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One Capable CRM Flying Under Most Advisors' Radar

Grendel Online aims to attract advisors with its full-featured, Web-based CRM.

Bill Winterberg, 01/12/2012

Advisors have a growing number of choices among Web-based CRM applications, from Salesforce, the 800-pound gorilla of enterprise CRM, to free and low-cost programs such as Batchbook and Zoho. According to Financial Planning Magazine's 2011 Technology Survey, released last month, Redtail (reviewed in May 2010) was the most widely used CRM application, Web or server based, according to the 3,200 surveyed advisors, with roughly one out of every three advisors responding that they use it.

One Web-based CRM application that did not garner enough votes to break out of the survey's "Other" category is Grendel Online, from Big Brian Works, LLC. But as you'll see from the review below, I don't believe that is due to a lack of features or functionality.

“We have primarily focused on the product and not the marketing aspect,” said Aaron Guidotti, chief executive of Big Brain Works. “We've spent years building some very massive relationships [with] which we are going full steam ahead.”

Grendel is not a new application in the advisor CRM marketplace. First available in the late 1990s, Grendel has largely stayed below the radar of most advisors. I recently sat down with my own demo account to get a good feel for Grendel's capabilities to share with you below.

Software Architecture
Grendel is built using Flex, a free, open-source application framework from Adobe Systems Inc., which is important for two reasons. First, Grendel screens and menus are rendered in standard Internet browsers using Adobe Flash Player software. This gives Grendel performance similar to that of desktop-installed applications; navigating around the Grendel platform does not require complete page rendering with HTML code each time a new screen is accessed.

However, the choice of Adobe Flash leads to one specific disadvantage, which is the fact that Grendel cannot be viewed on iOS devices such as the iPhone or iPad using the Safari Internet browser. Even the company homepage cannot be viewed properly on an iOS device due to the use of Flash. It is possible to cross-compile the Adobe Flex codebase into an app for iOS, Android™, and BlackBerry® Tablet OS, so a mobile app, while not available today, is likely to become a reality sometime in the near future.

"I expect that I will be showing off [a beta version of] our mobile app at the AICPA Advanced PFP conference. It will have the same support as our main application," Guidotti said. The AICPA Advanced PFP conference is scheduled for January 16-18, 2012 in Las Vegas.

Acclimating to Grendel
Grendel does what all CRM applications should do. Profiles are supported for clients, prospects, allied professionals, or any other kind of individual (which Grendel calls entities), with pertinent contact data displayed for each person. Other components include a calendar, a list of businesses and companies loaded in the system, a list of products (e.g., securities, mutual funds, annuities, etc.) appearing in the application, and a summary page specific to an advisor's business.

Every screen in Grendel is separated into two functional areas. Columns and windows containing information are shown on the left, while a single column with menus and action buttons is displayed on the right. This layout is enforced throughout the system, and at first I found it somewhat disorienting.

Users comfortable with the way conventional software, say Microsoft Outlook, configures menus, folder lists, and actions in a left-hand navigation column may find navigating Grendel somewhat counterintuitive, as all the controls feel reversed. Locating action buttons takes some getting used to, but over time I got accustomed to moving my cursor to the right to add or edit items displayed in the primary information window.

Grendel Dashboard
Advisors will generally spend much of their time in either the Grendel dashboard or the entity profile window. The dashboard is split into two columns with three windows on the left and two on the right. The left-hand column features an Immediate Opportunities window that shows the pipeline of potential assets held by the most promising of prospects tracked in the CRM. Below that is the Immediate Touch Needed window, showing those clients who haven't received recent contact from the advisor, based on custom rules created in the system. Finally, the bottom window lists shortcuts to the five most recently viewed entries, providing quick access to those records.

The windows in the right-hand column of the dashboard are divided into the workflow view and the journal. Workflow shows outstanding items and events for the current day (or overdue) followed by those due within the next seven days. Each item listed in the workflow window is preceded by up to four icons, providing further information about the item details. The icons show whether the item is a task or project, waiting on activity by another user, visible to clients in the client portal, and assigned responsibility. Items also list their start and end dates, a short subject field, and name of the client or entity to which the item is associated.

Below the workflow window are journal entries, where the last 14 days of completed tasks and activities are listed. This provides advisors with an easy way to quickly review individual activities recently finished for the benefit of clients or any other entity in the system.

Profiles and Calendar
Grendel profiles begin with basic client information along the top, including name, age, date of birth, Social Security number, and gender. Also displayed is an optional client photo along the top of the screen of the profile window, a convenient feature that is becoming more prevalent in CRM software. Contact information like e-mail addresses and phone numbers are displayed in a column to the left, with relationship information such as children, employer, and attorneys located directly below the contact information.

The remaining profile window is split into two sections located to the right of the contact information column. On top is the workflow area where advisors can view each client's outstanding tasks, projects, and meetings scheduled over the next 30 days. Below the workflow items is the journal, where tasks, projects, and appointments completed in the last 180 days are displayed. Each time period for the workflow and journal sections can be customized, and the horizontal divider between each section can be dragged up and down to adjust the window size.

In addition to viewing client appointments from the entity window, Grendel includes a full calendar that displays each advisor's meetings and appointments. The feature I like best in Grendel's calendar is its ability to synchronize appointments with Google Calendar. Simply input one's Google account credentials, click the "Sync with Google" button, and Grendel will synchronize events added to its calendar with Google and vice versa.

Keeping the two calendars synchronized requires periodic intervention by manually clicking the "Sync with Google" button, as Grendel does not automatically synchronize events on a regular basis. Also, Guidotti pointed out to me that complicated recurrence patterns don't quite synchronize properly between the two platforms. Nevertheless, Google synchronization is a handy feature to have for advisors that have migrated to Google Calendar in order to view appointments on iPads and smartphones without the need to maintain a costly Microsoft Exchange Server.

Beyond CRM
Grendel delivers additional functionality for advisors through a client "wealth view." From the wealth view, client portfolio holding information can be imported from Albridge, account aggregation for clients' held-away accounts is available from Advisor Exchange, and client profile information can be exported to the popular MoneyGuidePro financial planning software.

Malay Vasavda, principal of Quantum Financial Management, LLC in Glenview, Ill., is currently migrating to Grendel from Redtail because of the former CRM's integration with MoneyGuidePro. "The primary reason I changed CRMs is the lack of integration between Redtail and MoneyGuidePro. Redtail only passes investment assets, which leaves me with having to enter everything else manually once again," said Vasavda. "Grendel integrates fairly tightly with MoneyGuidePro, passing along virtually every asset entered into Grendel."

Grendel also includes a client web portal and electronic document filing system. I can't cover the specifics of each module due to space constraints, but given the right requirements, Grendel has the potential to be an all-in-one CRM solution for advisors. "Grendel makes it very easy for me to manage a portal solution directly within the CRM, which significantly reduces data entry and also enables me to reduce the number of logins clients need to access all of their data, including assets that are not managed directly by me," added Vasavda.

To learn more about Grendel and its variety of functions, Guidotti and his team conduct weekly webinar trainings on the various modules, covering everything from the basics through Grendel's advanced client portal features. A half-dozen training videos are also available on demand in the Grendel online support forum, with plans for more videos in the near future.
   
Growth Potential
Grendel's pricing rivals that of its competitors, namely Redtail CRM. Licenses for the core CRM are sold in packs of 15 users for $50 per month. Adding the client portal option costs $50 per month, and the electronic document filing is also $50 per month. Account aggregation for held-away account data collection is also available at additional cost.

Today, Grendel Online remains a relatively unknown CRM to most advisors, but after several weeks of evaluation, I suspect it's not because the system lacks major features or functionality. Should the increased marketing efforts in store from Big Brain Works this year begin to pay off, don't be surprised to see Grendel escape the anonymity of the "Other" category in CRM surveys to become a notable candidate in the marketplace.

Bill Winterberg, CFP, is a technology and operations consultant to independent financial advisors. His comments on technology have been featured in a variety of financial industry publications. You can view more information about Bill and see his schedule of upcoming speaking engagements at his Web site, FPPad.com. The author is a freelance contributor to MorningstarAdvisor.com. The views expressed in this article may or may not reflect the views of Morningstar.
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