Does Technology Serve You, or Do You Serve Technology?

Journal of Financial Planning: July 2017


Greg Friedman, CFP®, is CEO of Private Ocean, a leading wealth management firm in Northern California and CEO of Junxure CRM, the industry’s leading, purpose-built CRM system for advisers. Follow him on Twitter @JunxureCEO.

When it comes to technology, many RIAs today suffer from severe FOMO—fear of missing out. That’s the climate we live in, with constant advertising campaigns from tech companies selling shiny new applications, features, and integrations that promise us the next big thing (not to mention the technology consultants and experts in our industry).

None of us want to be left behind, so we pay attention. We read the ads, we watch the demos, and in the process, it seems like we are in a constant cycle of upgrading our technology; and worse, questioning our decisions at every turn.

What we lose sight of is that the key to technology solutions doesn’t lie in flashy features or reports. It’s in the skill and talent of your people and the strategy and service that you already provide. While the right systems can play a key role in helping you achieve growth and efficiency, there is no app to replace the people— and their skills—needed to harness that technology.

How Can Tech Serve You?

The foundation of what we do as financial advisers is client service. It’s what differentiates us from robo platforms and gives us the edge over the age of instant data gratification. Our clients trust us to serve as an impartial family adviser who guides them through every important financial decision. What we bring to the relationship goes beyond technology; it truly comes down to the skills—technical and communication—and the integrity of our people.

Technology shouldn’t be any different. It’s a major component of your business, but it’s only as good as the people who run it. It’s certainly not something you should change lightly. You should never have to “catch up” to tech; it should always be serving and supporting your initiatives for streamlining processes, locking in client retention, building new business, and delivering on your commitment to your clients.

Before you can take back the upper hand from technology, however, you first need to ask a few hard questions about your business.

  • What are my client’s needs and expectations?
  • What are my business challenges and opportunities?
  • Are my staff members appropriately trained and skilled at what we want to accomplish?

To explain how those questions apply, let’s use your customer relationship management (CRM) system as an example. Let’s say that your clients are delighted to receive an annual birthday call from you. Your CRM is designed to, among many things, capture personal data and alert you to important dates (like birthdays), document interactions with clients, create workflows to provide a consistent client experience, and improve overall efficiency. All of that may sound like exactly what you need, but no matter how powerful your CRM is, if your staff isn’t tech savvy or if they’re not skilled in top-level client service, how can you expect to use the tech to its maximum potential?

Assess Client Needs and Expectations

Before anything else, you should be asking yourself, “What am I delivering to my clients and what matters most to them?” Maybe it’s proactive communication, more personalized and faster service, a user-friendly portal, or better reports.

If you haven’t asked your clients recently how you’re doing, it’s never a bad time to gauge their satisfaction. Are they happy with the firm? Is there anything you can be doing that can enhance their experience? From their responses, you can then consider how technology can help you achieve those goals.

And if your clients aren’t completely satisfied with your service, now is a great time to turn the ship around. If you’re not delivering against their expectations (which, by the way, change over time), you risk losing them.

Identify Business Challenges and Opportunities

Once you have an overall picture of what matters to your clients, you can then look at your business and begin identifying both the challenges and opportunities that can be addressed through technology. The question you should keep in mind throughout this process is, “How can my technology best serve me?”

At my firm, we wanted technology to help us with the following (among other things):

  • Delivering a consistent and organized client experience
  • Building new business
  • Managing time effectively
  • Enhancing staff productivity

Everyone starts somewhere in this process, whether you see an opportunity and want to grow or there are obstacles in your path that need to be addressed and overcome.

I recommend creating a list of the top things that you want to enable in your business through technology. You may want to be able to process trades faster or provide clients with better performance reports. From an opportunity perspective, you may wish to market to a large group of contacts or cultivate a referral pool using a CRM. At this stage of the game, the sky is the limit. Your list, coupled with the bandwidth and skill of your team, will help you make informed decisions about technology.

Assess Your Most Valuable Resource—Your People

The latest in adviser technology may be cutting edge—even bleeding edge—but without the right people behind it with the right training and experience, it’s little more than a fancy application with buttons.

When looking at technology, it’s important to do an assessment of your team and align their abilities with your goals. If proactive, personalized service is a key component of your business, are your people trained and competent at delivering on that model, and do they have the right technology tools to help them?

Aligning your technology with your people is the key to success, and where you identify gaps between the two you should invest wholeheartedly in training. What you may find is that some of your biggest obstacles may not be the technology at all.

Invest in the Tech You Really Need

At this stage, you’ve done a full sweep of your firm, assessing client needs and desires, identifying a list of top initiatives you want to address through technology, and taking a hard look at your team’s skills and abilities.

Now you can begin to look critically at your existing technology. I have often said that many advisers only use a small portion of what their current technology is capable of, and you may find that what you need to achieve your goals or overcome your challenges is already built into the systems you use every day. You can then look at outside systems that can supplement your technology and address any gaps.

Measure Success

Gauging your success comes down to numbers. For example, at Private Ocean, one of our goals was to harness technology for marketing and business development. Specifically, we wanted to grow the business organically, cultivate a “sales and service” culture, create a steady flow of “at bats,” implement pipeline management, track activity along the way, and measure results.

After we went through our assessment, we identified the systems we needed and created a menu:

  • CRM to track all relevant data
    (a system we already used)
  • A marketing automation system
  • Google Analytics
  • Integration with portfolio management system and CRM (AUM data)

We can now easily track opportunities by status, referral source, adviser, and much more. Quick reports give our leadership team an overview of how the firm is performing, allowing us to identify any shortcomings and make decisions that save time and resources.

In the end, these systems enlighten us and help us implement new processes, but they don’t replace the hard work that happens behind the scenes to make these results possible. And from here, we hold ongoing sales training and coaching for the team to make sure we stay ahead of the game.

While technology offers advisers an incredible range of opportunities to help grow the business, it’s not about chasing the latest shiny object on the market. It’s certainly never a shortcut. The time we spend on upgrading our systems (and worrying if we made the right choices) is better spent doing what we’ve always done best—combining hard work and a team effort to best serve the business and most importantly, the client.