Artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, virtual reality, voice-controlled assistants — the pace of technological change is breathtaking.

From a financial advisory business perspective, though, many of the headline-grabbing tech developments aren’t that useful — at least not yet.

While some advisors like to adopt cutting edge tools, most industry sources seem cautious and want proof that a technology will help their business before they try it. The advisors and consultants interviewed for this article only suggested using a particular tech tool after they determined that it really works, not simply because it's deemed the latest, greatest innovation.

CRM: The essential hub

Advisors and consultants agree that customer relationship software (CRM) is the essential tool to manage and grow an advisory business. Current software goes well beyond serving as a digital Rolodex™ for contact information, says Joel Bruckenstein, who produces the Technology Tools for Today website and conference. Earlier CRM offerings often required advisors to do their own analysis by exporting CRM data to a program like Microsoft Excel. But the leading developers are building more powerful analytic capabilities into their CRMs, making the programs more robust and indispensable for marketing and practice management. These programs can track client preferences and demographics; they also track an advisor’s work flows and provide valuable management insights through easy-to-use analytic dashboards. “You need to know how much revenue you’re making per client, what your client trends are as far as age,” says Bruckenstein. “If every year your book is aging, for example, you have a dying business.”

Bruckenstein mentions Ebix, Junxure, Redtail and Salesforce as examples of programs widely used in financial services.

Bill Winterberg, CFP, a technology consultant for financial advisors and publisher of the FPPad.com tech news site, says that some CRMs are adding more collaboration and social networking capacities. These features won’t benefit solo advisors, but they do appeal to firms with larger staffs, he says.

“There are CRMs that have timelines, if you will, where just like you check the Facebook feed to see what your friends and family are doing, you can actually check what employees and other advisors are doing in the office and stay informed on what’s going on, what might be falling through the cracks, or things that might be aging a little bit. It helps any advisor or agent stay in tune on what’s going on.”

Those collaboration features appeal to Aaron Clarke, CFP, financial planner with Acorn Financial Services in Reston, Virginia, who says a desire to save time motivated his firm’s search for a new CRM. The office work flow had several inefficiencies and he wanted to automate the steps needed to complete routine tasks as much as possible. His search led him to WealthBox, which he describes as having an easy-to-use interface that is like working with Facebook. In addition to providing a familiar user interface, the program allows the firm to automate internal tasks and workflows. It takes some time and effort to build the automation templates, but once those automated procedures are in place, the cumulative time savings are significant, says Clarke.

Where’s that document?

The need for robust document and content management is another opportunity to boost productivity growth, Winterberg says. The software now goes beyond scanning into PDF files, he explains. “The content management (software) allows you to ascribe the date of a document; you can identify what kind of form it is, if it’s a tax form or if it’s a property casualty application or if it’s a will,” he says. “And based on what type of document it is, you can put in additional information like the date it was drafted or other types of descriptions.”

Faster document retrievals save time and, even if the time saved per search is small, over the course of a year or years the savings can add up to many hours, Winterberg says. Speedier retrievals also improve client service by allowing for faster responses. That benefit might not be measurable from a dollar perspective, he adds, but it increases client satisfaction. Winterberg mentions Cabinet Paperless, Laserfiche, NetDocuments, Worldox and Microsoft SharePoint  as well-regarded programs.

Cybersecurity

Effective cybersecurity practices are no longer optional. Regulators are ramping up their focus on advisory firm’s practices and widespread reporting of cyber incidents means clients are paying attention, too. At the same time, many clients are relying more on email instead of the phone for communications with their advisors. Those trends led James Dowd, CFA, managing director at North Capital in San Francisco, to start working with GreatHorn, a cloud-based cyber threat monitoring service that integrates with North Capital’s G-Suite business email service from Google.

GreatHorn flags or quarantines emails that could be potential fraud attempts, Dowd explains. “We realized that although we believed that we had reasonable precautions in place to prevent malicious email-based activity, we needed to go even further,” he says. “GreatHorn has continued to improve its scope of services since we became a customer, tackling an increasing range of potential threats.  We evaluated several alternative systems but decided on GreatHorn because they met our key criteria of being cloud-based, operating outside of our email system, and specifically addressing human-empowered threats.”

Living with the robos

Advisors managing client investments face a choice: Ignore the robo-advisors and their potential impact, especially on the younger and mass affluent market segments, or figure out how to work with them. North Capital chose the second option and decided to incorporate digital advice in its services, which it views as a “multifaceted business opportunity.”

The firm uses AdvisorEngine for client engagement, risk profiling, financial planning, and implementation of risk- and asset class-based model portfolios, Dowd explains. (A disclosure: North Capital made a small equity investment in AdvisorEngine several years ago after learning about the software’s features.) The program enables the firm to employ the same approach and processes it uses with "offline" client relationships to create a sophisticated online engagement and digital advice delivery process, he says. “TD Ameritrade, who we use for custody of our digital advisory assets, is tightly integrated with the AdvisorEngine platform, so we are able to take advantage of the TD rebalancing platform, iRebal, to allocate and update client portfolios.”

Mobile apps? Not so fast

We’re all wedded to our smartphones, but industry surveys show that first-time downloads of apps have declined substantially, apart from smash hits like Pokémon GO. Social and chat app usage continues to grow, but overall, many users have settled into a routine with their favorite apps. Winterberg reports a similar shift among advisors and their desire for mobile applications. Five or six years ago, advisors uniformly wanted a phone app version (or tablet, for early iPad adopters) of their desktop software. That interest has peaked, says Winterberg, largely mirroring the trend among consumers.

Nonetheless, apps work well in the right circumstances. Clarke says that while the WealthBox mobile app has limited value for him personally, it’s proved very useful for his firm’s owner, who uses it to add contacts and manage his calendar, which syncs back to his Google calendar. Other sources cited cross-platform information-sharing apps like Evernote and Microsoft OneNote as indispensable. Brian Kuhn, CFP, CLU, with PSG Clarity in Fulton, Maryland, cites Microsoft OneNote as his choice. “It’s not specific to financial services or insurance but it’s functionality to store other Office documents, record audio and update instantaneously are great,” he says. “It is helpful for note taking, storing to-do lists and so on that can then later be accessed on either the computer program, the Web or your phone.”

Boston-headquartered research and consulting firm Celent has surveyed insurers’ development of producer-focused apps. Colleen Risk, FMLI, senior analyst life, annuity, health says that in the summer of 2016, Celent interviewed 10 top-tier insurance carriers about their producer-focused technology. Seventy percent of the insurers provide an app but the functionality in the applications vary widely. The apps are used mainly for marketing, closely followed by information (education materials and policy information), with the fewest providing transactional (new business, claims) functionality, she explains. 

Insurers also acknowledged the need to focus on and improve user in their current apps, Risk says. As far as she knows, there are no third-party developers launching apps for insurance producers. Nonetheless, the segment continues to evolve and 80 percent of the insurers plan to enhance or replace their producer-facing technology in the next three years.