Client Portals – Many Options, Different Goals

May 2, 2017

This is the third in a series of posts with Mark Nahlovsky, head of Technology Consulting at ActiFi. We started with document management, followed by client vaults.

I’m a believer that if you work in technology, it keeps you young. You have to move quickly to stay on top of the ever-changing technology world. To paraphrase and apply Moore’s law to advisors – technology options double every two years. However with this blog post, I’m feeling my age. Below is a schematic, showing my napkin version of the history of advisor technology.

client portal

In the beginning (see what I mean about age), advisors were supported by expensive printouts from expensive custom technology, put together for large financial institutions. Does anyone else remember dictaphones, typing pools and the leather-bounded planner? Then came specific expensive, separate technical components, such as portfolio management, financial planning and CRM. This was followed by an attempt to integrate those technologies into a cohesive whole – some trying to do it all and others building partner ecosystems. This culminated in the advisor platforms that allow advisors to look across most of their systems.

The next age will be the investor platforms/client portals. Client portals are going to put the investor in the center and allow them to pull all of the information and advice they need to manage their financial lives. (Some people believe that the age after that is the Life platform, on which individuals will manage their whole lives – but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

Client portals are a muddy area, as there are many players who have strong solutions, but nobody has the perfect one yet. One reason for the confusion is that advisors use their client portals in different ways, with different goals. Also, as technology marches on, more and more capabilities are available to advisors at steadily lower prices. ActiFi’s Mark Nahlovsky and I will take a spin through the categories of contenders and highlight what they are, as well as why we are optimistic (and skeptical) about each.

Custodians

The basic portal is driven by regulation – custodians are mandated to provide statements to investors. So the basic client portal allows investors to see their accounts and the positions within those accounts. However, some custodians have gone well past the basics and added functionality to give the investor a better view into their finances. These portals often do not put the advisor in the picture.

Reason for optimism: The custodians have the data, and the scale. Some custodians are partnering or buying firms that provide a solid client portal. The custodians will offer portals either free or at a low fee, depending on the functionality being provided. Mark and I believe that this will always be the most inexpensive solution for an advisor.

Reason for skepticism: Do investors really care where their money is custodied? Don’t they just want to see what money they have? All of their money? Custodians typically only show holdings that are held at that custodian. Also, is the client portal the core value proposition for a custodian – is this where they should spend their development budget?

Portfolio Management Solutions

Once a “check the box” area of functionality, the client portals being built by leading portfolio management solution firms are modern, mobile-enabled, and open to integration with other fintech solutions. Furthermore, they are often free with your subscription to the portfolio management service.

Reason for optimism: PM vendors have a head start, as the leaders usually have a portal – there is ample opportunity to build on their lead. Furthermore, they have the data from multiple custodians and most have a partnership with an aggregator, so nearly all of the client’s data is available on the portal.

Reason for skepticism: Portfolio management is a broad topic and there are a lot of modules to build and maintain (accounting, recon, billing, trader order management, performance reporting, etc.). Will the portal get lost in the product development priority list?

Squirrel! – Aggregation

Don’t you love that scene in Up! where the dog shows his short attention span as the squirrel goes past? An exclamation of “Squirrel!” is becoming a shorthand for “I just got side tracked.” I promise we’ll get back to the different solutions, but this is an important detour.

Aggregation is a key to any client portal. Investors want to see their whole net worth. No custodian or portfolio management system holds all the data. The way that you achieve it is to pull in the other data through aggregation services. The problem is that aggregation is still not reliable and is time intensive for the advisor or the investor. Some data feeds can be controlled and maintained by the advisor; some have to be done by the investor. Systems like 401(k) systems are notorious for being unavailable for advisor control, and the investor has to be involved in linking the accounts to the aggregation services. These links often go stale and don’t work. From an advisor‘s perspective, this means employing staff members to maintain the aggregation infrastructure. As a result, advisors often only offer the service to their top clients who show interest in it.

This is a weak point, and inhibits the adoption of client portals.

Financial Planning Software

Financial planning (and the many complementary tools and modules that surround it) is a candidate to become the client-facing solution of an advisory firm. Case-in-point: Do you want your clients logging in and nervously checking their balances, or getting lost in detailed analysis? Isn’t that what they pay you for? Wouldn’t you rather have them log in and see a goal tracking gauge? What about having a co-planning experience, facilitated by screen-sharing, whether your client is at the beach or in the ski lodge?

Reason for optimism: Financial planning vendors are an innovative group and they already chasing this trend. eMoneyAdvisor, MoneyGuidePro, Advizr, and PreciseFP are just a few of the companies making the planning process a collaborative one for both prospects and existing clients. For an advisor who is more than an investment advisor, this is the key way to build yourself into the client experience.

Reason for skepticism: Clients still want to log in and see their performance reports and do some analysis. How integrated should planning be into the portal of the future? There are a lot of advisors that still tout investments as their primary value proposition.

Robo-advisors

The term robo-advisor is becoming out of date, as their features are being subsumed into advisor technology in general. However, we will use it here, as advisors know the term. Robo-advisors have a client portal built into them. They are effectively a client-portal that also allows the investor to invest, as well. Today, they are fairly simple, as the focus has been on the investments. But they typically have elegant and intuitive user interfaces.

Reasons for optimism: The concept of robo-advisors without an advisor is here to stay, but the capabilities will be incorporated into banking and other large financial institution technology. The good news is that these solutions will continue to evolve, due to the chance to serve the massive opportunities within large institutions. The bad news is that independent advisors may not have an opportunity to take advantage of these solutions as easily. The jury is still out …

Reasons for skepticism: The same as the reasons for optimism! We couldn’t unwind the two sides of the story in this category.

Personal Financial Managers (PFMs)

Now let’s move and put the investor in the bullseye. There have been popular tools that the investor controls and allow them to have a view across their own money. Intuit is the 800-pound gorilla in this space. It created Quicken, which allows individuals to manage their own money and then use aggregation to pull in their own data from different financial institutions. And with the rise of the internet, it progressed from the PC-based Quicken to the cloud-based Mint.com.

In this model, the advisor is not in the picture; the investor is self-managing.

Reasons for optimism: The chart at the start of this post says it all. The consumer is becoming ever more powerful and is starting to call the shots on how they want to see their own financial lives.

Reasons for skepticism: There is a big divide between fintech companies focused on advisors and those focused on the investor. Currently, they are both successful, but separate. Nobody has worked out this business model yet. Do the advisors pay for the technology? Do the investors? What if an investor has more than one advisor?

Custom

The final category is custom – an advisor firm creates its own unique client portal. This only occurs for the largest advisor firms and is a similar concept to the way that banks create their client websites.

Reasons for optimism: The model allows a firm to highlight its brand and differentiated services. Advisors are independent-minded, highly analytical, and a bit controlling. It’s what makes them successful. Building a custom portal that is truly unique to their value proposition may serve as a great outlet for the creative tension that builds up in the mind of the advisor archetype.

Reasons for skepticism: An expensive model, only possible for the largest of advisory firms that can procure and keep technical talent. It puts the advisor firms in the technology business – never a sure win.

Nirvana – What the future client portal will look like

As you can see, we are at the start of the client portal age with many players in the mix, all with different agendas. Rather than trying to pick a winner (we think there will be several), we will stroll through some of the key capabilities of the client portal of the future. We only focus on features that are not common in today’s client portal (such as aggregation, a vault and household management).

Secure messaging: Ability to pass encrypted messages and documents back and forth between the investor, the advisor and other trusted parties.

Notifications: Notifications to non-safe forms of communication (such as text and e-mail) that events are happening in the secure asset management world.

Personalization: Ability for the advisory firm and investor to change the client portal to only show what they are interested in. For the advisory firm, this means creating user profiles and mapping their clients and prospects to them so the portal feels personalized on day one. For the end user, this includes the way that they want to interact with their advisor and the advisory firm.

Investor/advisor workflows: Advisors and investors will be able to put financial projects in place and to assign tasks to one another. Actions by the investor would trigger a workflow in the advisor’s CRM and messaging in between the two systems would provide real-time updates.

Content exchange: Financial content that the advisor feels will be of interest to a specific investor. This will start the blurring of what is in front of the login and what is safe behind it.

Goal tracking: This is clearly borrowed from robos; the ability to see how you as an investor are tracking to your goals and the history of the tracking.

The “live” financial plan: Instead of a point-in-time documented financial plan, there is a “live” online version. Both the investor and the advisor will be able to change parameters and scenarios and notify each other that they are doing so.

Calendars/Scheduling: Investors will be able to schedule time with the advisor online, at a time, place, and method that is convenient for them.

Embed your widget here: Rather than forcing an advisory firm to develop the entire portal, including content management, security model, performance reporting, and client vault, why not allow the advisor to upload a custom widget that is unique to them? CRM platforms like Salesforce.com and Microsoft Dynamics allow for this; why not a client portal framework?

Start of the age

We are at the beginning of the age of the comprehensive client portal. There are many players, many capabilities and many different goals. This is not unlike 2010, when established industry segments like CRM, portfolio management and financial planning felt broad, diverse and unconnected. Just like with these technologies, there won’t be one winner – there will be several. This will be a fascinating few years, seeing how it plays out.

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Raef Lee

Raef Lee

Raef Lee is the technology contributor for Practically Speaking and also serves as a managing director for the SEI Advisor Network.

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