not so long ago that 1st was the only software provider which had really put in place contract enquiry links with any significant number of insurers.

Today, this is far from the case. Several software companies and portals are now offering these services. Although, as is frequently the case with the early adopters of new technology, 1st has had some teething problems with its contract enquiry services, so much so that it is rebuilding this functionality around a new hub service, I have been particularly impressed by what I have seen recently from Intelliflo and Quay Software. Fairs and Plum also have contract enquiry functions.

With Norwich Union going live on Exweb, I believe that we have definitely achieved critical mass of product providers and software suppliers.

In my view, we have now reached the stage where advisers should really only buy new software from suppliers which have made contract enquiry available and if your current supplier has not made a clear comm-itment to delivering it soon, it must be time for the adviser to consider seriously if they need to change their system provider.

With The Exchange now having a full contract enquiry service, this does put some pressure on the other portals, AssureWeb and Webline, to deliver similar capabilities.

AssureWeb has made it clear recently, following the buyout by insurers of the Sesame stake, that this is on its development plan.

The question must be, how quickly can it deliver? Webline has yet to make any public statement. By comparison, Bankhall Online has had such a capability since October last year.

Several insurers are insisting that advisers use digital certificates as the security mechanism for contract enquiry.

In reality, this mean that advisers are forced to use the Unipass digital certificate solution, which happens conveniently to be owned by the insurers, as some insurers do not accept any other digital certificates.

Although it will make me far from popular with some insurers for saying so, I cannot help but feel this is a mistake.

Unipass has never managed to convince me that its service properly meets the needs of the whole IFA community and there are many issues I have raised with them countless times, without managing to get what I would call a satisfactory answer.

A number of software companies have told me they would rather use alternative security solutions such as ID and password or their own security mechanisms which can work very effectively with contract enquiry messaging.

To be fair, I can see some merit in using digital certificates to access adviser’s Extranet services for contract enquiry but I think it is excessive.

The reality is, like it or not, that if you want to use contract enquiry with some insurers then you probably are going to have to use Unipass. Personally, I would expect those insurers which will consider alternative security measures as well as Unipass are likely to see a quicker return on their contract enquiry investment.

Taking advantage of contract enquiry message services is a major opportunity for all IFAs to take significant costs out of their business and enhance the quality of service they offer their clients, regardless of which software provider they use.

Given the significant number of life companies and software providers that are now offering these services, it must be time for advisers to embrace these facilities.

A significant number of organisations now offer this capability but take-up has so far been limited.

Delivering these services to help improve IFA efficiency has required the investment of tens of millions of pounds by insurers.

Further services are planned but advisers should recognise that insurers do need to see advisers using what has now been delivered in order to justify further investment.

Equally, software providers need to understand that they must actively promote these services to their IFA users if they are to be among the first to be able to offer further services as they become available.

In two weeks time, the issue of September 29, Money Marketing will contain the next edition of the Automated Valuations newsletter. Produced by my own organisation, this is designed to help advisers understand exactly how they can take advantage of these services and similar ones offered in the managed fund industry.

This latest issue includes detailed notes and guidance for IFAs on how to plan their implementation of these services in order to reap the benefits they offer.


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