As I travel the country talking to IFAs about technology, there is one issue which always to seems to be at the top of any list of things that would make them make more use of the various new services being offered – training.
During the last year, I believe we have seen a fundamental shift in the attitude of many IFAs about their future. Most will now admit that, even if they would prefer that it were not the case, the use of technology is key to their future success.
Increasingly, I cannot help but feel that, as an industry, we could be doing a lot more to help each other. One example of this is encouraging take-up of the Industry New Business E-commerce service. This is the process by which IFAs will be able to provide the information to insurers electronically, with the client just signing a single-page declaration rather than having to use individual proposal forms for each insurer.
The information is then sent to the life office via service providers such as Assure Soft, Exchange, Misys and Synaptic with the declaration and any other documentation following by post.
As the electronic application is completed the questions are validated, this should greatly reduce the capacity for errors to take place. Conse quently, far fewer applications should have to be returned to the adviser as information conflicts. Although it may take longer for the information to be typed in rather than written on a paper form, this can be offset by the fact that the services allow information to be carried forward from the key features illustration that has been prepared for the client.
In the case of life insurance bonds, for the first product being offered by most pro viders, the additional information required is limited and would appear to validate the decision to make this the first product area delivered.
A future development for the service will allow infor-mation to be also populated from the adviser's back-office system or cross-populated from other applications that may have already been prepared if investments are being spread across multiple product providers.
The facility is already available for those IFA firms which have sufficient IT budgets for to be able to afford the version of this service that CMG has produced, integrated with its Professional Indepen dent Adviser System (PIAS).
I was shocked to see quite how easy this was when I attended a demonstration of this service, which is by far the most advanced of the various new business systems that I have had a chance to look at.
Every week, more and more life offices are announcing they are launching facilities with the various service providers to allow advisers to submit business in this way.
From what I am seeing, at some time not too far into the new year, there will be a sufficient critical mass of insurers offering contracts in this way to justify any IFA spending a reasonable amount of time getting to know how the service works.
One of the major advantages of having used an ind ustry approach to this subject is that once you have learned how to use one provider's new business facilities, the learning curve to get to know how another provider's system will work is easier.
This is further simplified by the fact that three service providers – AssureSoft, The Exchange and Synaptic – are all using the same underlying technology from Focus Bus iness Solutions so their new business services are remarkably similar.
These tools have been promised for some time so now they exist the major challenge must be for everyone to start using them.
This brings me to the need for greater co-operation. Life office broker consultants could play an invaluable role. If we saw a co-ord inated effort from local offices of product providers to pro vide training to IFAs, the time taken to train the entire adviser community could be greatly reduced.
I would like to see life office branches getting tog ether with their local peers and agreeing who will provide what training support to which IFAs.
While some may question if staff from one office should assist in training adviser staff to use systems that could as easily be used to send business to any life office, in practice, the sooner we see all IFAs able to use the new systems, the sooner insurers will see a return on the considerable investment they have made in these services.
As with any new software, there will be teething problems and it is essential that these are discussed within the community. If one person has experienced a difficulty and found a solution we need a way to pass this experience on so everyone can benefit.
If such a platform could be established in a true spirit of open cop-operation an invaluable source of industry know ledge could be established.
One forum for such an exch ange of view might be Gordon Burn's FinservUK e-commerce list. This email list is already used by many people in the industry to exch ange views, opinions and exp eriences on e-commerce issues. You can join the list by registering at www.silver quick.net/finservuk/finservuk-ecomm.html. I would encourage anyone experiencing difficulties with any of the new business services to post details to this list.
Having taken an industry approach on new business, it may also be time to take a similar action over other important areas.
During the last couple of years, we have seen more and more life offices launch dedicated IFA extra net sites. Most advisers I speak to find the most important facilities from these sites is the ability to get online valuations. Get ting up-to-date information on existing contracts can be a very time-consuming process and anything that can be done to automate this must be welcomed.
However, from the advi ser's perspective, the fact that each such service works in very different ways means they need to learn how to use each service. This is an unn ecessary barrier to use. As virtually all offices now offer such facilities, is it not time for concerted action to make areas like policy valuations operate in a consistent way across all providers?
If there were a standard method of getting a valuation from life office extranets reg ardless
of the product pro vider, advisers and administrators would be able to learn how to use one service and then know how to use any other provider's service.
I am in no doubt this would lead to a substantial increase in the use of such facilities, a reduction in req uests for information via other means and, most important, a greater return on the investment in building such services.
The supply of information on existing contracts should really be non-competitive issue, is it not time that as an industry we started treating it that way?