Spice up the tech side of your business in 2009.
If you are like most advisors I've spoken with recently, the end of 2008 could not have come soon enough. Rather than dwell on a recent past that we'd rather all forget, I'd prefer to view 2009 as a clean slate and a fresh beginning. Although I intend to discuss the future, not the past, I cannot ignore the fact that technology budgets might be a bit tighter in 2009 and demands on advisors' time will be great; therefore, most of these suggested resolutions are rather modest.
1: Resolve to continue spending on technology
According to a recent Forrester Research survey, more than half of U.S. consumers plan to cut back on technology spending this year. Don't follow their lead. The typical advisory firm was spending too little on technology even before the latest market crisis was upon us. According the 2008 FPA Practitioner Technology Report: Leveraging Technology Solutions, 48% of respondents said they were spending between 0% and 5% on technology. The 2008 Moss-Adams study, based upon 2007 fiscal year numbers showed that the average participant in the study spend only 1.1% of revenue on software and just 0.3% of revenue on hardware. That's just not enough. In 2009 it will be more important than ever to operate efficiently. Leverage technology to help improve your operational efficiency.
2: Resolve to spend your technology budget wisely
Even small technology investments can pay big dividends. A 2008 research project at the University of Utah confirmed something that I've been telling readers and consulting clients for years: Increased screen space, in the form of dual monitors or a single larger monitor, can significantly improve productivity. The study found that moving from single 18-inch traditional-format monitors to 24-inch widescreen displays reduced the time it took to complete a task from 8 hours to 5-1/2 hours. Over the course of a year, that translates to a savings of up to 76 days in production, or about $8,600 per employee (based on a $32,500 annual salary; for people with higher salaries, the savings is greater) assuming that multiple applications or windows are being displayed all the time.
A small investment in a better keyboard and mouse can also pay immediate dividends. In addition to a productivity increase, you'll also find that employees are happier and healthier.
3: Resolve to save money by using some free (or very inexpensive) productivity applications
I've written numerous times about inexpensive, or in some cases free, technologies that come in very handy. Let me just highlight a few for you. One free service I use regularly is GOOG-411. This free information service from Google allows you to dial a toll-free number (1-800-GOOG-411) and search for any business phone number from any phone. If you know the name of the business, just tell GOOG-411, and it will locate the business and even connect you for free. If you don't know the name of the specific business you want, GOOG-411 can still help. Let's say you want to order a pizza from your current location. GOOG-411 will list the nearest pizzerias, and connect you so that you can place your order. I find Google's service to be better than that of the phone company, but best of all, it's free.
I've written in the past about Evernote, but now, with the online version that synchronizes with your smart phone, the program can do much more. Need to save someone's contact information? Take a photo of the business card with your phone and upload it to the Evernote site. Enjoy a bottle of wine at the restaurant? Take a photo of the label so you'll remember it in the future.
Jott, another perennial favorite, still offers a free version, but I think the regular paid version, at $3.95 per month, is the way to go. Jott allows you to send an unlimited number of text messages or e-mail messages to individuals or groups by simply talking into your phone. It is great for reaching a team of people with short notes, perhaps to schedule a meeting or to notify your child's soccer team of a time and a place for a practice. It is also great for sending yourself short reminders notes and to-dos. I don't use Jott nearly as often as I should, but when I need it I am so very happy that I have it. For about the cost of a cup of coffee, you can increase your productivity for a month.
4: Resolve to try a Web browser other than Internet Explorer if you have not already done so
As recently as 2002, Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser could claim a 95% market share. It has been falling ever since. According to the research firm Net Applications, in May 2008, Internet Explorer's share had fallen to 74%; by December 2008 it was down to 68%. There's a reason that Microsoft has lost market share: competing products are more flexible, they're faster, and they are more secure.
Firefox, a fine open-source Web browser offered by the Mozilla Foundation has been the primary competition for IE lately. It has moved from an 18% share in May to a 21% share in December. Aided by strong Apple computer sales, Apple's Safari browser raised its share from 6% to 8% in the same period. Chrome, the new browser that Google launched in September and which I like a lot, has so far managed to grab a 1% market share. If you have been frustrated while waiting for Web pages to load, try one of the alternatives. I think you'll be surprised at the results. Although all browsers are prone to some security issues, IE seems to be the primary target, and competing browsers seem to have fewer issues than IE does.
5: If your vendors do not support browsers other than IE, pressure them to do so
A number of readers have voiced frustration with their broker/dealers, custodians, and software providers because there vendors only support IE. Under the circumstances, advisors are forced to maintain IE strictly to deal with these less-flexible vendors while using Firefox, Safari, Chrome, or some other preferred browser for all other tasks. When Microsoft controlled 95% of the browser market, perhaps vendors could justify supporting only IE. That is no longer the case. Advisors should be free to choose their browser. Let your suppliers know how you feel!
6: Resolve to spend on getting more out of what you already own
Most advisors I know only use a fraction of the technology capabilities that they already have access to. In some cases, you and your staff may not be taking full advantage of programs you take for granted, like Microsoft Word and Excel. Or it may be that you are not taking full advantage of your CRM, financial planning and portfolio management software. Still others have access to tools provided by their broker/dealer or custodian and aren't using them. Resolve to take an inventory of the tools at your disposal, and figure out how you can get more out of them. In some cases, this may entail calling your custodian or broker/dealer and asking for training; in other cases it could mean participation in Web seminars or reading a book. Whatever your circumstances, there is one thing we can be sure of: Getting more out of your existing tools is very inexpensive, and it can be very rewarding.
7: Resolve to use less paper
I've been writing about paperless office technologies for close to a decade now, but for now, the truly paperless office is more of an ideal than it is a practical goal. Having said that, reducing your firm's reliance on paper is a goal you should aspire to. Creating, printing, copying, storing, and mailing paper documents can be very expensive. Virtual documents are much less costly to create, deliver, and store. They are easier to file and retrieve when you need them. They are also much more environmentally friendly.
One obvious area of inefficiency at many firms is the creation and delivery of quarterly performance reports. Personally, I question the whole notion of providing quarterly performance reports, but I do believe that you need to communicate regularly with your clients, so whether you are providing performance data or other types of information, try weaning clients from the paper page.
If you are still delivering paper performance reports to clients, think about offering digital ones. You will be able to deliver the reports more rapidly and more securely, and you'll save a lot of money over the course of the year. If you are sending paper newsletters, try other forms of communication as well, whether it is a digital newsletter, a podcast, or a Web seminar. You may find that other forms of communication are not only cheaper, but more effective. It's at least worth a try!
8: Need a Basic Laptop? Consider a Netbook
Historically, light "travel" laptops have been powerful but pricey. If you need a basic notebook for e-mail, word processing, and Web surfing, consider a "netbook" instead. These light, basic machines are generally powered by an Intel Atom processor and run on Windows XP or Linux. They cost between $300 and $500. Screens are generally in the 9-inch to 12-inch range. One model that I've reviewed favorably is the Lenovo S10 IdeaPad. Those looking enhanced capabilities on a budget in 2009 will have new options. HP just introduced the dv2, a more powerful (and slightly more expensive) ultraportable laptop based on the new, more powerful AMD processor paired with a more powerful graphics chip. This new category of ultraportables will probably sell in the $500-$750 price range, but they may turn out to be a better choice for business travelers who want more than the basics, and they are still very inexpensive compared with the ultraportables of just a few years ago.
9: Don't Ignore Security
Strong passwords are the first line of security in the digital world. The problem is creating strong ones and remembering them. There are software programs that can store them for you, such as Roboform, which I've written about in the past. For those of you who want something you can hold on to and carry with you, the Logio Secure Password Organizer may be appealing. This credit-card-sized device, small enough to fit in a wallet or purse, can store about 200 log-ons and passwords. You can also store credit-card numbers and other important data. The whole database is AES encrypted and protected by one master password, so, as long as you can remember a single password, you'll have access to all your data. The only downside: if you forget your master password, there is no way to recover it.
Hopefully, some of the ideas suggested above will help you start off the New Year on the right foot.
Have a Happy and Prosperous 2009!