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5 tech products for advisors: Are they living up to the hype?

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Technology pundits regularly tout the advantages of productivity-enhancing hardware and software. With the mobile and social media revolutions well underway, the labor-saving and revenue-boosting gains that market-watchers celebrate are fueling billions of dollars in sales for technology behemoths and the thousands of third-party software developers who comprise their digital ecosystems.

But for life insurance and financial service professionals who are leveraging high-tech solutions in their practices, the picture appears to be mixed. A survey (albeit unscientific) appearing in the March edition of sister publication Retirement Advisor shows that fewer than half of advisors (49.1 percent) believe that new technologies have increased their productivity.

Significant percentages say that technology has “complicated things” (22.35 percent) or “taken away the personal touch” (32.94 percent). An additional 17.65 percent cite other factors that qualify their support for tech solutions. And 3 percent say that technology has decreased their productivity.

What factors underlay these sentiments? Why are advisors adopting the latest in high-tech and what do they hope to gain? Which solutions are surpassing expectations or falling short? National Underwriter connected with several advisors polled for the March RA survey to uncover answers to these questions.  Engaging the client

Customer relationship management

A favorite among the advisors interviewed is customer relationship management or CRM software: a broad category of apps that help sales professionals manage customer data/communications and vendor relationships, access business information and automate sales. One example: Epic software from Applied Systems Inc.

Dwight Johnson an estate planner and principal of DHJ Insurance, says the multi-purpose app lets him efficiently manage policy administration and financial accounting. Affording a single-screen view of customer account data across business lines, the scalable software boasts, among other functions, automated auditing and workflow configuring; customization of invoices, statements and reporting; plus a policy summary comparison tool.

“The software can list products, track correspondence, and detail anything else connected with a client’s policy,” says Johnson. “The app provides a total look-down capability, so I can manage client engagements much more efficiently.”

Michael Tavel, a long-term care specialist at Charter Advisory Corp., adds that he benefits from other CRM-enabled time-saving features. He can, for example, view account activity and notes from prior conversations; and easily transmit product info or planning recommendations to clients. Tavel says his CRM app (he did not disclose the vendor) also prioritizes meetings and shares his calendar with an office manager, enabling the assistant to schedule appointments on his behalf.

These positive comments come with caveats. Some CRM apps come with a steep learning curve. Others make transferring client data from legacy software, such as Microsoft Outlook or Excel, a complicating and time-consuming task.

That’s been the experience of Peter Keim, a Marietta, Ga.-based advisor at Lincoln Financial Group, who says he found earlier iterations of CRM apps from two popular vendors — Redtail Technology and Swiftpage — inadequate in terms of ease of use and data migration capabilities. His search for the optimal contact management software remains elusive. Upshot: he continues to rely on Excel and Outlook for managing client communications and account data.

Moving beyond product sales

Financial planning software

Agents and brokers engaged in comprehensive planning can avail themselves of a wide range of off-the-shelf apps. For handling investments, Keim turns to Albridge Wealth Reporting software, which offers business analytics and more than 15 client reports on demand (the reports detailing investors’ asset allocation, holdings, benchmarking data, etc.).

He also use financial planning software provided by his broker-dealer, Lincoln Financial Securities Corp. A key benefit of the latter: Data about clients’ investments reside in “the cloud” — a secure Lincoln Financial server —giving Keim access to account info from any Internet-connected device.

He doesn’t yet have, however, comparable cloud-based access to records of clients’ insurance policies. As a stop-gap measure, Keim is scanning policy documentation and storing the data on desktop hard drives, both at the office and (should he need a back-up copy) at home.

Many products are tailored to advisors with specific expertise. Example: FORE! Trust Software apps that automate the drafting and assembly of state-specific estate planning documents. The technology is core to Johnson’s practice, which specializes in wealth transfer planning for the affluent.

A core product for many advisors is financial planning software from e-Money Advisor. The company’s signature program, emX Pro, boasts a single-screen view of clients’ account assets, liabilities, net worth, budgeting and spending — all updated daily.

The software aids advisors in showing the impact of clients’ financial decisions. It also can outline steps to help individuals realize their financial objectives.

The e-Money software additionally avails clients of a multi-function self-service capability: They can access their personal financial website from any platform — desktop, laptop or hand-held computer.

Mobile solutions

As a result of the explosive growth of the mobile devices in recent years, more practice management solutions are migrating from the desktop to tablets and smart phones, most notably iPhones, iPads and Android-based devices. These tools are especially popular among younger advisors for the great diversity of mobile apps on offer: software that manages everything from communication and document storage to investments and client consultations.

For sales presentations, advisors can turn to a newly launched tablet-based solution from Voya Financial, “Voya Life Journey,” which aims to help agents educate consumers about the value of life insurance as part of a “holistic approach to retirement readiness.” 

There are also multimedia apps that let advisors communicate information both orally and visually from a remote location. Examples: multi-function screen-sharing, online meeting and videoconferencing software like GotoMeeting, Join.Me, and Google Hangouts. These web-hosted services facilitate client engagements in lieu of in-person get-togethers, thus saving advisors and clients time and money.

Tavel, who does much of his insurance business online, says he generally uses virtual meeting software at least twice per day when interfacing with clients, wholesalers and carriers.    

Yet the mobile revolution is hitting some speed bumps in the advisor world. Three issues of concern: compliance, cyber security and perceived limits of the technology.

More on this topic

Johnson cautions that virtual get-togethers conducted via laptop, tablet or smart phone are fine for transactional exchanges (e.g., providing the client an update on the status of a policy application). But for meetings that entail detailed planning discussions or rapport-building with clients or prospects, nothing matches the value of an in-person tête-à-tête.

“Most individuals who want to talk about substantive planning would rather see me in person — and I prefer this,” says Johnson. “One drawback to [virtual meeting software] is that it can be difficult to interpret a client’s verbal cues and body language.”

Keim says that he’s not using mobile devices for conducting business because of outstanding questions regarding SEC approval (or lack thereof) of mobile devices for holding and transmitting client investments and securities transactions.

Renee Merckx, an advisor and executive director of Professional Resource Alliance of Greater Michigan, echoes Keim’s concerns.

“Given the security breaches cases we’ve been reading about of late — the recent hacking of 80 million Anthem Blue Cross customers comes to mind — I personally don’t trust a lot of the [new technologies].”

A baby boomer nearing retirement, Merckx voices a sentiment common among older advisors: a preference for hard copy over digital records for storing and disseminating client account information, marketing and sales literature, contracts and planning documentation. The predilection is rooted only in part in security concerns.

Many older advisors prefer to maintain a paper trail of client interactions. And financial professionals who have successfully managed their practices for decades using traditional tools feel little compulsion to adopt new ones, particularly those serving clients of their own generation who are equally ill at ease with new-fangled gadgets.

Working the carriers

e-applications

That boomer-age agents and brokers are more slowly adopting digital tools than younger colleagues is understandable. Less clear is why insurance companies are also unhurried in making the shift from paper to online.

To be sure, many of the largest companies now process policy applications online. But there are hold-outs, most notably in the long-term care insurance (LTCI) space. Paradoxically, LTCI apps are notoriously long and thus might benefit the most from a conversion to digital.

“I write a lot of long-term care insurance. Policy applications are hideously long and complicated, regardless of the carrier,” says Tavel. “I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about LTCI carriers developing online apps. But so far, they haven’t followed through.”

Conversely, advisors affiliated with life insurers that have jumped on the e-app bandwagon are realizing big gains.

A key benefit is a significant decline in errors. Well-designed e-apps require producers to complete electronic fields completely, and in the carrier-approved format, before proceeding from one digital page to the next.

E-apps also speed processing and reduce costs. Applicants simply add their digital signature to the completed app, then click to send — no shipping and postage needed.

“These are tremendous, productivity-enhancing benefits,” says Johnson. “There’s no going back to the old way of doing business.”

Keim agrees, adding that he processes about 90 percent of applications electronically using Laser App, cloud-based form-filling software he receives at no cost as a Lincoln Financial advisor.

To be sure, delays in application processing still happen. Inevitably, the bottleneck is a common culprit: medical underwriting.

Doctors and hospitals frequently are less than responsive in handling requests for medical documentation on clients. The problem is partly one of process: healthcare bureaucracies imposing unnecessary red tape on document requests. To boot, back office operations of many healthcare institutions remain inefficient because of a continuing dependency on legacy IT systems that badly need an upgrade.

Comparing product premiums

Premium quoting tools

Advisors find more to cheer in online initiatives, spearheaded by both carriers and wholesalers, to avail advisors of policy-quoting tools. Many providers, too, are providing quotes through apps designed for mobile devices. Among the biggest backers of the new software tools: Professional Resource Alliance’s Merckx.

“Many writers of final expense insurance, like Columbia Life and Americo, offer excellent online quoting tools,” she says.  “I just plug in the client’s age, gender, tobacco use, coverage type and amount, plus health status and contact info and instantly get back a quote. Having the tool right on my phone also is a big plus.”

Indeed. Yet, Merckx’s enthusiasm for online quoting tools, when contrasted with her skepticism of other digital solutions, is emblematic of the advisor community’s broader view of technology. They embrace solutions that clearly yield returns on investment and can be easily integrated into their practices.

The adoption of other solutions is deferred, or rejected outright, for reasons ranging from personal preference and software compatibility to compliance and security issues to an inability to provide the personal touch. All of which underscore an enduring fact: like any other resource, the value of high-tech gadgets and apps must be judged not on the basis of media hype, but rather a dispassionate cost-benefit analysis of their ability to advance practice goals.