A company may have the largest, best-trained group of employees manning its help desk, but it still can't be all things to all customers. That's what a group of advisors discovered back in 1997. They were all using products from Advent, a leading financial software company, but they realized they needed advice and insight they could only get from each other. So they formed the Advent Users Group, which might have led to nothing more than a series of complaint sessions. Instead, the AUG quickly evolved into a sophisticated self-help association--and the best friend Advent ever had.
What can AUG provide? Susan B. Reeve, the group's executive director, said the number-one reason for joining was "to find the best way to use the software, and to find other people to share ideas." That is, AUG serves as a network. Andrew L. MacQueen, CFA, a vice president of NewSouth Capital Management in Memphis and an AUG charter member, continues the thought: "The main benefit is that it takes the solid base that is Advent tech support and goes beyond. We can cover things that traditional tech support doesn't really cover. It's about best practices, and we help each other along."
Say an advisor is looking at a particular piece of software. He can ask if anyone knows anything about how well it works for stock selection, and how it might interface with Advent. Advent may have some brief mention of it in its support center, but for a detailed discussion, an advisor may be better off turning to another advisor who may already have tried it. Because Advent users tend to utilize other programs as well, discussions often branch out to other technological topics, so the forums become a de facto technological support center.
The AUG format is simple. To join, firms pay $800 a year, which allows four members of the firm to be listed in the AUG directory. The organization offers a free 30-day trial period, so firms can sample the resources before making a commitment. (For details, go to www.adventuser.org.) The main criterion is that the firm is an Advent user, but there are no size limits: The approximately 350 member-firms range from a few million dollars under management to $10 billion, according to Reeve. Once they join, firms gain access to the group's online forums, where they can share their knowledge and query other members. The forums are divided by Advent modules, with sections on compliance and disaster recovery in the works. The AUG also hosts 16 regional conferences, where members can network face-to-face.
The great advantage is that those who care enough to join are involved and knowledgeable users, says MacQueen. "It's a very good, self-selective group. You're tapped into a big group of people who know what they're doing, and they're an email or phone call away. We're not trying to take the place of Advent help, but at a certain point, tech support ends. That's not Advent's job and we wouldn't want it to be."
Just where Advent's job ends and the AUG's begins led to some anxiety in the group's early days. "It's been an evolutionary process," says MacQueen. "At first, Advent didn't understand what we were about. But we didn't want to rattle the company's cage. We wanted to speak as a single voice and go with a coherent message. There was some early uncertainly, but now Advent is a big proponent. They see it's done a lot for the happiness of their customers."
Indeed, although the AUG maintains its independence, it now holds some of its meetings at Advent's own annual conference and has found sponsors for its reception among the exhibitors at the main event. Advent also sends representatives to AUG's regional meetings.
"The AUG is the third leg of the stool," says Anthony Sperling, Advent's senior vice president of services--and an AUG board member. "We do training like any other vendor, but we have a diverse group" and can't meet everyone's needs in every situation. The AUG "can fill in the gaps--they're a great complement. User groups help people work with those just like them."
And they serve as a ready-made focus group. "We each started out with selfish interests," laughs Sperling--and now they can meet each other's needs while meeting their own. "We ask them all the time what they want. We send out surveys, and we've found the group is a unified voice. It's been fantastic for us. I really encourage the independent nature--away from Advent. It shows a good collaboration between the two."
Notes MacQueen: "Advent has come to us and polled us for functionality that they are considering for a future release, and they want to see what our reaction is. And let's say we have some members that need a feed from a given company. We can ask them if they make this happen. It's a way to share ideas efficiently."
Much has been made of the outsourcing of support centers: Call an 800 number and you're speaking to someone in India. But for Advent users, support may be as close as another firm right down the block.
Richard J. Koreto (firstname.lastname@example.org) is editor in chief of Wealth Manager.