When looking for a new financial planning platform for its sales force of 5,000 advisors, Raymond James’s manager of financial planning software, John Catalano, put applications through the wringer. The decisive factor? “Ease of use,” he says. Short of plugging directly into an advisor’s brain, Catalano, who is himself a CFP, wanted a system that worked the way a planner did. “Which was easier said than done,” he recalls.
The company evaluated a program’s flexibility in allowing an advisor to customize the kind of plan he wanted to create. Raymond James tested the platforms on their intuitiveness–How many times did an advisor have to retype the same data?–and Catalano and his team even scrutinized reports to see if they could understand the graphs and charts that would eventually be presented to clients. “When some of my people are saying, ‘I don’t understand that,’ that’s not a good sign,” Catalano says. “It was a huge criteria.”
While Raymond James eventually settled on SunGard, many other software firms are also simplifying financial planning programs not just with clients in mind, but with the client as well.
Across the industry, financial planning software makers are hearing from customers that they expect a software program to be able to make the planning side of their job easier. Advisors want to be able to show a client multiple investment and distribution options. They want to be able to pull data, analysis, and investment options from different sources, and they want to be able to put all of these resources together simply–with as little time on the computer as possible.
For some firms, the solution has been to create bridges within applications and modules, so that data can be shared between programs more easily and an advisor can “minimize the clicks,” as Catalano likes to say. Other firms are helping advisors move to the Web, where a planner can collect information from clients who can input data from home, without having to lug all their papers to an office. An advisor harvests this data, flows it directly into a program, and has a pre-built plan in hand, all before the client comes in for a meeting.
While creating an artful financial plan for a client requires at least as much brain power as bandwidth, many advisors believe that their software should be able to do much more heavy lifting than they can currently shoulder. “Sometimes, I wish [my software] would plug into my brain and when I think of something, could plug that in again,” says Kim Jones, a CFP with Jones Financial Planning in Denver who leans on Money Tree’s platform for most of her financial planning work. “At the very least, less data entry is something we’re always looking for.”
MoneyGuidePro: for advisor and client
Bob Curtis, founder, CEO, and principal of PIE Technologies, likes the way Jones thinks. After spending the last 18 months tweaking his program, MoneyGuidePro, Curtis is convinced that it’s the easiest financial planning program out there. “But I still believe it’s not easy enough,” says Curtis.
Curtis comes to the software side of investment advising as a former broker/dealer. Unhappy with any planning software then available to his Richmond, Virginia-based firm back in the mid-1980s, he developed the first version of his software for his own staff. Starting with DOS, he eventually migrated the software to a Windows-based platform, and by the 1990s realized he loved the software side of his work more than the advisory side, and sold off the broker/dealer.
But the program’s architecture still bothered him. Curtis believed MoneyGuide was just too cumbersome to ever scale in a simple way by remaining a Windows program. And so he took a breather for two years and began to research moving the platform onto the Web. “We realized the Internet would give us opportunities to develop our software in a way that would make it more accessible, and also allow reps to collaborate online with their clients,” he says.
Curtis approached Harold Evensky, a principal of the planning firm Evensky & Katz, based in Coral Gables, Florida, for help on building asset allocation models for the program. Evensky was interested in the idea of working on a Web-based model, as he believed it also streamlined the process for advisors. “For one thing, they don’t have to wait for upgrades, it just happens,” Evensky says.
The first version of MoneyGuidePro appeared in the fall of 2001, and in the last five years Curtis has seen his vision pay off. Besides catering to independent RIAs, Curtis says he also counts UBS and its 7,000 reps as clients.
Evensky believes almost every good move in financial planning programs is about making the process easier for advisors. “The whole software evolution has been that we were looking for the Holy Grail and concluded that was not a real direction,” he says. “But we do need to make software that’s more user friendly and intuitive.”
One area in particular that Evensky cites is having versions, or at least controlled portions of the software, available for client access where investors can check their portfolio and also be able to input details about their goals for saving, and their retirement goals.
Curtis agrees with Evensky. “The client has to take a more active role in planning,” he says. “They’re the ones who know what they want to do, and what they’re willing to trade off. And I don’t think they do that right now.”
But they will probably be better equipped to do so in January when Curtis hopes to release his next version of the software. Eighteen months in development, the latest iteration of MoneyGuidePro will have a client area that is “less intimidating,” says Curtis, so investors can have some time to think through their objectives before they even come to an advisor’s office.
Money Tree: simplicity and web pages
One software firm with a slight edge on simplification is Corvallis, Oregon-based Money Tree. With just 15 employees, and a chairman and founder, Mike Vitkauskas, who flies around the country himself providing tutorials on the software, Money Tree understands the meaning of lean and mean.
In May, the firm launched a new module it tagged TOTAL Planning System. For just a $50 set-up, Money Tree custom builds a Web page for each of its 5,000 clients, which contains an online questionnaire. An advisor’s customer can answer the questions on his own, and the data is sent to the planner where it is automatically populated into the program. After just a few clicks, a fairly detailed preliminary report is ready for eventual face-to-face meeting between the advisor and the client.
A little more than 200 advisors had signed up for TOTAL Planning System by early fall, says David Connor, Money Tree’s marketing and sales manager, which he takes as an encouraging sign. “It’s pretty unique,” Connor believes. “The planner doesn’t have to take their time to do input. Many of our clients have complained that investors come in to meet them and don’t have everything they need. Planners feel they sometimes waste weeks [just] trying to get the data.”
While the off-the-shelf customers, such as Linsco/Private Ledger’s independent reps, have been Money Tree’s niche since incorporating in 1981, the company has started to tiptoe into customer development. A recent assignment involved the City of New York, which hired the company to create an online version of its software for the city’s 60,000 pensioners, says Connor.