Editor's note: This month, EBA welcomes a new columnist - John Lamb, who will write about technology as a business tool both for brokers in-office use and for brokers to bring to their employer clients.

With the advent of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act and growing government intervention into the benefits industry, the consensus among industry experts is that becoming a trusted adviser and HR compliance consultant is the future role of successful brokers. More than ever before, clients will need expert advice and counsel - an invaluable resource to help HR with their benefits-oriented decisionmaking.

Following this approach will help brokers establish a competitive advantage and differentiate themselves. However, since many successful brokers will most likely take this approach, how do you make yourself stand out? The answer may lie in the utilization and convergence of two technologies: customer relationship management software and social business software.

First, we'll look at what CRM software is and what it can do for you. Next we'll go into social business software and how your agency or brokerage can utilize it. Then we'll explore the convergence of these technologies.

 

CRM software

CRM systems are used by companies to manage interactions with both prospects and clients. These systems have proven effective in increasing sales and improving customer service. A 2010 study by the Aberdeen Group shows that top-performing companies achieved 91% customer retention, 88% customer satisfaction and a 6% increase in net client value year over year as a result of using CRM systems.

Yet many companies still rely on paper-based files, spreadsheets or e-mail to manage client relationships - putting them at a distinct disadvantage. These methods fail to be competitive because they lack easy accessibility to client information by different staff members - completely missing the key point: that service and sales are intertwined.

In today's economic climate, clients demand higher levels of service, which - if delivered upon - leads to more repeat business and ultimately more new business. By providing both sales and service personnel access to client information, CRMs give a 360-degree view of each client or prospect. Producers and account managers, indeed all client-facing staff, can have a common, online view of each client and its current status.

In the broker world there are CRM solutions that not only provide a business-wide view of client information and client transaction history, but also store and manage policies, rates and health insurance plan data.

All of this information can be used for both sales and service. For sales, all of the information necessary to create robust proposals and manage the sales process is easily accessible. For service teams, all of the information needed for client implementation and support is there, too. These systems are available from vendors that specialize in our industry.

 

Social business software

Social media software is well established in the consumer world via names such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Hundreds of millions of users access these online applications. In April 2010, Twitter announced that 50,000 people per day were signing up for its service; in June, Facebook claimed more than 400 million users.

Social networks are used by people to share a variety of media, including video, podcasts, reviews and audio files. Online research regarding personal health information is the No. 1 search topic on the Internet, and about one-third of those people use social networks as part of their research.

Social business software brings similar capabilities into the corporate world. These products are used within an organization, most typically by employees, to facilitate teamwork, networking and online communities. Also referred to as "collaboration software," the core functionality includes discussion groups, document sharing, blogs and wikis (group authoring).

In business, social software brings experts and interested parties together more easily, taking collaboration to the next level. The Gartner Group conducts analysis of the social business software market and says that these products facilitate "... social interaction by helping people to establish and strengthen personal relationships, develop trust ... and accelerate the business processes that people are engaged in."

Sales and service are two key business processes that can benefit from the utilization of social software. It can help you better manage client and prospect communication, monitor the issues being discussed and foster the development of online client communities. In addition, social software can provide an extremely effective thought leadership approach to marketing compared with traditional marketing approaches, which can truly differentiate you in the market.

 

Convergence

While the social software category is dominated by Microsoft and IBM at the enterprise level, there are many affordable solutions available for agencies and brokerages. This market will continue to grow as the benefits of collaboration tools for businesses up the ante on competitive advantage.

However, the convergence of CRM and social business software may be the next big thing. This convergence is best exemplified by the rapid user adoption of Salesforce.com's Chatter product.

Salesforce.com is the leader in the CRM market, and Chatter is their latest innovation. It combines CRM and collaboration software. In addition to all of the CRM and social software benefits, Chatter takes the Twitter-like following of people and applies it to documents, deals and accounts. Groups can be established around competitors, sales teams, service teams, or even the development of a proposal or presentation. Status updates provide immediate notification of changes to documents or deals, and can include team comments and service updates. To many users it brings the consumer-oriented capabilities of Twitter and Facebook into the business world.

We can expect to see the same convergence of CRM and social software in our industry. Some vendors have already taken steps in this direction. In the next year these steps will become leaps and bounds as users and vendors work together to figure out what the next generation of software solutions will look like.

PPACA brought another round of change to our industry - and with change comes innovation.

 

John Lamb is senior vice president and general manager, Benergy Interworks, at A.D.A.M. Inc., in Atlanta. You can reach him at jlamb@adamcorp.com.

 


 

The iPad's 'cool' factor

If Apple Computer has its way, financial advisers and their clients are going to have a new style of working together. It will involve a great deal of tapping, rolling and drumming of fingers on an iPad, the sleek, keyboard-free, tablet computer that invites users to access information and eye-popping visuals with a swift touch of a 9.7 inch screen.

A number of platform providers and Web-based portals that target financial advisers are helping Apple achieve this goal. They are either working on iPad-compatible applications or have launched platforms designed to facilitate business-specific and secure use. They include Finantix, in partnership with NorthStar; InfoHedge Technologies; Junxure Software; Pershing, a BNY Mellon firm and developer of the NetX360 platform; Pyxis Mobile; SunGard, creator of the Wealth Station platform; and TD Ameritrade, producer of the Veo platform.

For those who may not be Apple fans, or whose current platform of choice may not be iPad-compatible, other computer vendors either say that they will enter the tablet fray in the months ahead, or are widely rumored to be doing so. Firms in this category include Cisco, Dell (with its Streak tablet) and Hewlett-Packard. Google's Android system will power the Cisco tablet due next year. Research in Motion's rumored business-oriented tablet would be compatible with the BlackBerry system.

Microsoft has said that it is looking into improving the quality of tablet devices that run Microsoft's Windows 7 operating system, and Motorola and Verizon have teamed up to launch a digital tablet. But although a fair number of advisers and their technology consultants have been impressed by the sleekness and usability of Apple's tablet technology - Apple sold three million iPads in the 80 days following the tablet's January launch - they also note that we are still in the iPad's early adoption days. Thus, there are specific business pros and cons to iPad usage that advisers should keep in mind.

On the pro side, the iPad's visual power - its screen has 132 pixels per inch - and the ease with which it can be viewed collaboratively and flipped to show different perspectives makes it a useful tool on the road, meeting with clients in their homes or talking one-on-one with a client at the adviser's office. "The iPad has its limits and doesn't replace a computer," says Benjamin Muchler, vice president and portfolio manager at Boston Research and Management, an independent financial advisory firm in Manchester, Mass. "But it is an effective tool that can help accomplish some tasks during a client meeting - for example, a portfolio stress test, a change in a big financial plan or a rebalancing of a 401(k) - that might otherwise require yet another meeting or follow-up contact."

But the device is also raising new security concerns, despite its password protection features, encryption and remote, data wipe-out capabilities (for 3G-enabled devices). News from Citibank that its iPhone mobile banking application had a flaw and was inadvertently saving personal account information in a hidden file, including account numbers, bill payments and security access codes, underlines the need for advisers to think carefully about where, when and how they use mobile apps.

"There's still a long way to go in securing new mobile devices," says Jonathan Cohn, a partner at Oliver Wyman Financial Services, although he adds that glitches are not a reason to avoid them. At this stage, advisers should familiarize themselves with new tools like the iPad, perhaps just for personal use, so that as adoption grows, they will be ready to work with its growing user base."

I would not put any hypersensitive business data on it, but I would have it with me during client meetings, perhaps to look at current portfolio holdings via a password-protected site and to see how clients interact with it," Cohn says. He believes that over time, the iPad has the potential to become a transformational tool for advisers.

- By Katherine Heires, a freelance business journalist and founder of MediaKat LLC.

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