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Impressions From T3 Conference: The Future Is Bright, Part 1

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The 2013 Technology Tools for Today (T3) conference ran last week in Miami, Fla. Entering its eighth year, the event is hosted by financial advisor technology consultants Joel Bruckenstein and David Drucker, and continues to grow, as this year’s conference included more than 600 total attendees and more than 75 companies (generally handpicked by Bruckenstein and Drucker) that provide technology-related solutions for advisors. This means it’s by far be the largest advisor-centric technology conference of the year.

And notwithstanding how the event has grown, the reality is that the conference still has ample room to expand further, given that several problem areas for advisors still had relatively few solutions present. In fact, it was somewhat ironic that the conference had a thriving Twitter hash tag but only one provider of social media archiving tools.

In looking among the vendors and solutions available at the conference, several clear themes emerged, including an ongoing shift to web-based “cloud” solutions, the rising trend of software integration around CRM as the hub, and the availability of software on mobile devices. But perhaps one of the most striking themes heard from advisors in the hallways at this year’s conference is simply that the available technology solutions have become so numerous, now one of the greatest challenges is just choosing among them all.

To say the least, the T3 conference is now a permanent “fixture” of the financial advisor conference space, and the growth of the event suggests the future still looks bright, both for the conference itself and the growth of technology solutions for advisors.

The Ongoing Shift to the Cloud

Although not all financial advisors run their businesses using web-based “cloud” software, the strongest growth in the world of advisor software has clearly been toward cloud solutions, from MoneyGuidePro and eMoney Advisor for financial planning software (with NaviPlan slowly migrating to the cloud over the past two years), to Redtail and Salesforce for CRM (with Junxure migrating to the cloud this year). Numerous vendors at the T3 conference were available to provide web-based platforms for portfolio management and reporting software.

Notwithstanding the shift to the cloud from vendors, though, the theme of several general sessions at the conference made it clear that most companies still find themselves needing to explain and justify why a cloud-based solution is superior to the advisor’s traditional in-office on-servers-and-local-computers approach to technology.

The discussion ranged from how most quality cloud solutions really are far more secure for data than an advisor’s own office, to the cost efficiencies for advisors to get out of the business of buying and maintaining their own server hardware, to the productivity of being able to access and interact with key information from anywhere (such as pulling up client portfolio or financial plan information directly from a tablet in a client meeting, or being able to record important notes and assign client tasks to staff members the moment you walk out of the meeting). In addition, several speakers noted the disaster recovery benefits of cloud technology solutions—several advisors that had been displaced by the New England blizzard that had preceded the conference, not to mention Hurricane Sandy a few months prior, noted the benefit that even when their local office had no power they could access all of their client information and data directly from their cloud providers.

The trend toward the cloud still appears to be in the early stages for the financial advisor industry overall, but the direction is clear, especially as everything from connectivity to security continues to improve.

The Rise of Integration and Integrators

Another strong theme apparent at the T3 conference is the rising level of integration among software packages, with CRM (client relationship management) software increasingly operating at the hub. Supported by industry initiatives like Your Silver Bullet, open architecture pushes from custodians like TD Ameritrade’s Veo, and core software packages with a heavy API offering like Salesforce CRM, the software written for financial advisors is increasingly capable of “talking to” the other key software packages.

Although there is not yet a universal language that allows all software to easily connect from one program to another—the integrations are still built one connection at a time—the world of software for financial advisors is clearly being turned upside-down as the ideal solution shifts from a “holy grail” (a single combined piece of software that does everything) to instead an integrated series of software packages that are each best in class in their respective role and able to port key information to the other core software components.

In fact, it’s notable that at T3, many of the exhibitors are there not to meet advisors at all, but to network with other exhibitors and develop relationships that can lead to further software integrations.

In addition, the emergence of “integrators”—companies that focus on building middleware software or doing custom programming that helps to handle the heavy lifting of getting one software package to talk to another—is accelerating the trend toward software integration, and promoting the software companies that are the most flexible for integration. For instance, AppCrown facilitates integrations across many key advisor software packages back to Salesforce, and Concenter Services (which makes the XLR8 template) and The Athene Group help to adapt and customize Salesforce CRM to an advisory firm’s needs (it’s no surprise that Salesforce continues to be popular as an advisor CRM platform with so many middleware integrators promoting it). In addition, Salentica (albeit not present at T3) provides a similar role for Microsoft Dynamics CRM. Similarly, the newly launched CloudRIA (which was announced at T3) seeks to help advisory firms create and integrate workflows that might run across multiple software packages used in the business. In other cases, the integration focuses on the portfolio accounting software and works back to the other platforms, an advisor integration strategy that has been particularly effective for firms like Orion Advisor Services.

Of course, the caveat to all of this is that in many cases, the ultimate blocking point is not actually the integration of the software itself, but the fact that it is often underutilized in the business, due to a combination of insufficient training for staff and a lack of standardization to the processes and workflows of the firm. As a result, another noticeable trend at the T3 conference was the number of exhibitors that provide consulting services and support to help advisory firms actually get the most out of their technology, including Trumpet Inc., XTrac Solutions, Orchestrate LLC, the Fox Financial Planning Network, and popular conference WiFi sponsor ActiFi.

In the second part of our post, we’ll discuss emerging technology challenges as well room for growth at the conference itself.

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