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Touching database

Comparing different products, their features and suitability to match a client&#39s needs is one of the fundamental parts of the IFA process.

It is no surprise then that during the last decade, some of the most successful software packages targeted at advisers have been those that automate the process of pulling together vast amounts of data on product details and enabling advisers to interrogate this data to identify the product most suitable for a client&#39s needs.

This market divides into product specialists targeting specific areas such as O&M&#39s pension profiler or the various performance packages such as Lipper or Morning Star and those which seek to embrace the full gambit of products distributed by IFAs. In the latter area, there are two clear market leaders – Synaptic Systems and Defaqto, previously The Research Department.

Last year, Synaptic completely rebuilt its research system and replaced the previous product research professional product with research manager. This was part of the launch of its full range of front-office, research and customer management tools for IFAs under the Syn-aptic Manager brand.

Although research from Defaqto is used to underpin a number of other industry res-earch products such as The Exchange&#39s product databanks and the FSA&#39s comparative tables, the firm&#39s core offering has always been the Aequos database. Over the last year, Defaqto has built a completely new version of the prod-uct known as Aequos online.

The previous version operates as desktop software, that is, the main software sits on the user&#39s local PC and is updated either by internet downloads or by a monthly CD-Rom. The online version is resident on internet servers operated by Defaqto. This is known as operating using an application service provider model and an increasing number of IFA services are being delivered this way.

The officeweb client management and back-office system from The Exchange and Intelliflo&#39s intelligent office are just two examples. Equally, some software providers are offering their packages in both desktop and ASP versions.

Those who advocate ASP systems argue that the overall cost of businesses operating systems in this way is lower. The software does not have to be loaded and maintained on a local PC and you only need an internet browser to access it.

On the other hand, you are using services over internetstyle connections and, should anything happen to your connection, users may not have access to their systems. There is no right and wrong in this argument. Desktop and ASP solutions both have strengths and weaknesses.

Defaqto tells me that the online product gives it far greater control over the way it controls user licences. This could create economies for bigger organisations where different people in various departments may only need access to a subset of the full Aequos data to cover their area of interest rather than each individual user having to license the whole database.

The basic functionality of the online offering is very similar to that which has long been offered in the desktop version of Aequos. The software is arranged as a very detailed series of tables of information concerning financial products. It is arranged in this way so that data can be used for broadbased market research, for example, to build up panel lists of providers with acceptable characteristics in different product areas or to filter down a list of providers to find those which are most suitable for a client&#39s specific needs.

New functionality has been added to the online version. For example, if a web link to a provider&#39s product is given, this is now designed to link to exactly the right page on its site rather than just the home page.

You begin the process by defining a table of providers for a particular product. This allows a search to be carried out on the whole of the market or just a selected list.

If you are looking to meet a specific client requirement, the next step is to carry out sifts to filter out products that do not meet the requirements. When using this facility, for example, you can exclude any pension plans with charges above a certain level.

This can be achieved using predefined sifts created by Defaqto. These are simple summaries of yes/no-type information or using product DNA, a set of values ascribed by Defaqto to different policy terms and conditions.

For example, a plan which if paid up would be subject to a penalty and not allow reinstatement only achieves a rating of one whereas a plan that can be paid up at any time without penalty and where reinstatement is permitted would carry a rating of five.

A further method would be by custom sifts, that is, looking at minimum age conditions app-lying or other customised values. By applying a series of sifts, you can refine the list down to a small number of providers.

While you are downloading data to build tables, there is the really cute little cartoon character that looks like a floppy disk with arms and legs. This is useful to let you know that things are downloading. However, I imagine if the system ever slows down, you could get pretty sick of him.

I did experience some frustration over download times while carrying out testing but, to be fair to Defaqto, the system has only recently been launched and it says it has a series of enhancements in the pipeline to enhance download times.

The current pricing for Aequos online for IFAs is £250 per user per month, with discounts for volume. The company tells me there are also plans for a lower-cost “lite” version of the product later in the year.

It will also be relaunching the desktop version of the product with the additional functionality currently only available in the online service. Given the number of teething problems I experienced while testing this product, I will probably look at it again in the New Year.

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