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Turning to technology

IFAs are increasingly coming to realise the benefits of technology. Technology that makes tasks like policy valuations and report-writing possible at the touch of a button are becoming invaluable.

Allowing IFAs to access services quickly and easily has become the industry&#39s goal and straight-through processing of business is considered the ultimate aim, although this still has some way to go.

Service aggregation is also a key to saving time and costs, with Unipass digital certificates now available on Webline, Cofunds and IFAEngine. Digital certificates allow IFAs to use a single user name and password to access all the ind-ustry websites they use.

Webline managing director Paul Holland describes Unipass as one of the most significant inroads yet into making the financial services industry more cohesive and efficient, and he believes it will help make the IFA&#39s job easier. “It takes all the hassle out of it and will save a lot of time and effort,” he says.

Around 2,000 IFAs have registered and it is hoped that numbers will rise to 10,000 by the end of the year and all 20 product providers which have committed to digital certificates will be able to accept them.

Through its relationship with back-office software providers 1st Software and Plum, Webline is offering its 4,000-plus users the ability to sign up for a digital certificate.

IFAEngine, the portal exclusively available to Bankhall members, has more than 5,000 registered users, while Cofunds has accepted 70 registrations.

Origo managing director Paul Pettit says IFAs are becoming more receptive to new ways of doing business, a change that has particularly occurred in the past 18 months.

In addition, a new service proposed by Microsoft UK&#39s MSN Money Professional, announced at adviser.tech, allows IFAs to access all their client data in one place. Micro-soft UK has teamed up with Cap Gemini Ernst & Young to gather input from the UK&#39s financial advisers, product providers and IFA portals to redesign MSN Money Professional, currently active in the US, for the UK.

The system will provide investors with a web page where they can view account information, reports and documentation as well as market news and fund updates. IFAs will be able to tailor the service for their clients.

Cap Gemini Ernst & Young executive consultant Joanna Hall says MSN Money Professional is one of the tools that will help IFAs save money, increase efficiency and save time to manage existing clients better. She believes there is a growing need for this type of service.

Clients are increasingly demanding good service and will not pay for services that do not add value, according to Microsoft UK head of personal finance Gareth Arnold. “This service will give the adviser the perfect platform to hold all their client information in one place to present it to clients,” he says.

Increased regulation and lower margins have forced IFAs to recognise that technology will mean the difference between success and failure.

A clear message is for IFAs to rethink their business model, moving away from selling one-off products to long-term relationship management. Many are re-engineering their businesses and using technology as a cornerstone of the changes.

Andrew Dutton, proprietor of Dutton & Co in Shropshire, is a tied agent who is considering becoming an IFA. He says a key factor in that decision is the cost of administration and technology. Dutton says the increased regulation on IFAs will make it more expensive to do business and IFAs must embrace technological developments. However, he says it is easy to get confused by the products and services available. “In some ways, there is too much choice because just when you think you have got it narrowed down to a few manageable options, you have suddenly got a dozen other things to think about. So it is important to keep it simple,” he says.

Michael Jackson, who has a Cheshire-based mortgage and non-regulated life business, admits he had to be “dragged kicking and screaming” into the world of technology and until three years ago did not even own a computer.

But, with mortgage regulation, technology will clear a path to better compliance, with features such as commission tracking and audit trails available on most back-office systems.

Jackson says IFAs recognise the work being done across the industry to develop better services. “The speed at which things are changing is definitely picking up and I think providers are working hard to make their systems more compatible,” he says.

However, some IFAs are critical of providers&#39 efforts to support IFAs in the transition to technology-based business and say more should be done.

Dewhurst Clegg partner Michael Clegg says: “It is assumed that IFAs have a certain level of computer literacy but often that is not the case. Some of them do not even know how to use a computer.” He adds that regional, smallscale training courses are very useful but have been largely put on the back burner.

In Clegg&#39s view, the most useful developments for IFAs so far have been online fact-finds and prepopulated application forms and quotes and, while straight-through processing has not yet been achieved, it is within reach.

Many life offices have implemented real-time quotation services and online new business and a few have developed contract enquiry services, currently available on bonds, pensions and collective investments.

Clegg says: “At first, it seemed to be different companies pulling in different directions but now there seems to be a common goal and that is gradually bearing fruit.”

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