Printing press, telephone, light bulb—a trio of vital inventions that long ago transformed commerce and lifestyle. In the 21st century, it is computer technology that’s revolutionizing world business and culture. Are you keeping up in this era of sweeping, powerful change?
For financial advisors, digital technology offers a wealth of new opportunities for increased productivity and efficiency and, increasingly, the ability to grow their practice. The long-scoffed-at notion of the paperless office is becoming more and more a reality. In fact, mobile devices are even pulling us toward the “officeless office,” allowing FAs to connect with clients and staff from anywhere, at any time.
But here’s the thing: Cutting-edge, gee-whiz tech is only as valuable as your needs dictate: The gear makes sense only if it will help improve systems or accomplish something you can’t do without it.
“The key is leveraging technology to support your business, not to chase it just for the sake of it. There’s always something newer around the corner with more bells and whistles—but you cannot allow the new toys to derail the bigger mission,” says Bella Allaire, executive vice president and head of operations and technology at Raymond James. Last year, the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based firm picked up a Bank Insurance & Securities Association technology award for its advisor-celebrated “Goal Planning and Monitoring” software system.
To be sure, the latest and greatest is cool and seductive. Google Glass, Internet-connected computer eyewear, is a tantalizing idea. And beyond smartphones and tablet computers are voice-controlled smart-watches that serve up messages and take photos. Software storage in the cloud has an imaginative, fanciful ring. And the allure of social media has been generated partly by prominent Twitter users, from Puff Daddy to Pope Francis.
The fact is, however, that technology is simply an enabler: You must first set up your business to accommodate it—then reap the rewards.
“A lot of advisors buy technology and expect it to magically change their practice. But that’s not how it works,” says Michael Kitces, a partner and director of research at Pinnacle Advisory Group in Columbia, Md. “What advisors need to do is first structure their practice in a way they can use the technology. If you buy the latest fancy gadget, that doesn’t require you to change. The real value comes when you change what you’re doing and then the technology helps you do it better.”
Perhaps high tech’s biggest benefit is the capability to provide scalability. This means that advisors can serve more clients and pack more prospects into the pipeline without needing to hire additional staff. Thus, much of today’s tech allows FAs to be dramatically more efficient and productive and, far from least, furnish a significantly better client experience.
Web-based software stored in the cloud is delivered via the Internet. This saves time and, best of all, the cost and worry of maintaining a server—computer hardware—in your office. Instead, software is outsourced to platform providers, like Amazon, Google and Rackspace, who run the servers in the cloud. You can access your programs from any location.
“Full-time IT staff and tech support is expensive. Now advisors can just open their iPad and connect to a server from anywhere and conduct business safely and securely,” says tech consultant Bill Winterberg, a CFP and founder of FP Pad, based in Atlanta.
Still, every form of technology, including increasingly popular cloud technologies, should be evaluated according to specific needs.
“Cloud-based technology is extremely promising, offering new capabilities that are rapidly scalable and easily deployed at attractive price points,” Allaire says. “But not all cloud solutions suit all requirements. However, when they do, we take advantage.”
One of the more enticing new client relationship management (CRM) Web-based software enhancements is a social information and “collaboration” feature that connects to clients’ social networking profiles, including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. It automatically aggregates clients’ posts, which FAs can then view right in their CRM system while reviewing accounts.
“That allows advisors to stay in touch with what’s happening with clients and bring up [such matters] when they speak with them. It helps build a deeper, stickier relationship,” Winterberg says. “And understanding what’s important to the client influences their financial plan and wealth management strategy.”
Financial-planning software that lets advisors take a more engaging, interactive approach with clients certainly can be helpful. Using it with big-screen TV in your conference room, perhaps, you can conduct “what-ifs” with clients, changing numbers on the spot.
“Because they’re able to ask plenty of questions,” Kitces notes, “clients get better buy-in.”
Designed to boost advisor efficiency, new portfolio rebalancing and trade-order-management software is a big time-saver. It lets FAs rebalance hundreds, if not thousands, of accounts in only an hour, according to Winterberg.
With other new programs, advisors can view client accounts that are held away, such as an employer 401(k) plan. The FA sees each position and is able to monitor performance. Clearly, this helps to provide a more comprehensive wealth picture and, potentially, a better overall plan.
Mobile devices help heighten productivity for on-the-go advisors, but be sure yours has capability to access email and client records from your server in the office or in the cloud.
Everybody, it seems, is text-messaging nowadays. Some advisors even text with clients. But if they’re employed by or affiliated with the many BDs that prohibit this, “they’re skirting compliance law,” Winterberg cautions. He says that most BDs haven’t embraced texting because of prohibitive archiving costs.
What is imperative when it comes to tech is integrating the software programs you use. That is, be sure they can “talk” to one another. For example, by integrating financial-planning software and mobile devices with your CRM, you avoid the need to repeatedly enter client contact information and other vitals into each program. Benefit: huge time savings, lower potential for error and less frustration.
“Integration drives adoption,” stresses Allaire. “If you buy a standalone, don’t integrate it and nobody is using it because it’s difficult, you have just wasted money.”
The “biggest reason” for the success of Raymond James’ interactive “Goal Planning & Monitoring” software was its “seamless integration,” Allaire says. Introduced about a year-and-a-half ago, the tool enhances the advisor-client retirement-planning conversation by, for instance, showing how changes in one aspect of a plan can “move the needle into danger or safe zones,” Allaire notes. To date, more than $22 billion in outside assets have been identified by RJ FAs who use this software, which was purchased from a vendor that worked closely with the firm on integration.
Many BDs and FAs have slowly begun to adopt social media. One advisor with Morgan Stanley—a pioneer in permitting FAs to use social—even netted a $70 million account by trolling for quality prospects on LinkedIn. Indeed, prospecting online in places target clients spend time can be an effective way to use these media—but as only one facet of a fully rounded marketing strategy.