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Build Your Own Online Data Forms

Custom online data-gathering tools can ease the burden of updating information from many clients at once.

Bill Winterberg, 01/09/2014

I think it is safe to say that the beginning of a new year involves an effort to re-energize activity with clients. One of the essential tasks advisors perform at the beginning of the year is to synchronize data and information about clients. Also, as prospects carry out their New Year's resolution of engaging a financial professional, advisors can suddenly find themselves collecting a tremendous amount of data about new clients all at once. 

Email is neither an efficient nor a secure way of exchanging sensitive information with clients and prospects, and online portals work well for sharing documents, but they aren't well suited for processing and extracting data from uploaded files. One alternative to consider is the creation of custom Web-based forms clients and prospects can complete online to facilitate the data-gathering process.

Google Forms
One of the most straightforward ways to collect information from clients and prospects is to create a form using the free Google Drive service from the online search provider. Google Drive is also a standard feature of the subscription Google Apps for Business service, starting at $50 per user per year. The Form is one of the document types available in Google Drive in addition to Documents, Sheets, Presentations, and Drawings. Google provides 19 themes to change the basic look and feel of a form, but the underlying form elements remain unchanged.

Google Forms supports five basic types of response fields: a single line of text, a paragraph of text, multiple-choice radio buttons, checkboxes, and a drop-down list. In addition to the five basic fields, Google Forms supports four advanced fields for scale (e.g., ratings from 1 to 10), grid (e.g., ratings from Excellent to Poor), date, and time response collection.

Google Forms also supports basic formatting options with section headers, page breaks (to make forms with multiple pages), and embedded images and videos. Embedded images are useful to brand a form using custom logos and other graphics, and embedded videos can be a great way to provide instructions or guidance to respondents while completing the form. Note that only videos uploaded to YouTube can be embedded in Google Forms.

Google Forms Uses
To me, Google Forms seems useful for ad-hoc data collection if one has specific data points to collect from a large number of people. With the essential components of a form, advisors can create nearly any kind of data-intake form, including simple surveys, requests for current information, or even feedback forms.

Google Forms can also be embedded on any Web page using the iframe HTML tag, making it convenient to consolidate data gathering within an advisor's website as well as reinforcing the advisor's own brand rather than directing respondents to a third-party website.

Google Forms Gripes
I can imagine advisors using Google Forms for some basic data gathering, but there are a few annoyances I have with the tool. For one, Google Forms doesn't provide predefined field types to collect standard data such as addresses, city, state, zip code, and phone number information. One must instead use the generic text field and then add in limited data-validation functions to check for appropriate responses.

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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