Essential technology for paraplanners
While the title of this post suggests this may be a definitive list of technology paraplanners need to run a business or provide paraplanning support within their business, it isn't. We don't believe there is a definitive list. The technology chosen by in-house and outsourced paraplanners will depend on a number of factors; the amount available to invest, existing processes and practices, and personal preferences to name but a few. So with that disclaimer out of the way, we wanted to give you our list of essential technology. Without it, the service we provide to advisers would be less robust and efficient. We have, we hope, created a blend of technology and people that means we're able to deliver thorough and well-informed support to advisers. We'd be delighted to hear how other paraplanning professionals navigate their way through the large number of technology tools available in order to build a service that works well for their business and clients.
General rule(s) of thumb
We don't want to recommend any one technology supplier over the other. Our decisions are made in line with the type of work advisers ask us to support, our budget and our processes. It's a very individual matter and we genuinely don't think that one answer will fit all.
We do however have a few rules of thumb that help guide our decisions and we'd like to share these.
Ease of use: We don't want to waste our time trying to work out how our technology functions. Not only is it frustrating but it's also costly for us, and our clients. So we always consider how easy to use systems are. A 30 page user-guide is a sure sign that a lot of our time will be consumed in working out how to use the technology, rather than working out how to help our clients. It's worth pointing out that, at times, we have to compromise on ease of use. If you're interested in finding out which technology platforms could do with concentrating on ease of use, a quick look at my tweet stream should give you a fair idea!
Ease of access: We prefer online technology. This enables us to work whenever and wherever we want, secure in the knowledge that we're always working with the latest data and functionality.
Try before you buy: Perhaps this is more of personal gripe, but when it comes to subscribing to technology, I prefer to try before I buy. Investing in technology is not something I take lightly and demonstrations, webcasts and sales meetings can't replace the experience of trying it out for myself before I make the final decision. I want to know whether the technology performs as I'd expect before paying for it.
As outsourced paraplanners we deal with a large number of cases for different adviser firms. Keeping track of conversations, documentation, information and tasks is essential to ensuring everyone knows what's going on at all times, as well as maintaining an auditable trail, is essential to the smooth running of our business and delivery to our clients. We'd imagine that in-house paraplanners share these requirements. Of course a blend of email, task lists and filing systems will help to address these needs. However, we've found that project management tools enable us to work with clients more easily. With one central point for communications, tasks, files and information, work flow is more transparent and accessible. We use project management tools to supplement email and telephone. With all aspects of a project in one place, anyone can quickly and easily get up to speed and track progress.
There are off-the-shelf tools you can subscribe for project management, the real difference is how you choose to shape your processes around this. As with most core technology the time invested in considering how you apply it is important. If this isn't well thought through, project management tools run the risk of becoming peripheral to your core process and business.
In addition to project management, we'd also suggest a number of other areas that could be supported with technology; time tracking, accounting and invoicing. There are many online tools that can support this. We use FreeAgent for accounting and invoicing. Here's alink and in the interests of transparency, should you decide to sign up through this link, I'll get a discount on my FreeAgent subscription and so will you.
For those working with other team members and advisers who are located elsewhere, communication can be improved by using online tools Skype and Google+ especially Google+ Hangouts. As my colleague, Kim Bendall, pointed out in a previous post working remotely means you have to put a bit more effort into building relationships and Skype and Google+ Hangouts can help with this.
For Paraplan Plus a comprehensive fund research tool is important. There is the obvious advantage of having up-to-date information collated in one place. More important is the ease with which you are able to mine this data as part of your research and due diligence processes and then continue to monitor. We made the decision that this was an area worth investing in and decided to use Financial Express Analytics. Morningstar Adviser Workstation is a decent lower cost alternative. Trustnet provides a lot of independent research and information in this area and is free. Once again, budget is likely to be a factor. We decided that this was an area we were willing to invest in in order to ensure efficiency. Never ones to rest on our laurels, we like to investigate new technology as it is released. We would have liked to review O&M's new Investment Profiler but, with no free trial available, haven't been able to. Any feedback from people who have used it would be appreciated.
Similar to fund research, pension research tools are important to the way we deliver our service and this is an area we are willing to invest in. Key to our selection criteria is the ability to assess the suitability of transfers. Once again budget will be a factor but more important is that the tool offers the right functionality. We have decided to use Selectapension but O&M Pension Profiler is also one that's worth reviewing, although the lack of a free trial is again disappointing.
Cash flow forecasting
At this stage, I should disclose a personal interest in cash flow forecasting tools. I run one called Moneyscope and would rather not introduce any bias into this post. Having looked at this market in detail, I sincerely believe that your choice of cashflow forecasting tool will be driven, in large, by your requirements and processes. There are a number of good tools available and in this presentation, I run through the concept of cash flow forecasting and a few of the systems.
Depending on the type of business your adviser clients deal with comparison tools can be helpful time savers. There is no shortage of choice in this area. We use Avelo Exchange for life insurance quotes, Capita Comparator and The Platforum for wrap account comparisons and Synaptics for other products and due diligence.
There are times when we just need a quick calculator before carrying out more detailed calculations. Invidion has a nice range of day-to-day calculators. We don't rely completely on these and always check our workings but if you're looking for something free to just give you a flavour, it's a good place to start.
Sometimes the most obvious technology is the best. Microsoft Excel is an excellent tool for paraplanners. We use it for many purposes - from the simplest of calculations to complicated analysis. Used properly Excel is a good investment for any paraplanner. For those that are less confident with Excel, a training course or online learning may be a sound investment. Once you understand how to set up Excel to carry out your calculations, you're able to build a number of formulas, calculations and analyses that you will use again and again.
Something to keep an eye out for
It's easy for subscription costs to spiral so careful thought should be given to what is really needed. There's a balance to be struck between the value of the time technology helps you to free up and the cost of the systems.
It's also worth being aware that many software licenses prevent outsourced paraplanners from using them unless you pay a special 'paraplanner licence' fee. These can cost more than a standard licence and while I don't have a problem with this, it's worth remembering that you may be breaching the software licence if you sign up for a normal licence and then provide the outputs to an adviser.
Undoubtedly, technology is a significant investment but we've found that advisers value and are reassured that we do invest in this area so it is a worthwhile investment for our business.