While innovation in design and delivery is often derided as a distraction from the tasks the platform needs to support, sometimes the optional value add becomes essential.
Financial executives are often surprised to hear that the choice between one financial technology platform and another can come down to more than cosmetic distinctions.
After all, a lot of firms still treat mission-critical software – the accounting system, for example – as a commodity that boils down to lowest overall cost, while everything else on the platform is left to sell itself in terms of its “wow” factor.
Commodity technology is often so old and entrenched in the industry that nobody puts much thought into buying it on its own. Innovative improvements are seen as novelties that may or may not point toward the best practices of tomorrow.
Somewhere between yesterday’s steak and tomorrow’s sizzle, the new status quo is emerging now.
We discussed how advisors can harness the drivers of technological change in the financial industry in our recent white paper (free download HERE).
Now it is time to get concrete. At a minimum, a truly modern enterprise software application needs to hit the following next-generation value points to be worth adding to your platform:
No modern application can afford to be a sealed system or a black box. A closed architecture provides you with at best zero benefit, and at worst will cost you and your staff time and attention as you negotiate between the isolated software and everything else on your screen.
The ability to aggregate data from multiple sources and across multiple formats is no longer nice-to-have feature; it’s a must-have for any new system. Equally important is a truly open system that has the ability to integrate with the 3rd party providers of your choice rather than simply the preferred partners of your software provider.
You tell your clients there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution. Do not settle for one in your own everyday operations.
Every firm is different. You will work with a unique pool of providers to deliver a unique service offering in a unique way to a unique group of clients.
There is no fundamental reason to change any aspect of your practice simply because the new software doesn’t work that way.
Modern software needs to conform to your needs. It has to work intuitively with the asset classes, billing relationships, routine transactions and everything else that your staff requires.
Of course, if the new software can automate or eliminate redundant work, that’s another thing. But even then, the provider will need to adjust the code to ensure that it does exactly what your unique circumstances require it to do.
Either way, a “take it or leave it” scenario is potentially expensive, potentially frustrating and should be avoided in today’s technology marketplace. You, your staff and your clients deserve better.
3. A Smooth Transition
Evolution is rarely a stress-free process, so make technology choices that minimize disruption or at worst concentrate the growing pains into a short period of time.
The provider should set up a migration plan in consultation with your team. It should be firm enough to meet deadlines and flexible enough to cope with any unforeseen challenges.
Minimizing impact to your clients and your staff should be the focal point of any implementation plan so ask questions about how your provider will accomplish these goals. Your clients should not need to change account numbers and should be able to have full access to historical account statements online – make sure your provider is making the process as seamless as possible for your clients.
4. Instant ROI
While servers and other hardware are still sold as a long-term capital improvement that will pay off over months or years, the real return on investment model has changed substantially.
At its most basic, modern software is somewhere between a service and a utility. The impact it makes on your firm’s operating balance sheet should be visible once you open the application and get moving.
The right software can even eliminate existing cost centers by letting a firm sell existing hardware and unwind IT service contracts, generating a net gain right away.
This is actually the real appeal of cloud computing in this space. Letting the provider buy the servers and keep them running pushes the cost to that side of the relationship. As a result, the software has already made you money.
Any operational benefits that accrue thereafter only sweeten the calculations, but the point here is that the payoff isn’t something that happens years from now. If you pick the right platform, it can start right away.
6. Room to Grow
Traditional service contracts in the financial technology field are just long enough that a smart search will not reveal which platform is the best fit today but which will still give you what you need three to five years from now.
Of course, knowing what your firm will look like as we approach 2020 requires a working crystal ball as well as a strong strategic plan, so this point really boils down to flexibility and innovation.
A more open platform can evolve with shifting market realities to remain both relevant and robust. Ask providers how their platform has evolved over the course of the last 5 years; has the platform continued to grow or has it remained largely static? This can be a good indicator of whether or not your provider continues to invest in growing their existing systems.
At a minimum, you should insist on a system that avoids locking you into a limited set of third-party relationships or investment options. Room to expand now should translate into operational flexibility in the future.
Stay open to compliance issues as well. If a platform can’t roll in any direction the regulators decide to go, today’s snug fit can become tomorrow’s straitjacket.
7. Glowing Testimonials
Every technology provider naturally believes its solutions are superior, but they usually interact with the platform under ideal circumstances.
You need to know how people who use the software day to day would characterize their experience.
Do they have to fight the interface to get the results they need? Is the support team responsive and cheerful?
Was training thorough without being overwhelming? How quickly does the platform recover from a system failure, and how often do those occur in actual workplace conditions?
Only your fellow users can provide non-hypothetical answer to these questions. A provider with satisfied customers can find any number of them who will be happy and able to talk.
Others will probably have a harder time identifying people who can portray the technology in a fair but still attractive light.
And if all you can find are ex-users who don’t want to talk about their experience, that tells a story in itself.
Bill has been CEO of Innovest since its inception in 2000. Prior to joining Innovest, Bill was most recently in JP Morgan’s LabMorgan eFinance business unit as its Entrepreneur in Residence. Prior to joining LabMorgan, Bill was a Managing Director at Bankers Trust Company, acquired in 1999 by Deutsche Bank, and spent more than nine years in various positions including CEO of the bank’s wholly-owned subsidiary, The WM Company, PLC, based in Edinburgh, Scotland. Bill holds a Masters in Business Administration from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.