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Advisor Insights

Top Solutions for Securely Exchanging Client Files

These tools make exchanging sensitive client files more secure and less cumbersome.

Like most professionals in the business of analysis and advice, financial advisors work with a great deal of data and files to provide services to their clients. From account statements, estate planning documents, tax returns, and countless other data points, the number of files associated with a single client household can easily reach the hundreds (or even thousands). In the past, most of these files would have been stored in physical folders and filing cabinets, taking up office space and limiting productivity. Then came shared drives with digital folders, allowing team members to access electronic client files from their computers, followed by today’s cloud storage solutions that have enabled us to more efficiently organize and access client data.

Yet even with these improvements in the way we store and use client files, securely exchanging sensitive data with clients or service providers can occasionally still be a challenge. Attaching files to email is often the most straightforward method but isn’t advised for security reasons. Clients could use a secure portal, but how do you handle prospective clients or service providers without portal access? While there isn’t a one size fits all solution, there are several options available to make exchanging sensitive client files more secure and less cumbersome.

Routine File Sharing for Existing Clients: Client Portal
For existing client relationships, an advisor’s best option for exchanging files and other sensitive data is a secure client portal. Ideally, this portal is built into your client-facing financial planning and/or portfolio management software and allows you and your clients to share files via a secure document vault. This prevents files from falling into the wrong hands by limiting access only to the advisor and client, who both have separate login credentials. Further, these portals should support multifactor authentication for both advisors and clients for an added layer of security. Not only is this the most secure file-sharing method, but by routinely directing clients to their portal to access or upload documents, advisors can also increase client portal usage and engagement, solidifying it as the “hub” of the advisor-client relationship.

For Occasional File Requests/Sharing: Cloud Storage Provider
While a secure document vault should be an advisor’s first choice for file sharing, there are always moments when utilizing a client portal isn’t ideal. Common use cases involve exchanging files with nonclients without a portal, such as service providers or prospective clients, or when you need to share something quickly without a client having to log into their portal. In these instances, an advisor’s existing cloud storage provider may have the functionality required to make this process secure and efficient. Dropbox, for example, allows for the creation of file requests that allow anyone with the file request link to securely upload documents to a Dropbox folder you specify. Only you (or whomever the folder is shared with) can access these documents, making the file transfer a one-way exchange and ensuring others with whom you’ve shared your file request link aren’t able to see the contents of the destination folder. 

While competitors such as Google Drive and Microsoft’s OneDrive notably lack this file-request functionality, files and folders within these services can still be shared via secure links (just as in Dropbox) to allow for file sharing outside of your organization. Further, these links can be customized so that they can be accessed only by specific people (via a unique email address), only during a specified period of time (via expiration dates), and with additional permissions to limit access to viewing versus editing. These links are great for one-off or fast file sharing, as they typically can be quickly copied with a simple right click and then pasted into an email, without having to go to the trouble of setting up a new portal or having an end user create new login credentials.

Cloud Storage Augmentation: File Request Pro
For those using Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive for cloud storage but looking for added file request functionality, File Request Pro may be a convenient solution. File Request Pro integrates directly with either Google Drive or OneDrive, facilitating transfers to these services without actually serving as a storage provider itself. Users can specify where they’d like files to be deposited in their Google Drive or OneDrive accounts (such as a shared folder) and set up an easy-to-use web page where files can be uploaded directly to said folder by clients, prospective clients, or others. This file-upload page can be embedded into your existing website, as well as customized to match your brand if utilizing the Business or Enterprise plans. File-upload pages can be be password-protected if desired, and users receive optional notifications when new files have been uploaded. Pricing starts at $39 per year.

While a highly useful solution for Google Drive and OneDrive users, one has to wonder why this functionality isn’t already built into these cloud services to begin with (as it is with Dropbox). With any luck, Google and Microsoft will see the light in the near future and make this a standard feature.

Premium Solution: Citrix ShareFile
Citrix ShareFile is one of the most comprehensive file-sharing solutions on the market and one highly popular with advisors. ShareFile features its own cloud storage solution while also integrating with popular cloud storage and collaboration services such as OneDrive/Office 365 and Google Cloud, Zapier for workflow automation, and several tools used specifically by advisors (such as Advisor Websites, Orion, and Redtail). Files can be synced across multiple devices and even sent for an e-signature if utilizing its  premium plan. Clients can either be provided with a file-sharing portal and unique login or upload documents directly using a file-drop page (similar to that of Dropbox or File Request Pro), both of which can be customized with your business' brand. With the ShareFile plugin, Outlook users can encrypt entire emails directly from the Outlook app or replace attached files with secure links automatically.

Pricing starts at $10 per month for a Standard plan, but most users are likely to want the functionality included in the Advanced plan, which starts at $77 per month. (Notably, the file-drop page is only available with the Advanced plan. This is a key feature.)

The Best Fit
While there are countless other file-sharing options on the market today, the ideal solution for most advisors is likely a combination of tools they’re already using, with potential add-ons. Start with the existing “hub” for your advisor-client relationship, which should ideally be a client-facing financial-planning and/or portfolio management portal. For many (and depending on the specific client portal), this may be enough when combined with the functionality of existing cloud storage solutions. For those looking for a truly comprehensive file-sharing experience and willing to pay a premium, solutions such as ShareFile may fit the bill.

Access Ben's article archive here. Ben Brown is a certified financial planner and an IRS-enrolled agent. He is the founder of Entelechy, a fee-only financial planning and investment management firm based in Bethesda, Maryland, serving clients in the Washington, D.C., area and nationally.

The author is a freelance contributor to Morningstar.com. The views expressed in this article may or may not reflect the views of Morningstar.