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A Document Vault Your Clients Might Actually Use

File sharing services like Dropbox are easy to use, but one vendor combines ease of use with robust security features sought after by financial advisors.

Bill Winterberg, 03/08/2012

Advisors know that electronic documents containing sensitive information such as Social Security or investment account numbers should never be sent via unsecure e-mail. For the last decade or so, advisors have largely turned to online document vaults as an alternate way to securely exchange important files with clients and allied professionals. However, as I interact with advisors who manage practices of all different sizes, I continue to hear of one significant drawback with most document vault solutions available today: They’re just not that popular with clients.

To overcome clients' frustration with complicated vaults, some advisors have considered using Dropbox, a consumer-oriented file sharing and synchronization service approaching nearly 50 million users. Dropbox's success is due in large part to its simple interface and seamless integration with computers and mobile devices of all kinds, but the lack of robust administration and security management causes many advisors to think twice before using the utility to store and share sensitive client files.

ShareFile is one online document storage and sharing provider that aims to address advisors' concerns over security, while keeping the service easy to use for clients. ShareFile is based in Raleigh, N.C., and in October 2011 was acquired by Citrix Systems, which advisors will recognize for its popular GoToMeeting online meeting platform.

The ShareFile Experience
Advertised as "professional file sharing for desktops and mobile devices," ShareFile currently supports more than 20,000 corporate customers with 3.5 million users in more than 100 countries. ShareFile functions much like a shared network drive on an advisor's file server, but files saved to the service are stored on ShareFile's SSAE 16 (formerly SAS 70) audited data centers and are accessed over the Internet using Secure Socket Layer (SSL) encryption.

During initial ShareFile configuration, advisors are given the opportunity to apply their custom branding to the service, something not possible with consumer file sharing services. Files stored in ShareFile may be accessed through the ShareFile website, and the URL can be customized to feature the advisor's branding (e.g., http://youradvisoryfirm.sharefile.com). The ShareFile login page can also include an advisor's logo and color scheme.

Once logged in using any modern Internet browser, ShareFile displays a standard file explorer interface much like Windows Explorer. Folders can be added to ShareFile by clicking an Add Folder button, and files can be uploaded to the folder currently displayed by clicking an Upload Files button. Advisors can either drag and drop files into the upload manager or open a file explorer window on their local computer to select specific files to upload.

Advisors will likely want to create individual folders in ShareFile for each client and allied professional with whom they want to share documents. Again, folders can be added manually, but ShareFile also offers a "white glove" service for an additional fee to facilitate initial setup, including a custom folder structure.

Advisors can also create ShareFile accounts on behalf of clients that are then linked to each client's shared folder. Client accounts can be added manually or by uploading an Excel spreadsheet containing basic client account information such as a name and e-mail address. When linking client accounts with folders, advisors can set access permissions to allow clients to download and upload documents, delete files in the folder, and send e-mail notifications for folder activity. Most consumer file sharing services do not support the ability to set and control these types of client access permissions for each folder.

As accounts are added to ShareFile, clients receive an e-mail prompting them to configure their account and set their own password. Once logged in, clients see only those folders and documents to which they have access permissions.

Enhanced Features
In addition to individual folders configured for clients, advisors can create common, or global, folders that can be shared across multiple client accounts. A good example of this is a ShareFile folder used to share an advisor's newsletter. Advisors create one folder (e.g., named Newsletter) and then assign permissions to view and download files in the folder to all clients. Instead of individually uploading the newsletter document to tens or hundreds of client folders, one simply uploads the file a single time to the Newsletter folder that all clients can view.

Advisors are not restricted to the Web interface to manage their ShareFile repository. Under the Corporate plan (see below for pricing), advisors can use the ShareFile Desktop Sync utility to map the ShareFile repository to their local computer. Then adding and deleting files in the ShareFile repository can be done directly through Windows Explorer or Mac Finder.

Another useful feature for most advisors is the ShareFile plugin for Microsoft Outlook. Instead of attaching files directly to an Outlook email message, advisors can use the ShareFile Outlook plugin to add files to their message, but send them securely through the ShareFile system without ever needing to log in to ShareFile online.

Will Clients Adopt ShareFile?
The challenge with any document vault is getting clients to actually use it. I feel that most document vault systems today fail to gain client adoption for three reasons: They force clients to repetitively enter their login and password every time they want to access the vault (and we all have too many passwords to remember already!); uploading and downloading files often require multiple tedious steps; and the vault interface often looks nothing like Windows Explorer or Mac OS Finder, which means there's a learning curve for clients who want to use the vault.

ShareFile offers two ways clients can access their documents in addition to using their Internet browser. First, clients can download and install the ShareFile Desktop Widget. The Desktop Widget is built using Adobe Air--described by Adobe Systems as a "cross-operating system runtime" that runs on Windows, Mac, and Linux--which is installed simultaneously with the Desktop Widget.

After a one-time setup, the Desktop Widget allows clients to download and upload files by dragging and dropping them to and from the widget. Clients' login credentials can be saved in the widget by clicking the "Remember Me" box so they don't need to continually enter them each time they want to see files in their ShareFile folders (all the more reason to counsel clients to use strong passwords to log in to their computer's operating system). But in order to view documents using the widget, clients must first download them to their local computer, creating a copy of the file that will no longer stay synchronized to the main ShareFile repository.

Desktop Sync
The alternate method clients can use to access ShareFile, and the one I prefer, is the Desktop Sync utility described earlier. Clients can also use Desktop Sync to map their ShareFile folders to ones on their local computer, and all files in the mapped folders stay synchronized between the two systems. Note that the ShareFile Corporate plan is required to support Desktop Sync for both advisors and clients.

The setup of Desktop Sync can be a bit intimidating, as the concept of selecting "one-way" and "two-way" sync may be confusing for some clients. Essentially, clients will need to configure one-way sync for common folders like the Newsletter example above, because they can only download files from the Newsletter folder. Each clients' individual folder can be configured using two-way sync, as they can both download and upload files (provided advisors apply the proper permissions). I'd rather see Desktop Sync use two-way sync by default, but provide a pop-up message to clients when one-way sync is required for folders that don't allow file uploads.

Once Desktop Sync is configured on a client's computer, files can be uploaded to ShareFile simply by dragging and dropping them into the mapped folders on the local computer. This allows clients to use a familiar interface (Windows Explorer or Mac OS Finder) to easily share and update important documents with their advisor, and they don't have to repeatedly log in to the system with their username and password.

Desktop Sync synchronizes folders periodically every few minutes, so it doesn't keep files as tightly synchronized as Dropbox's near real-time updates, but I don't see that as a huge impediment to file sharing. Neither the Desktop Widget nor the Desktop Sync agent provides notifications of file activity to clients, so most notifications of new files delivered to clients are handled via e-mail alerts.

Mobile Vault Access
ShareFile is also an attractive solution for advisors who want to provide document vault access for clients through mobile devices. Free apps are available for iPhone, iPad, Android (phone and tablet), Windows mobile, and Blackberry devices.

I evaluated the ShareFile apps for iPad and Android phone and found them to work well, though it's worth noting that files must first be permanently downloaded to the device's memory before they can be viewed, requiring multiple touches. Compare that to the Dropbox iPad app, which allows most Microsoft Office and Adobe PDF files to be viewed with a single touch, as documents are placed in the device's cache memory. And as in the Dropbox app, I would also like to see an option in the ShareFile app to enable a security passcode in order to launch the app. This adds an additional layer of protection for the sensitive files that are likely to be stored in ShareFile.

Finally, ShareFile also has a version of its website that is optimized for mobile devices. Clients who don't want to use the ShareFile app on their mobile device can simply visit the mobile-optimized website to log in and view their folders and documents.

Summary and Pricing
When I first tested ShareFile in 2010, I didn't care too much for the system, especially when compared with the easy and seamless sharing available in applications such as Dropbox. But after investments in a new user interface and the addition of the Desktop Widget and Desktop Sync utilities, I am very pleased with the features and capabilities available today. Still, there is room for improvement, like adding single-click document preview capabilities in the Desktop Widget (to avoid creating copies of files on client computers) and simplifying the Desktop Sync setup process.

ShareFile offers several subscriptions beginning with the Professional plan for $69.95 per month that allows up to 10 employee accounts, 10 GB of monthly data transfer, 10 GB of file storage, and an unlimited number of client accounts. The Corporate plan, which is required if one wishes to take advantage of the Desktop Sync utility, costs $119.95 per month and allows up to 20 employee accounts, 20 GB of monthly data transfer, 20 GB of file storage, and unlimited client accounts.

Should advisors need more than 20 employee accounts, ShareFile’s Corporate Gold plan is available for $549.95 per month with 150 GB of monthly file transfer and data storage included. Discounts are available on all plans for quarterly and annual billing agreements, but no long-term contract is required.

ShareFile is priced higher than services such as Dropbox, but advisors do get additional features and granular control of security permissions that don't exist on consumer services. In addition, ShareFile users receive unlimited technical support from its U.S.-based team for no additional fee. When Dropbox fails to work properly, customer support may mean having to browse online discussion threads created by other users and periodically moderated by Dropbox employees.

Clearly, advisors have much to gain by electronically delivering documents and reports to clients using online document vaults. Unfortunately, most current solutions have cumbersome interfaces or require far too many steps to perform basic tasks, causing clients to avoid using them altogether. But with careful implementation and a little client education, ShareFile may just prove to be the right solution that overcomes clients' aversion to document vaults and gets them enthusiastic about actively sharing and collaborating with their advisors.

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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