You might be trapped in a self-perpetuating conundrum.
You might be an agent or advisor who wants to adopt more technology to increase efficiency to make sales. But you have to make time and lose sales in order to adopt technology and become more efficient. That is, if you don’t go broke in the meantime. Or insane.
It’s all distressing enough to make you want to pick up the phone, call a prospect and get back to what you do best – selling.
Maybe you already have a customer relationship management (CRM) system and the scars to prove it. It might function like a Ford Pinto wrapped in duct tape, with a bad oil habit and wobbly wheels that make every curve an adventure. But it’s working, kind of, and you don’t dare lift the hood to see what’s going on.
Better to pick up the phone to chat with Bob, who’s got a grandkid on the way and a legacy to pass on, right? Hang up the phone. Time to deal with your technology distress disorder. The longer you let it go, the more terminal it will get. Take it from those who healed themselves and saw their sales multiply. In this article, you will even meet a guy who is living the life of his dreams because he was able to stop worrying and start loving technology.
First, let’s take a look at what’s holding you back. The top three obstacles that financial professionals face in implementing technology are:
“Insufficient time/human resources to develop” (23 percent).
“Lack of IT resources” (17 percent).
“Justification of technology due to lack of ROI” (14 percent).
These were results from a study called “Supporting Sales Success,” conducted by LIMRA from a survey conducted over the summer.
The obstacles can be expressed as, “I don’t have time to mess around with this. Even if I could find someone to help me do this, is it worth it in the end?”
Although the return on investment (ROI) obstacle is third in the survey, it is actually the first hurdle to consider before approaching the other two. What is the value of adopting and refining your back office system? If you see none, why even consider making the time or finding the resources?
So, with the end in mind, we will go right to the advisor who built his dream life on a fortified back office foundation.
The Tech Trail to the Dream Life
Steve Plewes lives and works in St. Michaels, Md., a historic, quaint town on the Chesapeake Bay. It’s one of those preciously charming destinations that inspire tourists to fantasize living there year-round. Plewes is living that dream on an acre and a half, right on the water.
“I got a dozen crabs off the dock last weekend,” Plewes said. “We’ve been working toward this for quite a while. We’ve had a house here for at least 10 years now. I just moved here full time about 18 months ago.”
His wealth management practice, Advisors Financial Group, is still “based” in Bethesda, Md., but there is not much “there” there. If that does not sound like an existential puzzle, then this sure will: It is a virtual office, even though it is staffed most of the week.
These days, virtual is usually associated with something existing on the Internet instead of in real life. A virtual office is actually a physical space, but workers are rarely there. The office can provide various levels of service, from merely an address up, to an on-site assistant, office services and space.
Plewes, 60, used to have a fully staffed office in Gaithersburg, Md. He now uses a Regus location in nearby Bethesda that he visits twice weekly, and one of his two full-time employees visits three times a week.
“He lives in West Virginia, about two hours on the other side of Washington,” Plewes said. “I’m about two hours on the eastern side of Washington, so it’s a good central location for those local clients that we still have. It’s a fertile market, with a lot of government and corporate employees.”
Plewes’ other employee is his wife, who had retired from a career that included a stint as the managing director of a financial planning firm that advises professional athletes. Besides financial planning, she now provides sophisticated tax expertise.
Most of Plewes’ clients matured with him, spanning 10 years older and younger than he, so he does not have to develop new business to survive. In fact, many of those clients were retiring and leaving the area, so keeping his office fully staffed made less sense. He can keep in contact through email, Skype and traveling to meet his top-tier clients.
“An office doesn’t necessarily get you that because, believe me, there are plenty of people [who] come into the office and think they’re working, but they don’t get a lot done and they’re certainly not seeing people,” Plewes said. “I think the goal is just to make sure you are in front of people, whether it’s Skype or it’s meeting for lunch.”
Technology was the fulcrum that helped him lift the traditional office out of his practice. Technology also helped him focus more on advising and less on products.
“I’m trying to keep us elevated into the wisdom end of the business and out of the administrative end,” Plewes said. “I outsource my financial planning functions to a woman in Oakland, Calif. We upload our data to her website. She does the planning and sends the file back securely. We massage it and present it to the client. So I don’t have to have her on staff.”
He does the same with insurance: “I’ve outsourced two of our insurance functions to other people, so I don’t actually have to do the work but I do get compensated [for] it.”
How Technology Set Him Free
To map out his future, Plewes had to take a closer look at his present. He recognized that a majority of his clients were no longer in the Washington, D.C., area, having transferred or retired.
“So, we already had a virtual relationship with them, and that was really the key,” Plewes discovered. “Everything else flows from the relationship.”
Then he looked at his office. “Virtually everything that we were doing was already Web based,” he said. “You could have all your office tools – Word, Outlook and PowerPoint and everything – on the cloud and not even need a server or even software on your computer anymore to be in business.”
Many agency owners and advisors might be surprised to see how much tech they have adopted already, Plewes said. “They might be more virtual than they think in the sense that they have to log in someplace to get on their website for their broker/dealer or their insurance company to get insurance quotes,” he said. “They might actually be more on the cloud than they realize, because they have a physical office and a desk and a person sitting out there who does these things for them.”
A major factor for Plewes in going virtual was that he had already done the hard part of going paperless and moving his database to the cloud. So he concluded that he did not need a server or an office manager or even an office. Disconnecting from a traditional office even allowed Plewes to plan trips that mix business with pleasure.
“We typically take a week and go out to Arizona and visit a number of clients,” Plewes said. “Most of the clients insist that we stay at their house, and we have fun. We have a Florida rotation and we have a group up in Chicago. We try to make a couple of road trips a year.”
If he needs to meet clients or prospects in an office setting on the road, or even near his home, he can book an office for an hour through a service like Regus. With the help of an advisor impact study, he was able to determine how often clients wanted to see him and in what setting.
That’s all good for someone with an established book of business, but what about people new to the business or not at the paperless stage? Plewes suggested becoming a mobile advisor now and a virtual advisor later. If a practice is still staff-intensive and is not outsourcing, becoming a mobile advisor is still an option.
“If they still wanted to have the flexibility to be connected wherever they were and have access to their files and database, they can get their clients’ information via iPad or any other PDA or laptop,” Plewes said in describing a mobile advisor who is still connected to the office.
A virtual advisor would have severed that cord to an office base. “That would be someone who outsources a lot of the staff functions and doesn’t require a central place to hold those files, those computers or those people in a central place.”
Lifting Off to the Cloud
Plewes has been incorporating technology for a few decades. He learned the hard way that there is no single answer that solves all problems.
“When we first started all this technology stuff 20 years ago, we were looking for the Holy Grail, and I’m not sure it exists even today,” he said.
The key to making it all work is to make sure the components all work together. Often, people will buy different systems to serve particular functions, but the overall system fails at the joints.
At the heart of it all is the CRM system. Plewes uses Redtail, which is Web-based.
“Any email we send, even through Outlook, will go into Redtail and into the client’s file,” Plewes said. “So anyone in the company that we grant access to can go in to see the email history and notes. Copytalk, which is a mobile dictation service, will go straight into the client’s file.”
Plewes also has financial planning and management systems, such as MoneyGuidePro and Albridge, which integrate with the CRM system.
“You can have your email, contact relationship management software, database dates, marketing, mass mailings and anything that you would want to do in one place,” Plewes said. “I can go right into an app on my iPad, and it takes me probably 15 seconds to go in and pull up a client’s file. I can see anything we’ve ever done for them – financial plans, transactions, paperwork, summaries. I can tell them who the beneficiaries are on their policies just by going into my virtual file cabinet and pulling their file out. It’s very powerful.”
Someone looking at Plewes’ system might think he has a technological gift to put it all together. But he doesn’t. In fact, he said the fewer details you know, the better.
“I don’t necessarily need and you don’t necessarily need to know that much about technology, as long as you know what you want it to do,” he said. “I would go so far as to say you shouldn’t be mired down in understanding how it works. You should be more focused on what [it can] do for you. So we have techies.”
One of those techies is Ed Skelly, an advisor who used to work with Plewes and who helped him bring Redtail aboard. Skelly is a bit of a technology expert who has helped many colleagues incorporate their systems into their practices. It is not just that he is good at tech; he lives it.
“He goes through databases like people go through cars,” Plewes said. “He keeps trying the next new thing.”
The Techie Advisor
Skelly is president of the financial and insurance advisory practice Sterling Financial Partners in the Washington, D.C., area. He often speaks to advisor groups about adopting technology. He is a 50-year-old mix of advisor and techie, but he said advisors don’t need advisors who know tech – they need techies who know tech.
“Go get a young person out of college, pay him a decent wage and have him do it for you,” Skelly said. “Then slowly work it. Learn about the database and slowly do some things. To go from zero to Mach 4 – that’s why a lot of people fail. They try to take on too much, get frustrated and then they have a paperweight, whether it be a computer or whatever.”
An important lesson for advisors is that no system will fit a practice perfectly. “If you talk to 10 people in this business, there are 10 different ways to do everything,” he said. “So it’s not like you’re a law firm and you have a standard billing system or an HVAC company and you deal with the same parts, the same labor rates and everything else.”
Practices have different mixes of products, such as life insurance, health insurance, property and casualty, and financial planning. Few businesses are exactly alike. Consequently, it takes a bit of tailoring and finding software that will cooperate not only with the business but with other software, Skelly said.
“We use Redtail, but it’s not ideal,” he said. “There’s no ideal database, but it’s our hub because it integrates with almost everything. I just changed to Microsoft Office 365, which gives us a cloud-based client host for Outlook, so we can use Outlook on a PC or phone or anything. It’s a pretty seamless operation for $20 a month.”
Not only does putting the business on the cloud improve access and efficiency, but it is safer for his operation. When his operations manager recently had a computer failure, he was up and running at another computer in four minutes. “That is huge. In the old days, when your computer goes down, you’re done. You can’t accept that anymore.”
What About Compliance?
Compliance used to be a significant hurdle with tech, particularly with cloud storage. But new systems have been built that have compliance baked in.
“We used an electronic document management system called Cabinet Paperless when we went paperless in 2006,” Skelly said. “I’ve had two state audits and a B/D audit every year, but it’s all compliant with SEC and FINRA guidelines.”
Skelly said Redtail was built after the rist of the Internet, so it has a system more attuned to the needs of compliance than older systems that were constantly tweaked over the years. But that does not mean that an advisor should rule out using systems from older companies. Microsoft’s online software platform, for example, is compliant, Skelly said.
In any case, he would not consider a system that is proprietary and doesn’t play well with others.
Speaking of cooperating, one of the main factors in success with technology has more to do with people than
machines. If staff members haven’t fully adopted the system, then it does not matter how good it is.
Aptitude is important, but attitude is crucial, Skelly said. “If you have somebody whom you’ve had on staff for a lot of years but they’re not willing to embrace technology, then they’re going to be a bigger impediment to your success than the software program.”
Once ability and acceptance are in place, then the testing process can start. “The first thing is you want to make sure that before you implement any kind of software within the office, you get buy-in from those people who are going to be the backbone of using it,” Skelly said. “If you’ve got two or three staff, they should be involved in the analysis and the evaluation of what you’re buying.”
When testing new tech, he will ask staff four things in their evaluation:
Can it work?
What do you think?
What are the problems?
What’s the implementation time?
“Then they’ll come back and say, ‘You know, this would really make sense.’ Or, ‘This is great, but it only works this way,’” Skelly said.
But before selecting and testing tech, closely examine the business’s needs. In Skelly’s case, his practice had an issue with scheduling.
One of the stumbles in his office’s process had to do with setting up meetings: “We looked at how much time and energy we spend answering the phone, going back and forth, the husband’s at work, the wife’s at home … You’ve got three days in delay, and this and that.”
He saw they were playing tag with clients, so he went looking for an answer and settled on a program called TimeTrade. It allows the staff to include a link in email that clients can click on and bring up an Internet-based calendar where they preset available appointments. Clients can choose an appointment time based on their availability and whether it’s an initial appointment, a review appointment or a presentation appointment.
Clients click on a button and schedule the meeting. The appointment pops into Outlook and Redtail and sends an email to the advisor.
“So now, something that took forever – coordinating a time – can be done on the client’s side,” Skelly said. “So, I’ve outsourced that meeting scheduling time. But do you use that for every client? No. You have to know who’s sophisticated enough to do that.”
Putting It All Together
Technology works only as well as the rails it runs on. The staff and processes must be in place to make it all run on time and seamlessly. Skelly has a system that parlays significant productivity from his two-person staff. Here’s Skelly’s process.
The prospect is on the phone. A client management worksheet is filled out with basic information, which goes into the CRM system, which indicates all the information required to start the process. Skelly does not have to type it in. He can dictate notes into the CRM system by using Copytalk or a mobile assistant for the CRM system. Skelly can link the notes to an appointment, whatever you want to do.
An email is sent to the prospect with the initial meeting documentation. A mail merge is prepared for the prospect’s meeting agenda.
Another checklist is filled out, describing what needs to happen before the prospect comes in.
If the prospect is accepted as a client, then a client onboarding checklist is filled out.
This is an abridged version of the initial process, which has nine steps. Skelly is responsible for five. Then the onboarding process has 20 steps, of which Skelly completes four. His staff is empowered to prod him if he becomes a bottleneck.
“It’s usually the advisor who is holding things up,” Skelly said.
Participants can open the system and check their tab to see what they have to do. They can sort by steps, and if several clients are at a particular spot, the staff member can take care of them efficiently.
Set It and Forget It? Forget It.
Although that sounds like a bulletproof process and technology, Skelly is constantly re-evaluating his systems and software. That way, he avoids becoming complacent and doesn’t miss out on savings.
“It’s like anything,” Skelly said. “If you stop growing, you’re dead. And in our business, if you stop growing, not only does it pass by, but it passes by at warp speed. There are so many things that are bigger, better and cheaper.”
For example, a few years ago Skelly looked at how much his small office was paying for phone service and whether there was something available for less money.
“Now we’re talking on internet IP phones,” Skelly said. “I don’t pay Verizon anymore for the phone. That saved me $400 a month.”
This is an example of an immediate return on investment, but ROI is not always easy to identify line by line. Nonetheless, Skelly has been able to leverage impressive achieve from an annual tech budget of about $20,000.
How can he measure his return on the expense and the time? He can point to efficiency, for one.
“It allows you to do more with less,” he said. “We do a whole lot more than the average person, and we do it with less staff. So, I have a baked-in savings in cost.”
But the cha-ching! rings out from the bottom line. “I’m much more profitable than the average firm,” Skelly said. “We bring 40 percent to the bottom line. That’s after my salary, and that’s huge. And my technology budget is lower than that of others.”
Skelly, who is a longtime Million Dollar Round Table member and has made Top of the Table four times, advocates a new way of looking at a practice’s success.
“I know guys who make Top of the Table and they’ll say, ‘We’ve got $400 million in assets under management.’ And you find out that they’re not profitable because they have 20 staff members and a ton of work. They make less than I make. So are we measuring AUM or are we measuring profitability? I think the conversation in our industry needs to be: How profitable are you?”
A New Kind of Bucket List
Another advisor Skelly helped with some technology questions was Brad Elman, founder of Nine Dots Benefits, an employee benefits practice in Palo Alto, in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley.
Elman, 50, is also a Northwestern Mutual representative and has to maintain two systems: one for his Northwestern Mutual business and the other for everything else.
He uses SmartOffice for a database system, and he employs technology throughout his practice. Like Skelly, he uses Copytalk as a secure way to dictate notes.
“They’ve got an app that’s fairly easy to use, so I hit the iPhone app, I hit the record button,” Elman said. “I’ll tape my case notes or my follow-up letter, and then it automatically uploads as a typed document into their secure system. Then it sends me an email with a link so I can download it again in a secure way to get back information. Then it gets uploaded into the database. So not only does it allow us to keep track of what’s happening on a day-to-day basis; it allows me to give instruction to my staff. And if a client doesn’t return my calls for three weeks and I’ve completely forgotten about what we talked about, I can pull the notes up easily and come right back [to] it.”
But even though he is a more advanced user of office tech, Elman admits he does not get as much value out of it as he could. That’s because he has a hard time holding on to staffers once they learn the systems.
“Every time I’ve hired a young person and gotten them up to speed on it, I lose them to Google or Facebook or whatever,” Elman said.
Elman plans to turn to more technology to overcome that problem. For example, he is looking at a product called Contactually. “That’s an email management system or a contact relationship management system that makes it very easy to create buckets to put people in,” Elman said. “So you’ve got your new prospect bucket, attorney bucket, referral bucket, and then you can do targeted campaigns to each of these buckets on a regular basis.”
The product would keep him in touch with people on a regular, but relevant basis. It’s not a newsletter, but more of a letter. “It’s easy to customize letters and include personalized details. So if I’ve got all my sailing enthusiasts in a particular bucket; I can create a special letter to them.”
He was starting to bring that system on board, but the person heading that project just quit.
Making Real Time for Real Relationships
Even if advisors are ready to jump on the tech train, they worry that their older clients might not be on board.
Plewes, the Maryland advisor, said he has heard that concern on occasion but considers that an outdated notion.
“I’m 60 years old, and most of my clients are probably 10 years either side of me,” Plewes said. “What I find is, older people are actually way more active on things like Facebook and Instagram than younger people. Every grandma is texting, so it’s actually not the real question.”
He sees it as more of a concern about putting distance between the advisor and the client. But that is up to the advisor. More time on Facebook, LinkedIn or email programs is not by itself connecting with clients. In fact, Plewes said, an over-reliance on these tools can contribute to call reluctance if the advisor is not following up by talking to clients.
“What’s really important is that you make time and take the opportunity to speak with people on the phone or face to face, to shake hands and hug and spend time over lunch,” Plewes said. “If you use technology to be efficient, you will have free time to have deeper relationships. Being virtual is not about avoiding the client; it’s about engaging them. That’s the real answer.”