Many years ago, Worth magazine sent me to the Professional Publishing course at Stanford University. It offered seminars by many leading luminaries in the magazine and book publishing world, most of which I’ve long since forgotten. But one presentation that’s always stuck in my mind was by Paul Saffo, a fellow at the Institute for the Future in Menlo Park, California.
Dr. Saffo’s field is the history of technological innovation, and his job that day was to give us some context for the development of the Internet. He made a number of perspective-altering observations, including how radically new technology can change the world we live in; and that the Internet had greater potential to change our lives than the printing press, the light bulb, or the internal combustion engine did in their days.
He also pointed out that while new technology is often used by the public, its greatest impact is usually created by the industries and professionals who use that technology to deliver goods and services better, faster, cheaper: think of newspapers with printing presses, doctors performing laser surgery, or nuclear reactors providing electricity for all of Europe. But the notion that really stuck in my mind is this: Dr. Saffo said that it takes about 100 years for people to figure out the best way to use a ground-breaking new technology (originally Gutenberg only printed Bibles, cars were for joy rides, and Edison first lit up streetlamps, etc.). Since it’s only been about 25 years since Al Gore invented the Internet, chances are the ways in which it will profoundly affect our lives are yet to be imagined.
Recently, I was reminded of Dr. Saffo’s comments, as my friend Andy Gluck was describing the latest creation by his company, Advisor Products Inc. (which creates and maintains Web sites for financial advisors to communicate with their clients and attract new ones). His latest product–one that enables advisors to give clients Web sites of their own, with which to access their financial information, get answers to their questions, and communicate directly with their advisors (and each other)–struck me as a major leap along the path of finding the best ways to use this new technology. I’m not saying that Andy’s innovation rivals the iPhone, but think of the potential in having your clients regularly logging on to a site that positions you as their first and best solution for their financial needs and questions.
A Work in Progress
Advisors Products’ Personal Client Portals are just coming on the market, and like any new technology are very much a work in progress. They’re available to advisors who already have one of the company’s Platinum Advisor Sites (which cost $2,100 a year) for an additional $1,500 a year for the first 35 clients, and then a discounted scale beyond that. The sites are populated with myriad information feeds that tell clients way more than they need, or probably want, to know about what the Dow (or any other index) is doing today, current articles published on a dizzying array of topics, calculators to “what-if” the effect of buying a vacation home in their retirement, and of course their own holdings, allocations, and performance over various periods against the bogey of their/your choice, as well as their net worth at any given time. All of which is fully customizable by the advisor with default parameters on everything from the kinds of personal finance articles the clients will get, to what’s in those articles, to which indexes they’ll see. If the advisor allows, the clients can override the defaults, to make their own choices.
If anything, the Client Portals are too customizable, as are the Advisor Sites themselves. Over the years, Andy and I have had this conversation many times–he thinks I’m full of sheep-dip, and is probably not in the minority on that score. But I believe I’m a pretty good representative of the consuming public, which is more than happy to use technology to help us do the things we want to do–cook oatmeal in the microwave, or e-mail this column to Jamie Green when it’s nearly done–as long as we don’t have to “figure out” the device, and don’t even talk to me about looking in the manual. Virtually all my appliances–my cell phone, TV, microwave, laptop, the “climate control” in my car, even my washer and dryer–have way more features than I know how to use, and I’d probably benefit from many of those if I ever took the time to learn how to use them, but chances are I won’t. I’m waiting for the day when I can buy some technology device, and the person who sold it to me will just set it up to do the things I want, and show me how to do them. Period.
So when it comes to customization, sure, I’d like my stuff to be customized for my use; I just want someone else to do the customization for me. I’ll bet that most advisors and their clients are just like me: they want their Web site customized to the information and data and functions they want, but they want someone else to set it up for them. In fact, I think that’s what Dr. Saffo was talking about when he said that new technology is largely used by professionals to improve the lives of the public: I don’t want to know how to fly the plane, I just want to ride in it to get from point to point. I suspect Advisor Products does a fair amount of the customization of its sites for its advisor clients now, and in the future, I believe (and hope) that it will become one of the primary services it and all other technology companies offer.